Remote Learning A-Z: R is for Rigor

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I know, I know. It’s hard to think about rigor when you can’t even get your WiFi to work reliably or your students to learn how to mute themselves. But in my trolling of social media, I find this term being used more frequently, usually in complaints about remote teaching and learning. The idea of rigor is not new, but like many terms it’s become a victim of misuse.

What It Is

Simply put, rigor not what you assign, it’s what students do. In your classroom (virtual or otherwise), that means students:

  • construct meaning for themselves
  • engage in activities that encourage multiple solutions, problem solving, inquiry, and deep thinking
  • integrate new skills into learned processes
  • apply their learning to new situations and contexts

Why it Still Matters

Rigor results in resilient students that can problem solve, adopt multiple perspectives, be creative, and think critically. So I’d argue that in whatever education environment we are in, rigor always matters.

What Rigor Isn’t

Sometimes the easiest way to understand something is to think about what it isn’t. One of my favorite educational sources, TeachThought, put out a post many years ago called 7 Myths About Rigor in the Classroom that sums up all our misconceptions about rigor beautifully. The full article is definitely worth a read, but I’ve outlined the bullet points and added my own two cents.

In short, rigor is not:

  • Tons of homework: There’s been a lot of backlash on homework in the past years, and with good reason. But homework isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s about what you’re assigning and the purpose behind the assignment. Homework for homework’s sake is not rigorous. And twenty pages of homework without purpose is most definitely not.
  • Doing more: Rigor isn’t about piling on. It isn’t about pulling out all the bells and whistles; a rigorous assignment can often be a single, thought-provoking question or task. More assignments, activities, and tasks doesn’t equate rigor.
  • Just for some students: All students benefit from rigorous activities, even though what constitutes rigor can differ from student to student. Don’t reserve your rigor for only the high achievers.
  • Learning without support or scaffolding: All of us, even as adults, need support from experts when learning new material. Students are no different. When you provide a complex text to read or problem to solve, provide scaffolds to help tackle them too.
  • More stuff: In the history of education, there has never been a single book, program, curriculum, or website that was the magical answer to everything. It isn’t about adding more stuff, it’s about looking at what you have and seeing how it can be tweaked to make it more rigorous.
  • Standards alone: Standards tell us what to teach, not how. While standards are more rigorous these days, you can still teach them without any rigor behind the instruction.
  • One more thing: In teaching, almost everything seems like one more thing. But rigor, done right, is taking what you’re already doing and asking it in a different way.

Supporting Rigor in Any Classroom

While it’s challenging enough to plan for virtual learning, here things to keep in mind to get the most out of your lessons.

Always Consider Application

“When will I ever use this in my life?” moaned every one of us at one point or another in school. It’s a valid question, and one that deserves an answer. Take time to answer that question yourself each time you launch a unit, and find opportunities to share that information with students.

Employ Design Thinking

In STEM, and project based learning you hear a lot about design thinking. Essentially, this is the process of coming up with an idea, testing that idea, failing miserably, reviewing why, and trying again with a modified design.

Design thinking teaches students how to persevere, take risks, and problem solve. It should also not be limited to science and engineering classes. When you are planning your lessons, ask yourself how you can build in opportunities to test, fail, and try again. Hint: this is best achieved with open-ended tasks and questions rather than closed ones (see below).

Design Up the Ladder

When I say “up the ladder,” I really mean any framework: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, the SAMR model, The Rigor Relevance Framework. In essence, all of these models are fundamentally saying the same thing: create more tasks that move students from rote memorization to analysis and application.

Important Note

It’s key to remember these models aren’t saying every single thing you teach must be at the top of the framework. Students need to memorize, summarize, and identify as part of learning. We just don’t want them to only be doing those tasks.

So, just pick a ladder and go up it.

Revising for Rigor

Here are some commonly used practices and ideas for how to revise for rigor, all which can be accomplished in a remote environment:

  • True/False and Multiple Choice Questions: State what makes the incorrect answers wrong. Rewrite false questions to make them true. Make more than one answer correct, or no answers correct and have students tell you why.
  • Completing a Chart: Mix up where on the chart students have to provide an answer. Make sure they are being asked to not only provide solutions, but look at solutions and come up with the question.
  • Copying Vocabulary Definitions: Students learn vocabulary in context, not by copying definitions. Have students write the definition in their own words, then also add: what it isn’t, draw a symbol that represents it, give examples and non-examples of the word or term, and find a real life example.
  • A Single Text or Source of Information: Compare and contrast with multiple sources, and I don’t just mean another text: challenge students to find news articles, videos, conduct interviews with adults, even TikTok (yes, I said it) to synthesize with ideas in the text. Challenge students to find facts that contradict the information and evaluate author bias.
  • Closed Lecture Questions: How you ask your questions is as important as what you ask. Think about how many questions you pose to your class that really only have one correct answer. Some of my favorite questions for just about anything are: How do you know? Can you prove it? What’s it related to in the world? What would have to change to make your answer incorrect?
  • One Right Answer or Process: Rarely in life is there ever one single solution or answer. Students who can approach a task from multiple angles are exercising their critical thinking and problem solving muscles. Once they’ve solved it one way, ask: What’s another way to solve it? Who would have a different perspective?
  • Copying Your Notes Verbatim: I mean, I’m just not a big fan of having students copy anything. But class notes are far more rigorous when students interact and respond to them. See ideas for powerful note taking in my blog post here.
  • Summarize the Chapter: Summarizing is an important skill. But after students write their summaries, there are so many ways to synthesize and connect learning. I love the RAFT strategy for providing engagement, choice, and rigor all at the same time.
  • Give Your Opinion: Our students are overflowing with opinions. (Believe me, I have a teenager, I know.) But once they’ve given theirs, turn the tables and make them argue the other side.
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