The term “rigor,” when used in an educational context, is often misinterpreted and/or misunderstood. Some believe rigor means more homework, impossible assignments, or being rigid about what students learn and how they learn it. But that really isn’t what rigor in the classroom is truly about. I like the definition provided by Brian Sztabnik in his article “A New Definition of Rigor”: “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”

True rigor results in students who “come alive” in the classroom - students who are motivated, who “own” their education, who think critically and creatively. If our goal as educators is to ensure students are ready for what lies ahead of them in the future, we need to ensure there is rigor in the classroom. So how do we do that? We teachers need to be engaged, have high expectations for students, and support student ownership of their learning. Let’s explore how we get there:

High Expectations

In research experiments conducted over several years, Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal discovered something he calls the Pygmalion effect: “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

What we do as educators and the beliefs we hold about the students we teach have a profound effect. Our students come to us from varied backgrounds, with differing strengths and abilities and with beliefs about themselves and their ability to learn. Our job is to encourage and draw out the best in our students, to believe in their ability to achieve, and to act accordingly. Yes, some students struggle, have learning exceptionalities, or may be learning English as a second language, but all are capable of meeting high expectations. Through our actions and behaviors, we communicate the expectations we have for our students.

Here are a few ways to communicate high expectations for all students in your classroom.

  • Observe and listen to each student. How do they engage, and what do they seem to like to do? What motivates them? How do they view you, themselves, their classmates, and the assigned activities? Ask them about their interests and goals. Listen to what they share with you without offering advice or opinions.
  • Create an atmosphere that encourages students to try new things, to experiment with learning. Let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that some of the greatest learning opportunities come from the mistakes we make.
  • Teach a balanced and integrated curriculum. Make sure to evenly address the skills called for in your grade level state standards. One way to do this is by incorporating several skills into a lesson; for example, having students read and analyze primary and secondary sources about a particular historical event (reading comprehension), engage in a text-based discussion about the event (speaking and listening), and write about the event using information from the sources (written expression). Also, don’t assume that certain aspects of learning are out of reach for students who may struggle with particular concepts. It is through practice that skills are improved. Provide support and scaffolding when needed, but let your students engage in productive struggle.

Teacher Engagement

We have an expectation that students should be engaged in their learning. That same expectation applies to teachers in the classroom. Educators need to be engaged in and enthusiastic about what they are teaching. While it isn’t always easy, teacher engagement is worth the effort. Here are a few ways to build that engagement:

  • Be a life-long learner. Do research on and discover new aspects of the subject(s) you teach. Bring what you learn into the classroom and share it with your students. Connect what you teach to what is going on in your community, your state, your country, and the world (and help your students make those connections as well).
  • Engage in learning with your students. Ask open-ended questions, questions you may not know the answer to. Truly listen to their responses and piggy-back on them (occasionally) with your own responses. Complete some of the classroom activities with your students. My students loved when I wrote with them. I let them pick my topics, and I shared my drafts with them so they could provide feedback. This helped create a safe environment for students to engage in the writing process – and it works with students of all grade levels.
  • Think about teachers you have had in the past. What techniques did the more effective, enthusiastic teachers use that made learning fun, yet meaningful? Think of ways to incorporate those techniques into your own classroom practice.

Student Ownership

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  It is important that we actively involve students in their education. Students who have a sense of ownership of their learning are more invested in their academic success. They are more likely to monitor their own learning, be engaged, ask questions, and seek additional help when needed.

As educators, there are several ways to promote student ownership of their education, including:

  • Have students set learning goals and revisit them periodically to reflect on the progress they have made. Engaging in self-reflection is powerful. Push it a step further by having them write about their progress and how they might revise or update their goals based on their progress.
  • Provide choice in the classroom (within reason). If you are assigning a text-based essay, for example, let students choose from three or four different prompts (or more at the upper grades). If your students are learning about the scientific method, have students work in groups to determine what question they’d like to answer and then have each group work through the scientific method to answer that question.
  • Provide opportunities for project-based, collaborative learning. Provide guidelines, but let students arrive at answers or complete a project together, stepping in to provide advice or guidance only when needed.
  • Make sure students understand the relevance of what they are learning. How does it relate to them? How might they use the skills they are learning outside of the classroom? Whenever possible, have them apply their learning in authentic ways. Have them write letters to the editor of a newspaper or publish a blogpost. Have them work in groups to determine a need in the community, write a proposal for how best to meet that need, and take the steps necessary to address the need.

The primary focus in a rigorous classroom is on engaging students in a way that promotes critical and creative thinking and shifts ownership of learning to the student. The end goal is to enable students to move into the future with confidence and with the skills that will help them to succeed in life. Students need to be challenged and to engage in productive struggle, working in partnership with teachers who believe in and support them.


If you are interested in reading more about rigor, here are some interesting sources:

Day, Christopher (2004). A Passion for Teaching. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Fried, Robert. (2001). The Passionate Teacher. Boston: Beacon Press.

NCSU (2014). “Developing Student Ownership and Responsibility in High Schools.” Retrieved from

Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad (1985). “Pygmalion in the gymnasium.” Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.

Sztabnik, Brian (2015). “A New Definition of Rigor.” Edutopia. Retrieved from

Zhang, Qin (2014). “Instructor’s Corner #3: Teaching with Enthusiasm: Engaging Students, Sparking

Curiosity, and Jumpstarting Motivation.” National Communication Association. Retrieved from


Written by: Wendi Anderson, Senior ELA Instructional Designer at CenterPoint Education Solutions