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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

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How to Plan Rigorous Instruction

by Robyn R. Jackson

Table of Contents


Planning rigorous instruction is itself a highly rigorous process. It requires you to think strategically about where you want your students to go and carefully map the steps to get them there. As you plan rigorous learning units in your own classroom, here are a few final tips and caveats to keep in mind.

  • Rigorous learning is hard work. It can be tempting to sugarcoat how challenging rigorous learning can be. Instead of trying to convince students that mastering the subject matter is easy, just tell the truth. Convey the message that yes, this is hard, but you believe they can do it. Developing and communicating high expectations is another aspect of being a master teacher.
  • Rigorous learning may lead to some pushback. Keep in mind that rigorous thinking and learning is often difficult for students, especially those who have never been asked to think and learn in a rigorous way before. Expect that some students will resist your efforts to expose them to more rigorous ways of learning, and be prepared for some opposition from parents and even colleagues as you introduce more rigor into your course. Help them understand why rigor is valuable, and show them how it will help students both in and outside school.
  • Rigorous learning must be monitored and supported. It is important to give students space to solve problems on their own, but that doesn't mean that you can leave students to struggle unproductively and become frustrated. You can ease the intellectual shock of rigorous learning experiences for students unused to thinking and learning in highly rigorous ways through proactive support and careful scaffolding. (For more on how to do this, see How to Support Struggling Students, another guide in this series.)
  • Rigorous learning requires a balance between perceived • challenges and perceived skills. It's students' perception here that is important, not the objective reality. They must believe that they have the skills to meet the challenge. If students' perception of the challenge exceeds their perception of their skills, they become anxious. If their perception of their skills exceeds their perception of the challenge, they become bored.
  • Rigorous learning does not always proceed in a set, orderly fashion … and neither will its planning. Even though you may begin your planning by creating your unit assessment, you may need to go back and revise it as you consider various learning materials and make choices about the learning experiences you will provide for your students. Planning assessments first gives you a logical place to start, but you will likely return to your assessment before it's all over to add a question, remove an item, tweak the directions, or adjust the material as you develop a deeper understanding of the unit and how students will progress through it. And if you use formative assessment, you will also be adjusting both learning-material choices and lesson plans and activities in order to provide more effective instruction and help all students reach mastery.
  • Rigorous learning will take root only when students can see a direct connection between their effort and its payoff. You must design learning experiences so that there is a clear connection between what students are doing and the unit's goals. How will completing the lessons and activities in this unit help students reach the learning goals? How will completing this unit help students develop competence? If you cannot answer this question, students will not engage in the work in a meaningful way.

Rigorous instruction lies at the heart of the master teacher mindset articulated in Never Work Harder Than Your Students. It asks students to do the intellectual heavy lifting for themselves and provides them with the support they need to do so. When students successfully engage in rigorous instruction, they go beyond mastering the standards of a course; they learn to think for themselves, and they develop habits of mind that will enrich their lives.


This book is not a member benefit, but sample chapters have been selected for your perusal.

To read further, purchase this book in the ASCD Online Store.


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