Rigor is the new buzzword in education: What does it look like?


October 13, 2014 by HCDE Communications

boy with microscopeRigor is the new buzzword in teaching and learning. In assigning rigorous work, students demonstrate content mastery. But they must also apply skills and think critically about the content. Academic rigor should promote growth of knowledge in our students. Rigorous assignments provide opportunities to analyze, synthesize and critically evaluate the content.

Why is rigor being emphasized in today’s classrooms? Exposure to high levels of rigor is associated with gains in standardized test scores. Students exposed to high-quality assignments have 20 higher gains than the national average. Low-quality assignments produce 20 percent lower gains nationally.*

Are the same methods of increasing rigor produced in all Texas schools? I say no. At many schools, rigor seems to be defined as doing more work at a faster pace. No time is available to critically analyze or evaluate topics at any level. Rigor is in the cognitive task the students are being asked to do. Assigning more high-level vocabulary words or additional math problems does not increase rigor. All that does is increase the difficulty of the task.

Teachers can use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) as a tool to calculate the cognitive depth of an assignment. This framework categorizes assignments into 4 levels.

  • Level 1 assignments focus mainly on recall and reproduction of knowledge. No matter how difficult or how many vocabulary words are assigned, simple recalls of information requires the lowest level of cognitive effort by the student.
  • Level 2 assignments ask students to complete a higher cognitive task, such as identifying cause-and-effect or interpreting data.
  • Level 3 assignments assign students to do strategic thinking and reasoning, such as understanding patterns or identifying the best answer when more than one correct answer is possible. They should be able to justify their choice.
  • Level 4 tasks extend student thinking. A Level 4 assignment asks students to apply knowledge to a new situation or to synthesize information across multiple sources or content areas. Standardized assessments rarely address level 4 knowledge.


As an example, let’s look at a science topic: the rock cycle. In sixth-grade science standards (TEKS 6.10.B), students “classify rocks as metamorphic, igneous or sedimentary by the processes of their formation.”

  • Level 1 tasks: Ask your students to describe characteristics of each rock type. This task requires only simple recall.
  • Level 2 tasks: Require your students to compare and contrast the three rock types. This requires more cognitive processing to determine similarities and differences.
  • Level 3 tasks: Assign students a project to develop a model that could be used to represent relationships that exist within the rock cycle. Is it really a cycle? This requires deeper understanding of the concept. Students should also determine how to best represent the rock cycle.
  • Level 4 tasks: Get your students to compare-and-contrast the rock cycle with the water cycle. Include a discussion of forces and energy.


Every teacher wants students to master content knowledge and be successful on standardized tests. But we need to ask ourselves if we are offering students engaging and challenging cognitive tasks.

*(Statistics are from SERVECenter at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.)

For additional resources, including a web-based alignment tool from Norman Webb, see http://wat.wceruw.org/index.aspx.


About the Blogger:
Lisa Felske is curriculum director for science at Harris County Department of Education. Her areas of expertise include integrating science with other disciplines and student misconceptions in science. She enjoys being a Girl Scout leader, reading way past her bedtime, and using the Oxford comma.

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3 thoughts on “Rigor is the new buzzword in education: What does it look like?

  1. I appreciate the distinction between “rigor” and “difficulty”. These two terms are frequently confused.

    • HCDE-Texas says:

      I agree. A difficult task is not necessarily rigorous. Rigor is about the complexity of the task. Ideally, a rigorous task asks students to extend their thinking and come to a new understanding. On the other hand, if a student finds the directions unclear or doesn’t have enough time to complete a task, then the assignment will be more difficult.

  2. Yolanda Evans says:

    This article makes for a great discussion topic with campuses and leaders. Ask a room full of educators to provide a definition and an example for “rigor” in any content is interesting to observe and listen to. Thanks for sharing.

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