By Ronald Williamson and Barbara Blackburn

Few people question the need for America’s schools and classrooms to be more rigorous. But there is little agreement about what rigor is and what it looks like.

In Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, Barbara Blackburn defined rigor as creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so that he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008). This three-part approach assures that rigor doesn’t consist of just adding curriculum requirements or raising grading standards. Integral to the model is providing every student with high levels of support so that they can thrive and be successful in their classrooms.

Rigor is more than a specific lesson or instructional strategy. It is deeper than what a student says or does in response to a lesson. Real rigor is the result of weaving together all elements of schooling to improve the achievement and learning of every student.


We’ll start with the first part: rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels. Having high expectations starts with the decision that every student possesses the potential to be his or her best, no matter what.

Almost everyone we talk with says that they have high expectations for their students. Sometimes that is evidenced by the behaviors in the school; at at other times, actions don’t match the words. When you visit classrooms and work with your teachers, use the following tools to assess the level of rigor you see.

As you work with teachers to design lessons that incorporate more rigorous opportunities for learning, you will want to consider the questions that are embedded in the instruction. Higher-level questioning is an integral part of a rigorous classroom. Look for open-ended questions that are at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analysis and synthesis).

It is also important to look at how teachers respond to student questions. When we visit schools, it is not uncommon for teachers who ask higher-level questions to accept low-level responses from students. In rigorous classrooms, however, teachers push students to respond at high levels. They ask extending questions. If a student does not know the answer, the teacher continues to probe and guide the student to an appropriate answer rather than moving on to the next student.

Tool 1: Questions and Responses

You can use this tally tool to chart your observations about questioning techniques and talk with teachers about questions in class.

Questions asked by teacher
Low-level/rote questions High-level/application questions







Teacher response to student answers
Low-level student responses accepted
High-level responses accepted or probing/extended questions asked









High expectations are important, but the most rigorous schools also ensure that each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, the second part of our definition. It is essential that teachers design lessons that move students to more challenging work while simultaneously providing ongoing scaffolding to support students learning as they those higher levels.

Providing additional scaffolding throughout lessons is one of the most important ways to support students. This can occur in a variety of ways, but it requires that teachers ask themselves during every step of their lesson, “What extra support might my students need?”

Tool 2: Scaffolding in Lessons

Examples of scaffolding strategies include:

  • Asking guiding questions
  • Chunking information
  • Color-coding the steps of a project
  • Writing standards as questions for students to answer
  • Using visuals and graphic organizers
  • Providing such tools as interactive reading guides, study guide.


The third component of a rigorous classroom provides each student with opportunities to demonstrate learning at high levels. We often hear that if teachers provide more challenging lessons that include extra support, then learning will happen. We’ve learned that if we want students to show us that they understand what they learned at a high level, we also need to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate that they have truly mastered that learning. One way to accomplish that is through increased student engagement.

Student engagement is a key aspect of rigor. In too many classrooms, most of the instruction consists of the teacher-centered large group instruction, perhaps in an interactive lecture or discussion format. The general practice during these lessons is for the teacher to ask a question, and then call on a student to respond. Although this provides an opportunity for one student to demonstrate their understanding, the remaining students don’t have the opportunity to do so. Another option would be for the teacher to allow all students to respond either through pair-share, thumbs up or down, writing answers on small whiteboards and sharing their responses, or responding on a handheld computer that tallies responses. Such activities hold each student accountable for demonstrating his or her understanding.

Tool 3: Student Engagement

Negative Indicators Positive Indicators
  • One student responds
  • Two or three students discuss content
  • Teacher asks students if they understand, and they answer with a simple yes or no; there is no probing.
  • All students respond
  • All students discuss content in small groups
  • All students write a response in a journal or exit slip

When you talk with your teachers about their instructional practices, you can also ask them about engagement and how they design lessons to promote positive student engagement and high levels of student accountability for demonstrating learning.

Tool 4: Talking with Teachers

  • Talk with me about how you make your lessons engaging. What information do you use to guide your decisions?
  • As you design your lessons, what are some of the strategies you use to make sure the lesson is engaging to students?
  • While teaching a lesson, how do you monitor the engagement of your students?
  • As you continue to work on student engagement, what would you identify as the most appropriate next steps?
  • What may I do to support you in your work to improve student engagement?

Final Thoughts and Action Planning

Recognizing rigor in classrooms is all about recognizing good instruction. It is important to look for instructional practices that expect students to learn at very high levels and that also give students the support to achieve at high levels. It is also essential that teachers expect all students to demonstrate their learning at high levels. PL


  • Blackburn, B. (2008). Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Ronald Williamson ( is a professor of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University.

Barbara R. Blackburn ( is the president of Blackburn Consulting Group.

They are the coauthors of The Principalship From A to Z and Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way, both published by Eye on Education (