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How to Plan Rigorous Instruction

by Robyn R. Jackson

Table of Contents

Introduction: Understanding the Mastery Principle

If we want all our students to become better thinkers and learners, we must design rigorous learning experiences that go beyond helping them simply master standards.

In Never Work Harder Than Your Students, I noted that master teachers see the standards of the courses we teach as the "final destination" for classroom instruction. Standards represent where our students need to go, and by unpacking standards into essential questions and smaller objectives, we can plan the learning experiences that will get students where they need to be. The tests to which standards are often matched give us concrete ways of determining that students have successfully mastered certain concepts and skills.

However, standards and tests often do a poor job of articulating what we really want our students to learn as a result of their time in our classes. If I were to ask you what your hopes and dreams are for your students, chances are you wouldn't reply with "I really want them to be able to multiply two-digit numbers accurately and under timed conditions," or "Boy, would I like them to be able to correctly identify synecdoche in a poem." What we want for our students is something loftier: We want them to understand multiplication and be able to use it to solve problems. We want them to appreciate the beauty of poetry.

The mastery principle "Know Where Your Students Are Going" is about more than unpacking the standards and objectives of your curricula. It goes beyond writing essential questions or mastery objectives. Knowing where your students are going requires that you examine the type of thinking you want them to engage in, the type of understanding you want them to walk away with, and the type of learners you hope to help them become. It means setting a destination that's worth working toward, and then carefully planning the lessons that will take students there.

To be honest, it is much easier to think about instruction in terms of tightly scripted objectives handed down by your school or district—and it's a whole lot safer too, given today's test-focused environment. But it's also limiting for both you and your students. It keeps you from understanding and tapping into your students' full potential, and it makes for pretty dry learning experiences for them. What if you could go beyond planning and delivering tightly scripted lessons mapped to a standardized test to facilitate rich, robust learning experiences? What if, instead of just preparing your students to be good test takers, you could also prepare them to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners? What if you didn't have to choose between an interesting and engaging lesson and one that meets the criteria prescribed by your curriculum guide? In other words, what if you could teach creatively, passionately, and freely while helping students meet and exceed the standards of your course?

The good news is that you can. Your vision for where your students are going doesn't have to stop at the state test, and your teaching can stretch beyond the barriers of the curriculum guide. You can help your students meet the standards set for your course, pass the big test, and become engaged learners, effective problem solvers, and critical thinkers. This guide will show you how.

The chapters ahead focus on how to plan robust, rigorous learning experiences for your students that will help them learn how to think about what they are learning and how to use their learning in meaningful ways. With this approach, your lessons will not only be much more interesting and engaging, but they will also do a better job of preparing students for the challenges they will face once they leave your classroom. And the key to this kind of lesson is rigor.

What Is Rigor?

Rigor is one of those slippery concepts in education. Everyone agrees that it is important, and everybody wants standards, instruction, and assessments that are rigorous, but very few agree on what "rigor" really means. In most cases, educators believe that they know rigor when they see it without really having a fully defined idea of what it looks like.

Think of the times you might have used the term "rigorous" to mean a learning task that was "harder" or "more challenging" or "focused on the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy." While all of these concepts play into rigor, rigor is more than that. So before we begin the work of this how-to guide—planning rigorous learning units—it is important to define what we mean when we talk about rigor in the classroom. Here's a definition we might start with: Rigor is a quality of instruction that requires students to "construct meaning and impose structure on situations rather than expect to find them already apparent" (Resnick, 1987, p. 44). Whereas most units work toward what students will know and be able to do by the end of instruction, rigorous learning units also ask what students will understand and how students will be able to think. Rigorous instruction is designed to develop students' capacity to

  • Think accurately and with clarity.
  • Identify and consider multiple meanings and interpretations.
  • Take and support a position.
  • Resist impulsivity and engage in disciplined inquiry and thought.
  • Work within and outside the bounds of standard conventions, and develop their own standards of evaluation.
  • Use and adapt what they know to deal with uncertainty and novelty.
  • Adjust their approach when presented with new constraints.
  • Tolerate uncertainty and work through ambiguity and complexity.

