What is rigor?

In my freelance life, I’m writing a “primer” for education reporters on K-12 “rigor,” which is a hot word in education these days. I’m asking people: How do you define it? How do you measure it? Is rigor only for college-prep programs or are there rigorous ways to educate students who aren’t college-bound?

Gentle readers, feel free to jump in. What does rigor mean in your school? What should it mean?

I fear that the quest for rigor will lead to schools requiring all students to enroll in college-prep classes, which then will be dumbed-down so nearly everyone can pass. AP already is struggling to maintain its college-level cachet as more schools open classes to less capable students.

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  1. Rigor is having fixed standards and requiring students to measure up. It’s only weakly related to the difficulty of the material. The essence is teaching students that many things have requirements that can’t be evaded, compromised, or glossed over.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    Imagine a rigorous marathon training system: the athletes would run a lot and do whatever other exercises promote speed and endurance. In a rigorous plumbing class, the apprentice workers would work hard learning about installing pipes and practice actual plumbing. In a rigorous remedial math program the participants would do a lot of math problems with guidance and help from teachers.

    So for me, rigor can be found outside of advanced academic classes. A rigorous program is one that has specific goals, makes the participants practice and work hard toward the goals, and tests them along the way.

  3. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Rigor is keeping the students always working slightly above their ability, giving them the help they need to grow. A student doesn’t learn if they are always working in their comfort level; likewise, none of us can learn if the material is so far beyond us we have no foothold. It’s really a dance between the teacher and her students — not something stiff and unyielding at all.

    I wouldn’t worry about AP too much. It’ll self-correct.

  4. It’s worth pointing out that rigor, which is sustained, progressive [in the literal sense, not political] challenge, is defined, administered and evaluated by those who have undertaken the least rigorous, least challenging courses of study in college.

  5. “Rigor”, in theory, is maintaining high academic standards and assigning tasks that involve critical thinking (ie. advanced levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy), thereby developing students into not merely passive learners, but active thinkers and doers. Metacognitive strategies are also explicitly taught, so students “own” their own learning.

    “Rigor”, in PRACTICE, leaves most, but for the ‘gifted’ student population, behind. Rigor has become a convenient buzzword for holding all students accountable for the same level of learning, even though students learn at different paces, have different abilities, often come from disengaged families, and high-level material is simply beyond their developmental level (is Piaget passe?). Rigor, in my school district, has come to be a substitute for common sense and teaching expertise. Expectations have become unrealistic and guarantee failure for many students, starting at the elementary level. Not everyone can, or should, go to college. There is an elitist attitude that somehow, lawyers, doctors, sociologists and other ‘professionals’ are inherently more valuable to society (and gain more status) than plumbers, mechanics and electricians. Bring back vocational ed.–that’s also rigorous, in its own ways. ‘Nuff said.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    Thanks for the heads-up.

    I haven’t heard that word yet.

    I’ll locate my earplugs.

  7. Rigor sets in with the sweet, sweet embrace of death, which rescues us from our students.

  8. “Rigor” should mean challenging the student to stretch himself/herself, which can be accomplished in all different kinds of courses.

    Unfortunately, in practice “rigor” seems to mean assigning more and more busywork at a younger and younger age. I often see students from my local elementary school doing their homework at the library when I’m there with my kids and they’re having to do worksheet after worksheet that appear to have little actual pedagogical value.

  9. I find this question ironic. Why not be rigorous about the use of the word rigor and look it up in the dictionary? This seems like the example that should be set, especially for a word like rigor.

    From Merrian-Webster:

    1 a (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3): severity of life : austerity b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
    2: a tremor caused by a chill
    3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable ; especially : extremity of cold
    4: strict precision : exactness
    5 aobsolete : rigidity , stiffness b: rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli c:


    Until I looked the word up definition 4 is the only sense that I would have used. But it looks like definition 3 includes the sense of being challenging, which is a point other commenters have already touched on.

    Let’s please avoid the slogans! The dictionary is always the best antitdote.

  10. Amy in Texas says:

    I’m not sure we have gotten to “rigor” at my school yet, as a catchword (we are still stuck on “equity”).
    Rigor to me means a large amount of material covered, and a large output of competent academic work. In my foreign language class, 10th graders at a low SES ISD will work a 50 pg. grammar workbook, read a 100 page reader, and take weekly vocabulary and grammar tests over 10 to 15 chapters in our book.
    I don’t consider that rigorous. It won’t get you to AP in three years.

  11. Rigor is obviously one of the new crap, I mean catch words to take the place of the ones we were using awhile ago. This is done of course to clearly delineate between what is “in” and what is now “out”. Buzz words are very important in our profession, they show that we are buying all of our clothes from the Emperor’s special tailors. We all must be clearly attired in only the latest fashion after all.

  12. Fuzzyrider says:

    Using the standard definition of rigor, you can be dang sure that any teacher fool enough to actually APPLY it will be slapped down immediately and thoroughly. The district I taught in before I quit teaching was all abuzz about “rigorous AP classes”, but they wanted them to be “inclusive”, so they dumped EVERYONE into pre-AP. We were supposed to be “rigorous”, but under no circumstances was the failure rate to increase over “regular” classes.

    Only an ed school graduate would fail to predict how that would work out…

    There is NO HOPE for public education as currently structured.

  13. In education, at least when parents speak of schools, “rigor” strikes me as a back-formation from “rigorous.”

    To me, rigor would mean, no artwork, nor any crafts projects, after the third grade, with the exception of art class, and drawing maps in social studies and illustration of objects in written reports in science and social studies. However, a poster in language arts just should not be.

    Proper rigor means that a school child has homework, but the work is at the right level for that child. He or she can complete it alone, without adult help. No parents, no tutors need to walk him through it. The child can also sleep, and participate in extracurricular activities.

    Real rigor needs tracking, otherwise it’s impossible.

  14. Physics Teacher says:

    Fuzzy Rider is correct. I teach IB Physics and the idiot administrators want us to encourage ALL the kids in the school to take as many “rigorous” courses as possible. All kids, of course, are supposed to “succeed”.

    Until recently — and only by accident — did my fool administrator realize that students need substantial math skills to do well in physics. The ding-dong thought that because the students had passed algebra 1 they should do well with ideas like vector fields.

    I have kids who’ve never seen trigonometry sitting next to kids who are taking calculus, yet by magic they should make progress in step.

    I propose that all “advanced” education degrees be completely eliminated. No “masters”, or worse, “phd”, degrees in education should even exist. Any idiot can get an advanced degree in education and then fool the public and politicians into taking their crappy theories seriously.

  15. I’m writing a “primer” for education reporters on K-12 “rigor,” which is a hot word in education these days. I’m asking people: How do you define it? How do you measure it? Is rigor only for college-prep programs or are there rigorous ways to educate students who aren’t college-bound?

    Don’t you have to segment it by grade and field of study? That is to say, what would constitute a “rigorous” kindergarten program? Is it age (developmentally) appropriate?

    Every child reading fluently, with comprehension, by the end of 3rd grade would constitute a “rigorous” reading program.

    What is the intersection between handwriting skills and being able to compose an essay? (I’m observing in 5th grade this term — I see a number of middle-class kids struggling to write, not because poor thinking or lack of mastery of writing mechanics, but because their handwriting isn’t automatic and legible — they’re still thinking about letter and word formation.)

    What’s a “rigorous” math program in k-3? Are the use of manipulatives, numberlines and the like automatically non-rigorous, or do they in fact contribute to the child’s mastery not just of math facts, but the deeper levels of mathematics?

    I don’t have answers, I just have questions.

  16. “Rigor” means that not everyone can succeed.


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