Finding the Sweet Spot on the Rigor Curve

RigorousRigor is a word that gets thrown around in meetings, planning documents and social media amongst educators. But what exactly is rigor?

Anyone who has been in education for long can attest to the pervasiveness of buzzwords. Heck there’s even an online Educational Jargon Generator if you’re looking to have a bit of fun. But what really matters is the practical application of these concepts as they’re put into practice in our classrooms and schools. With that in mind rigor doesn’t mean much to me until we contextualize it for student and teacher use.


Too often we mistake rigor for “more difficult” and while we want to challenge our students we don’t want that challenge to be deadly, a la rigor mortis. Instead we want to create engaging scenarios where our students can struggle but do so productively. In the conceptual “Rigor Curve” to the left the “sweet spot” of rigor would be that point on the red line that balances the level of critical thinking with the complexity of the content for student success. If we want our students to think critically, above the level of understanding, we need to be sure that that content is not too complex. Conversely, as the level of complexity increases it becomes much harder to think at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Because this sweet spot is likely different for each individual, the need for differentiation becomes apparent so we can meet each student where they are. So if rigor is that sweet spot along the red Rigor Curve then scaffolding and effective teacher instruction would push that curve upward toward the ideal of a flat line running along the top edge of Bloom’s Taxonomy where students would be able to think critically about even the most complex content.

International Center for Leadership in Education

A popular (and helpful) tool in thinking about rigor is the Rigor/Relevance Framework developed by Dr. Bill Daggett’s International Center for Leadership in Education. While it doesn’t define rigor it does use Bloom’s Taxonomy by couching it in increasingly authentic and real world settings as teachers strive for quadrant D. I like this as an ideal and good project based learning sets the stage for students to uncover the course content, which is often synonymous with quadrant A, by asking a great guiding question. So, for example, if ELA students are working on building their informational text skills they might explore, Was Life in the Middle Ages Really a Fairy Tale? As students engage with the content the teacher would provide appropriately complex informational text so they still have the opportunity to think critically along with everyone else without feeling defeated. As they improve their skills the complexity of the content could grow accordingly, along the Rigor Curve, providing just enough challenge to be productive but not be overwhelming.

Playing this out with different content areas we could regulate the complexity of mathematics, science, social studies or any content area while still requiring higher order thinking. I want my 4 and 6 year old daughters to create, evaluate and analyze but obviously I can’t expect them to do that with calculus. Instead it’s finding that maximum level of complexity “sweet spot” for them. Well designed rigorous instruction can help challenge students but not so much that they shut down. This coupled with authentic and purposeful work like project based learning can really boost engagement and provide great opportunities for scaffolding to support growth and learning for students of all cognitive levels.

For more on scaffolding visit Scaffolding and Formative Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning.

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