In short, rigor is quality of instruction that goes beyond helping students memorize facts, acquire an understanding of concepts, and develop basic skill proficiency. Rigorous instruction asks students to create their own meaning, integrate skills into processes, and use what they have learned to solve real-world problems, even when the "correct" answer is unclear and they are faced with perplexing unknowns.

Why Rigor?

The mastery principle "Know Where Your Students Are Going" is about the need to have a clear idea of the point of our instruction. Sure, we have standards we're required to work toward as a part of our curriculum, but unless we unpack those standards and understand the types of learning and comprehension those standards imply, we are missing the point. And if we aren't careful, we can get so caught up marching our students toward mastery that we miss out on helping them experience real learning. If you want your students to master standards in a meaningful and relevant way, rigor is the key.

Rigor is also what makes a learning unit robust, engaging, and appropriately challenging. Lessons designed to be rigorous require students to go beyond a surface understanding of the material. These lessons, by design, foster students' ability to think and learn for themselves.

Here are a few more reasons why rigorous instruction is a valuable pursuit:

  • Rigor fosters persistence. When students must dig for the answers, they discover the value of the search. A little effort leads to small rewards, and more effort over an extended period leads to greater ones.
  • Rigor fosters resilience. When students learn to engage in rigorous thinking and inquiry, they learn how to manage and work through frustration to solve problems on their own. They develop a tolerance for uncertainty, acquire the skills and the disposition to handle struggle, and build a track record of overcoming tough challenges.
  • Rigor fosters flexibility. Rigorous instruction helps students grasp that learning is messy and unpredictable, and that understanding is something to be pursued through multiple pathways that are often complex, layered, and ambiguous.
  • Rigor fosters purposefulness. Students come to see that they are learning in order to make meaning, to broaden their own understanding, and to solve interesting problems.
  • Rigor fosters metacognition. Rigorous instruction asks students to think about their learning goals, select appropriate strategies for pursuing those goals, and reflect on the effectiveness of their chosen approach.
  • Rigor fosters ownership. When students must make meaning for themselves, they come to own what they have learned. Rather than be passive recipients of knowledge, students actively participate in constructing knowledge, filling in unstated information and imposing order on what they are learning.


What is the most important reason to pursue rigorous instruction for you and your students? How does—or how would—having a rigorous destination for your instruction change your instructional goals and practices?

Seven Myths About Rigor

Uncertainty over the meaning of rigor in education has led to a number of misconceptions that we ought to address up front.

  • Myth 1: Rigor means more work. Rigor is about the quality of the work students are asked to do, not the quantity. More assignments or more reading does not guarantee a greater degree of rigor. In fact, rigorous classrooms often have fewer assignments and less homework.
  • Myth 2: Rigor means the work is harder. Standard dictionary definitions of "rigor" do focus on strictness, severity, and difficulty, so this misinterpretation of educational rigor is understandable. And although it's true that rigorous classrooms do present more challenge to students, there is a difference between what is challenging and what is difficult. Challenging work asks students to stretch and reach for new understanding. In contrast, "difficult" work can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including unclear instructions, a lack of necessary resources, a lack of adequate support, and demands that are too great for the time allotted. We can all think of assignments we endured as students that were difficult but not intellectually challenging. Thus, it is a mistake to think that just because students have difficulty completing their work, they are engaged in a rigorous assignment.
  • Myth 3: If you have rigorous standards, you automatically have a rigorous course. Rigor isn't as much about the standards as it is about how you ask students to reach the standards. Many teachers and curriculum guides have asked students to achieve highly rigorous standards in unrigorous ways. But teachers have the power to transform mediocre standards into highly rigorous learning by designing rigorous learning experiences.
  • Myth 4: Rigor is a matter of content. Selecting highly rigorous content does not guarantee a highly rigorous learning experience for students. How you ask students to engage in the content is the most powerful determinant of the level of rigor in your classroom.
  • Myth 5: Younger students cannot engage in rigorous learning. Even young children can think and interact with material in highly rigorous ways. In fact, left to their own devices, children naturally take what they are learning to solve unpredictable problems and deal with uncertainty. The key is to make sure that your rigorous instruction is developmentally appropriate. The chart in Appendix A can help you plan these kinds of lessons.
  • Myth 6: Rigor is only possible after students have mastered the basics. Any level of learning can be rigorous if you design the experience to be so. For example, students learning even the most basic material can be asked to build representations, organize facts, analyze and construct relationships among facts, and make inferences beyond what is explicitly presented in class.
  • Myth 7: Rigor is for the elite. To reserve rigorous learning opportunities for an elite group of students while relegating others to lives of memorizing disconnected facts and blindly participating in meaningless activities is to leave the majority of students unprepared to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond. All students can and should have access to rigorous instruction and learning.


