Rigor is complicated unless you talk to students. Students don’t view rigor as lower-order or higher-order thinking, knowledge, and skills. Often they see rigor as a process—a process of learning ideas, combining ideas to form bigger ideas, and applying those ideas.
If rigor is described as the rate of completion of a task, students will focus on speed over complexity. If rigor is anchored to the idea that one level is more important than other levels, students will focus on prioritizing one level over other levels. If students encounter levels of rigor in sequential order or if levels of rigor are separate, students will struggle with integrating their natural learning process with the sequence of curriculum. Finally, if discussing the levels and process of rigor is absent, students will lack the awareness and metacognitive ability to track and take control over their learning.
Circling back to students’ understanding of rigor, one way to define it is the balance of surface, deep, and transfer learning. That is, rigor is about ensuring that students learn ideas, combine ideas to form bigger ideas, and apply those ideas.
3 Ways to Help Students Understand Rigor
1. Link grading and assessment practices to integration of levels of learning rather than prioritizing one level. Transfer learning isn’t an A, just as knowing a lot of surface knowledge isn’t a C. When we show students that the connection between these levels is what links to our assessment scheme, then they begin to focus on interacting between levels of learning. Consider the following pattern:
NA: I’m still working on one level of learning.
1.0: I have one level of learning to solve problems, complete tasks, and challenge my learning and that of others.
2.0: I’m making connections between two levels of learning to solve problems, complete tasks, and challenge my learning and that of others.
3.0: I’m making connections between three levels of learning to solve problems, complete tasks, and challenge my learning and that of others.
2. Demonstrate the level of teaching and learning during class.
Show visuals: Providing students with visuals that illustrate balance across levels is a powerful way to help them conceptually and emotionally connect with your messages. Try rearranging the levels of learning with circles or triangles and connected arrows rather than a linear visual.
Name the level of learning: When students are working on a task, it’s important for you to prompt them to consider the level of learning they are currently working in. For instance, if students are evaluating and reflecting on the errors made on a math assignment, they are likely working at the deep level of learning. This is a good time to say, “I’m noticing that many of you are engaging in ‘deep learning’ as you continue to go back and check your work to see what errors have occurred and/or what other strategies you could use to represent your understanding.”
Ask them which level they may go to next: Prompting students on their next steps is a powerful part of building student efficacy. One strategy to support students in understanding the flexibility across levels of learning is to ask if they need to visit different levels to better understand and/or solve a problem: “Now that you have come to this portion of the task, I want you to ask yourself, ‘What level of learning will help me move forward?’”
Name the reason for the instructional strategy: When you teach, share what you are aiming for and looking for from students: “We are going to engage in the jigsaw method to strengthen our understanding of surface learning. The jigsaw helps us move over to deep learning and evaluate how the surface learning pieces connect to the larger picture. Think of each surface piece of learning as a puzzle piece that will eventually connect.”
Provide observable look-fors: When you are about to send students off to engage in a task, articulate exactly what you are looking for: “I’ll be looking for you to talk about how certain pieces connect and why others don’t. I should hear you talk about the relationship between viruses and all living things.”
Recognize and celebrate when students go back and forth across levels: Celebrate the process of both persisting in a level of learning and moving in and out of different levels of learning. The more we name the power of learning within and across levels and convey the idea that no level is more important than another, the more kids get the message that we are about learning, learners, and the process of learning.
This may sound like the following: “Take a moment and reflect on the different levels of learning you were in today. What did it look like and feel like as you moved across each level? What were the signals that you used to stick to one level? What signals did you use to move across each level?”
3. Provide a variety of sequencing and linking levels of learning. Change the sequence of your units by mixing up how you start, continue, and end a unit of study.
Traditional: Starting initially with surface and then moving toward deep and transfer. For instance, a teacher may start a unit by having students learn core definitions of the different branches of government.
Conceptual: Starting initially with depth and then moving between surface and transfer. For instance, a teacher may start a unit by having students compare and contrast the powers of different forms of government.
Problem based: Starting initially with transfer and then moving between deep and surface. For instance, a teacher may start a unit by having students explore a current problem across the different forms of government.
When the sequence of learning is changed from time to time, students develop an understanding that learning occurs in a variety of ways. To do this, you will need to engage in backward design of your curriculum. Furthermore, you will need to explore strategies to employ for each level of learning.