4 Steps to Achieve Rigor in Your Lesson Plans

August 21, 2020
"Is the teacher lecturing away while stringently guiding the lesson as if it were a ship at sea? Or is the teacher like the cruise director, simply guiding students to their next activity?"
What is Rigor?

We hear it constantly—today’s standards require more rigor. What’s behind the buzzword?The answer lies in cognitive complexity and growing students’ ability to interact with and synthesize new information.The most common misconception of rigor: It’s synonymous with more work. Rigor is not about tacking on more homework. It’s about choosing the right homework and mixing in tasks that help students grow.

Achieving Rigor
Understand Your Standards

Teachers spend a considerable amount of time researching the appropriate standards to address with a lesson. But, it can be hard to distil the action from the mandate. 

Let’s consider a standard from the fourth-grade math CCSS.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.OA.A.3 - Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

First, identify the verbs in the standard–solve, represent, and assess. Now, pull out your favorite taxonomy and put those tasks in order by complexity. This is your roadmap to rigor. Yes, students should learn how to solve word problems first. They should then know when an answer is right or wrong (and why)–analysis. Finally, they should be able to synthesize their own uses for the skills by representing information using equations. Move your lesson along that line and the tasks become more rigorous. They are also scaffolded correctly, layering on complexity systematically without overwhelming the students.

Set an Appropriate Learning Goal

Instead of displaying the standard(s) you are addressing as written, share a learning goal—an age-appropriate version of the standard. For example, here is the fourth-grade standard, reworded into language appropriate for a fourth grader:

  • I can solve word problems by adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.
  • I can make my own equations based on a word problem.
  • I know how to tell when a word problem answer is right or wrong.

A student looking at these goals can easily tell whether they have accomplished them. 


The trick in the rigorous classroom is to assess not only what a student knows, but how they know it and what they can do with it.

A rigorous informal assessment probably takes the form of an open-ended question. Use a questioning strategy. Or, have students work collaboratively to piece together new information, using it in a way that generates new thoughts and ideas.

Identify Rigorous Learning Tasks

In a rigorous classroom, who is doing the work? Is the teacher lecturing away while stringently guiding the lesson as if it were a ship at sea? Or is the teacher more like the cruise director, simply guiding students to their next activity and offering assistance when needed? If your answer is the former, much more rigor can be squeezed out of that classroom. 

If the tasks call for students to think critically, work collaboratively, synthesize knowledge in real-world situations, and persevere until a goal is met, you’re almost there.

Rigor also requires a certain level of autonomy. Remember, the cruise director gives people options and lets them figure out the best way forward. Autonomous tasks tend to feature questions with more than one answer with no one correct path–scary, I know! 

Don’t forget to scaffold. A good rule of thumb: the last task should be about what the student thinks about the content and what they can do with it.

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