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01 February 2023

Written by Barbara R. Blackburn, Ph.D

Building a Common Understanding of Rigour

Rigour is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

In order to create long-lasting change in a school, having a shared understanding of rigour among all stakeholders is critical. How do you build that common understanding? I’d like to share some strategies I use when working with schools.

First, it’s important to understand what teachers and leaders currently believe about rigour. I start by asking the group to anonymously answer three questions.

  • What is rigour?

  • What are teachers doing in a rigorous classroom?

  • What are students doing in a rigorous classroom?

Once they have answered these questions, we discuss each in turn. I typically chart out common responses so we can see any patterns. Next, it’s helpful to read articles and books about rigour and discuss them. I usually start with The Beginner’s Guide to Rigor as an overview of rigour. After talking about the key points, we compare this information to our earlier responses.

A second strategy is to watch teaching videos and assess them for rigorous instruction. I use a rigour rubric, and there are a variety of types available online. Using a rubric or framework, I ask teachers and leaders to note any examples of rigorous instruction, as well as any non-rigorous instruction. I also ask them to make note of any improvements they might make. These observations make for a rich discussion.

Sample Criteria for Rigorous Instruction

  • Higher Order Thinking Questions

  • Probing Students for Deeper Answers

  • Asking Students to Justify Their Responses

  • Encouraging Students to Ask Their Own Questions

Finally, we work together to assess tasks and assignments. These might be projects, worksheets, tests, or other items, particularly those that are teacher developed. After sharing initial perceptions of an assignment, we delve deeper into specific aspects or questions, again using a rubric of characteristics.

  • For example, in a science assignment, we might determine if the students are required to develop a research question and then design an experiment to answer the question rather than simply completing an experiment that is given to them.

  • With mathematics, we would look for questions that would require a student to identify and explain misconceptions.

  • In social studies or history, we would consider whether the assignment asks students to write about how people or places change over time.

  • In an English/Language Arts task, we would evaluate if students are required to justify their response, as well as making connections outside the text.

By looking for these specific types of questions and responses, we are able to determine if assignments are truly rigorous.

Building a shared understanding of rigour can be challenging, but there are professional development activities that can help. Reading quality information, critiquing videos, and assessing tasks will help teachers and leaders develop a common awareness of the true meaning of rigour.