7 Myths About Rigor In The Classroom

7-myths-rigor-in-learning7 Myths About Rigor In The Classroom

by Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor is not a 4-Letter Word

Despite all the research, there are seven myths about rigor that are often heard. Let’s look at each, then turn our attention to the true meaning of rigor.

  1. Lots of homework is a sign of rigor.
  2. Rigor means doing more.
  3. Rigor is not for everyone.
  4. Providing support means lessening rigor.
  5. Resources equal rigor.
  6. Standards alone take care of rigor.
  7. Rigor is just one more thing to do.

1. Lots of homework is a sign of rigor.

For many people the best indicator of rigor is the amount of homework required of students. Some teachers pride themselves on the amount of homework expected of their students, and there are parents who judge teachers by homework quantity.

Realistically, all homework is not equally useful.Some of it is just busywork, assigned by teachers because principals or parents expect it. For some students, doing more homework in terms of quantity leads to burnout. When that occurs, students are less likely to complete homework, and may be discouraged about any learning activity.

2. Rigor means doing more.

“Doing more” often means doing more low-level activities, frequently repetitions of things already learned. Such narrow and rigid approaches to learning do not define a rigorous classroom. Students learn in many different ways. Just as instruction must vary to meet the individual needs of students, so must homework.

Rigorous and challenging learning experiences will vary with the student. Their design will vary; as will their duration. Ultimately, it is the quality of the assignment that makes a difference in terms of rigor.

universityofsalford3. Rigor is not for everyone.

Often, teachers think the only way to assure success for everyone is to lower standards and lessen rigor. This may mask a hidden belief that some students can’t really learn at high levels. You may have heard of the Pygmalion Effect—students live up to or down to our expectations of them.

Each student can complete rigorous work at high levels, whether they are advanced or a student with special needs. Does the end result look different for those two students? Yes, but I know from my own experience as a teacher of struggling students reading far below their grade level that any teacher can be rigorous, and any student can reach higher levels with the right support.

4. Providing support means lessening rigor.

In America, we believe in rugged individualism. We are to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do things on our own. Working in teams or accepting help is often seen as a sign of weakness. Supporting students so that they can learn at high levels is central to the definition of rigor. As teachers design lessons moving students toward more challenging work, they must provide scaffolding to support them as they learn.

5. Resources equal rigor.

Recently, I’ve heard a common refrain. “If we buy this program, or technology, then we would be rigorous.” The right resources can certainly help increase the rigor in your classroom. However, raising the level of rigor for your students is not dependent on the resources you have.

Think about the resources you have now. How can you use them more effectively? Do you use a textbook that includes true-false tests? Often, they are not rigorous because students can guess the answer. However, add one step for more rigor. Ask students to rewrite all false answers into true statements, and it requires students to demonstrate true understanding. It’s not the resources; it’s how you use them that make a difference.

6. Standards alone take care of rigor.

Standards alone, even if they are rigorous, do not guarantee rigor in the classroom. The Common Core State Standards are designed to increase the level of rigor in classrooms across the nation. However, if implemented with- out high levels of questioning or applications, the standards themselves are weakened. Your instructional practices, or how you implement standards, are just as critical as the curriculum.

7. Rigor is just one more thing to do.

Rigor is not another thing to add to your plate. Instead, rigor is increasing the level of expectation of what you are already doing. For example, if you are teaching vocabulary, instead of asking students to write their own definition of the word, ask them to write a riddle. It’s the same end result, but at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Barbara is a best-selling author of 14 books, including Rigor Is Not A Four-Letter Word.  A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog; 7 Myths About Rigor In The Classroom; image attribution flickr users woodleywonderworks and universityofsalford


  • Although I like this article, I hate the word “rigor.” Defined by webster as, “difficult and unpleasant conditions or experiences that are associated with something,” rigor is, as the definition states, unpleasant. Another part of the definition is “strict.”

    Learning should be neither unpleasant nor strict. Learning should be engaging, meaningful and fun. The example in number 7 about creating a riddle to help students scale Bloom’s Taxonomy is fine, but this is simply good teaching and engagement. Sure, it may eliminate rigor, but that’s a good thing, and I think Barbara suggests that rigor is not a bad thing. I certainly don’t agree.

    Take all rigor out of learning, and eventually students will become engaged, independent learners, which should always be the goal.

    • The funny thing I’ve always found about the word “rigor” is who uses it–and in my experience it’s rarely been highly-effective teachers or self-directed students.

      Thanks Mark for bringing up the important issues of language and semantics in education. May be worth writing about. ; ^ )

  • I do appreciate the perspective about the word rigor. What I’ve found is that the word is there, being used to describe learning in some ways that are less than positive. So my focus is on reclaiming it for good teachers. I work with exceptional teachers and principals who focus on the positive aspects of rigor, and do so in ways that benefit their students. And yes, much of rigor is just good teaching.

    • There’s a straightforward solution to the semantic/vocabulary problem: I’ve yet to find a context where “rigor” has a helpful meaning and cannot be replaced by “vigor,” which is a wonderful word with vital associations….

  • This does seem to be such a contentious and subjective term, meaning different things for different people. I think this is one of the problems with the word. Even dictionaries have multiple interpretations of the term. This is perhaps why we should be describing such positive learning experiences with words like rich, complex, messy, challenging, meaningful,… as Mark so aptly shares.
    Actually, I think education policy and practice is often driven by “loaded” terminology that is subjective or interpreted in different ways by different constituents. As in all good research, there is always a section on defining of terms before the study progresses. I think we could do this sort of thing and do it much better in general education circles, too.

  • Apparently, rigor does not include checking one’s spelling. Otherwise, an article on rigor would not include a graphic (on the top) that includes this word: “clasroom”.

  • Gosh we are so “engaged” in this rigorous task of debunking “rigor” in the classroom to have dubious meaning that we forgot that we need more “excellence” for “deep learning” to make our kids “college and career ready” with “21st century skills.” Used car anyone?

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