Pedagogy Pointer – Academic Rigor

As college professors and educators you know that rigor is important.  But do we really know what that word means in relationship to our teaching?  I couldn’t find a definition on the CofC website so I decided to do some digging.


Merriam-Webster defines rigor as:

  1. harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment
  2. a tremor caused by a chill
  3. a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable
  4. strict precision

In the case of academic rigor, I’m going to be looking at “a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable,” and in particular challenging or uncomfortable.

I love the definition by ,“a more expansive view of rigor would also encompass academic relevance and critical-thinking skills such as interpreting and analyzing historical data, making connections between historical periods and current events, using both primary and secondary sources to support an argument or position, and arriving at a novel interpretation of a historical event after conducting extensive research on the topic.”

“Advocates contend that appropriately rigorous learning experiences motivate students to learn more and learn it more deeply, while also giving them a sense of personal accomplishment when they overcome a learning challenge—whereas lessons that are simply “hard” will more likely lead to disengagement, frustration, and discouragement.“


The point of academic rigor is not to just make things hard or difficult for the student, it’s to challenge them to think in new and interesting ways and to push them to the edge of being frustrated without overwhelming them (The TeachHUB Team).  This is the space in which they learn more deeply about the subject/concept but also become a different person who can think critically, apply, and problem solve.  According to Matthew Lynch, Dean of the School of Education, Psychology, & Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Union University, “Teachers must challenge students to question assumptions and make connections beyond the assignment and the classroom.  To encourage academic rigor in the classroom, teachers must establish high expectations and then provide ways for students to meet them.”

So from these sources we can takeaway that



climb a mountain


I’ve found some great articles that can give you a leg up and some great ideas to get you started.


Before this type of rigor can take place you have to set a classroom environment that supports rigor.  THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.

  1. Get your students to buy-in on the concept of “challenge”.  Discuss with them why you value challenge and how this will change them as a student and a person.  Discuss it with them, don’t just tell them.  Ask them to help set guidelines for the class expectations to increase that buy-in.
  2. Create a community of practice and where it’s okay to make mistakes, that’s how we learn! If students know that it’s okay to be wrong and to tinker and try things, they will be more likely to accept the challenge.
  3. You need to believe that all students are all capable of rising to the challenge, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, or disability.  If you’re not sure, they’ll pick up on it.  You then need to communicate this belief EARLY and OFTEN to the students.  If they know you are behind them and that you are going to do your best to take them through a difficult process, they will be more likely to accept the challenge.2


Start to challenge students’ thinking by using non-traditional materials to demonstrate concepts.

  • Don’t just give them textbooks to read.  Explore different authors with differing opinions and perspectives.  This teaches the students that learning isn’t black and white and encourages divergent thinking.
  • Use a variety of materials, including non-traditional materials such as tweets, literature, newscasts, podcasts, etc to illustrate and teach concepts.


Discussions (both face-to-face and online) are the best place to introduce rigor.  This is where you can encourage students to dig deeper.  But for this to work, you questions have to encourage rigor and demand providing evidence from multiple sources and exploring differing sides of a topic. 

  1. Set strategies for in-class discussions and don’t accept lower-level thinking answers.  Encourage them to go further; deeper.
  2. Don’t ask yes/no questions.  Ask higher-level, thought-provoking questions; questions that play devils advocate or that asks students to challenge the norms; questions that ask them to provide evidence to back up their response.
  3. Require high-level answers from your students.
  4. Have your students formulate their answers in pairs.  This takes some of the pressure off and provides support for them when they are learning to dig deeper.(1)
  5. Allow for wait time. Give your students the opportunity to formulate and express their thoughts, regardless of how tempted you are to answer the question and move on.(1)
  6. Ask for evidence with questions like, “How do you know?”(1)
  7. To increase actual discussion, require students to elaborate on another students response then, ask an additional question.
  8. Require students to take and defend positions.(3)


  1. Design lessons that require multiple steps that build on each other and necessitate lengthy analysis over time.(1)
  2. Get your students to synthesize multiple sources as a way to understand a variety of perspectives. Considering other viewpoints requires critical thinking.(1)
  3. Make sure your assignments are systematically scaffolded from one to the next.
  4. Give examples of desired outcomes and undesired outcomes are overtly shared with students.(2)
  5. Students have opportunity to revise their academic attempts.(2)
  6. Assignment is made relevant and relatable to student background information and interest.(2)
  7. A balance of formative and summative assessments intermittently provided.(2)
  8. Students reflect on their learning progress and efforts.(2)
  9. Require design thinking (3).  This means to allow them to tinker, try things, get things wrong, rework and try again.  This is done with a formative assessment and in class groups.
  10. Require students to take and defend positions.(3)

Remember – Students are more willing to challenge themselves when they engage in meaningful work.

The International Leadership for Leadership in Education created a rubric that you can use to help you implement rigor in your teaching.

Rigor Rubric



(1) Academic Rigor: You’re Doing It Wrong and Here’s Why, MATTHEW LYNCHj, The Edvocate, October 30, 2018.

(2) What is Academic Rigor and What Do We Do with It?, The TeachHUB Team, March 6, 2014.

(3) 10 Strategies To Add Rigor To Any Lesson, Unit, or Assessment, ASCD Guest Blogger, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, October 23, 2013.

(4) A New Definition of Rigor, Brian Sztabnik, Edutopia, May 7, 2015.


(6) How to Develop Rigor in the Classroom, Matt Christenson, The Art of Education, 2017.

(7) Rigor Rubric, International Leadership for Leadership in Education.

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