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

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.


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.”


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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