Academic rigor: you’re doing it wrong and here’s why

Academic rigor is about creating lessons that challenge students. Unfortunately, educators haven’t always produced a clear definition of what academic rigor is.

Some administrators answer vaguely when prodded for examples after observing the teacher and students in the classroom. Knowing what you’re looking for and being able to articulate its definition isn’t easy.

It breeds ambiguity.

As a result, teachers may be tempted to make assignments harder or longer to create academic rigor. That’s not academic rigor. It’s insanity, but it happens every day in schools.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. To get the results you want, you must change your approach to academic rigor.

The new academic rigor

Many educators insist that academic rigor means strict adherence to learning standards, like those established in the Common Core. They all expect students to master high learning standards.

Real academic rigor, however, occurs when teachers create challenging lessons that help their students meet those high expectations. Rigor requires active engagement and critical thinking at deep levels.

Teachers must challenge students to question assumptions and make connections beyond the assignment and the classroom.

Academic rigor requires students to take critical thinking to new levels.

Academic rigor now

To encourage academic rigor in the classroom, teachers must establish high expectations and then provide ways for students to meet them. The best teachers coordinate learning to produce expected outcomes. Here’s how:

  • Avoid asking yes/no questions in the classroom. Couch questions so students must provide a thoughtful answer.
  • Have your students share their responses in pairs or in small groups to elicit formative feedback.
  • Design lessons that require multiple steps that build on each other and necessitate lengthy analysis over time.
  • Allow for wait time. Give your students the opportunity to formulate and express their thoughts, regardless of how tempted you are to answer the question and move on.
  • Try-project based learning. PBL assignments incorporate authentic learning experiences with problem solving methods and authentic assessment.
  • Require your students to use the same domain-specific language you use. Words like “stuff” and “thing” are not specific like “punctuation” and “numerator.”
  • Ask for evidence with questions like, “How do you know?”
  • Ask students to summarize what they learned by formulating a gist. Focus the gist with student-generated hashtags.
  • Get your students to synthesize multiple sources as a way to understand a variety of perspectives. Considering other viewpoints requires critical thinking.
  • Let students discover the connections across multiple disciplines. For example, parentheses are use in writing, math, and computer programming. Ask students to determine what purpose parentheses serve.
  • Miss no opportunity to reinforce connections. Use graphic organizers, color-coding, and real-world examples where possible.

Let go of the behaviors that won’t produce academic rigor, like accepting responses that don’t meet your high expectations. Instead, encourage students to keep pushing until they meet that expectation.

Avoid the temptation to assign only worksheets. Focusing exclusively on knowledge and recall is only the first step in creating the deep layers that help students achieve academic rigor. Keep going until students can apply, evaluate and synthesize their learning.

In conclusion

Create the kind of academic rigor your students deserve, but keep in mind that doing more isn’t the answer. Doing better produces results.

Real academic rigor lies in designing layers of critical thinking.

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