Which of these myths about rigor have shaped your beliefs and practice?

The Truth About Rigor

The truth is, planning and facilitating rigorous learning experiences is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a teacher. Your class discussions are much livelier, your assignments are more interesting, and your students are much more involved in the class. Rigorous lessons allow you the chance to take your students more deeply into your subject and give them the tools they need to learn how to learn for themselves. Here are a few other truths about rigor.

  • Rigorous instruction asks students to make nuanced judgments. There may be several solutions to a problem, each with costs and benefits, and students learn to choose from a range of available options. They consider and apply multiple, sometimes conflicting, criteria and wrestle with shades of meaning in order to come to a solution or a conclusion. And students learn to defend their choices even when there is no clear "right" answer.
  • Rigorous instruction requires effortful learning. Students cannot be passive recipients of knowledge; they must work at learning, make meaning on their own, and impose structure on apparent disorder. While we provide students with proactive support to prevent unproductive struggle, we do give them space to pursue understanding and resolve problems independently.
  • Rigorous instruction is intentional. Students are asked to strategically pursue a learning goal. They must build on prior knowledge and make informed choices. In rigorous classrooms, students are actively engaged in analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating ideas for themselves.
  • Rigorous instruction involves uncertainty. Not everything that students need to know is readily apparent, and the "right" answer is not always obvious. In fact, there may not be just one right answer at all. And because rigorous instruction asks students to take learning paths that are not tightly scripted, there are times when not even the teacher knows exactly what will happen next. Rigorous instruction asks students to embrace learning as a not-so-tidy process of applying skills and knowledge and adapting them to new situations.
  • Rigorous instruction builds self-regulation skills. It asks students to reflect on and manage the learning process in a strategic and mindful way. They learn how to tell when they are confused, how to select appropriate strategies, how to pace themselves, when and how to ask for help, how to persist through frustration, and how to tell whether they are struggling productively or destructively.
  • Rigorous instruction is relevant. Students don't memorize facts or acquire new skills without also understanding their real-world application. That doesn't mean that every rigorous learning experience results in a direct real-world application, but it does mean that even when students are engaged in simulated activities or practice exercises, they can make the connection between what they are doing and how it might be useful outside the classroom.
  • Rigorous instruction is relative. There is no absolute value for rigor, nor is it inherent in content or in the instructional strategies themselves. Rigorous instruction is within, but at the outer edges of, students' capabilities and helps students to expand what they can do. Rigor is "in reach"—and that reach is different for every student, in each grade level, and within each discipline.


Rigorous Instruction IS …

Rigorous Instruction IS NOT …

For every student

Only for select students in gifted/talented, honors, or Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate programs



More effort

More work

Related to quality

Related to quantity

Messy and free-ranging

Algorithmic, scripted learning

Possible in all levels of learning

Reserved for the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy


What is your personal definition of rigor in the classroom? How does it align with the definition and characteristics discussed so far? What would you add to or change about the portrait of rigorous instruction presented here?


Acquire: After reviewing the characteristics of rigorous instruction listed in the Checkpoint Summary and the truths about rigor discussed on pages 18–20, review the lessons in a unit you teach to see if and how they are "rigorous." What parts of the lesson were rigorous, and what parts were not?

Apply: Think about a unit you will teach in the next two weeks. Review the Checkpoint Summary and the truths about rigor discussed on pages 18–20 and consider how you might adjust your unit plans to reflect your understanding of this material. For instance, you might want to adjust your unit to introduce some uncertainty, or you might include an activity that promotes metacognition. Find at least one way to make your upcoming unit more rigorous.

Assimilate: How are your lessons already rigorous? How might you adjust them to be more rigorous?

Adapt: Think about an entire year's worth of instruction for the course or grade level you teach. How might you adapt your lessons and units to make them more rigorous?


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