Harder, Better, Faster: What Is Academic Rigor and Why Does It Matter?

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“Every obstacle is destroyed through rigor,” said Leonardo da Vinci. This Renaissance genius certainly knew what he was talking about. Da Vinci was born out of wedlock in a tiny Italian town. Still, notwithstanding his humble beginnings, he managed to become one of the greatest painters in the history of art and a legendary polymath who excelled in anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, engineering, and many other spheres.

He achieved great heights thanks to his insatiable curiosity, unresting energy, hard work, ambitiousness, a sense of purpose, and self-belief. These six ingredients are associated with rigor and make up the recipe for success. 


For example, let us imagine that Lucy is a student who needs to write an extremely difficult essay and is facing a very tight deadline. This task is a challenge as it is, but there are many varied hardships that can make her life even more complicated: her computer might crash, she might catch a cold, her roommate might host a loud party, and her academic writing muse might disappear into thin air all of a sudden. 

If Lucy is not used to rigorous work, she might get overwhelmed and give up too soon. But if she knows what ‘academic rigor’ is, she will do her best to find a way out. She can ask her roommate Kelly to use her computer while Kelly is partying, make herself a cup of hot tea with honey and lemon, and contact professional writers from a trusted essayservice who will guide her through the labyrinth of academic writing and help her bring her muse back for good. 


Lucy gets an “A” for her essay and feels ready to move mountains again! And the superpower responsible for this happy ending is called ‘academic rigor.’

But what precisely is academic rigor? Does it really matter, or is it just another fashionable ‘edu-speak’ term? Let us take a closer look at the notion of academic rigor, its main characteristics, and the ways to sustain healthy academic rigor that ensures a motivating, dynamic, and yet comfortable classroom environment.


What Is Academic Rigor?

The term ‘academic rigor’ is usually used to refer to a dynamic and yet balanced classroom climate within which students are consistently and systematically challenged to work hard, solve complex problems, and reach their full academic potential, as well as encouraged to develop critical thinking and soft skills.

Why Does Academic Rigor Matter?

A rigorous academic atmosphere motivates students to achieve new academic heights without making them feel frustrated, overwhelmed, intimidated, and/or overworked. And while academic rigor goes hand in hand with high standards and competitiveness, it does not cancel out the differentiated approach, which takes every student’s abilities, needs, and interests into account. Thus, a classroom that can boast of academic rigor is a fruitful and healthy environment for all the students in which they can grow and flourish.


What Are the Three Phases of Academic Rigor?

In their paper, “Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way,” Barbara Blackburn and Ronald Williamson outline 3 main phases of academic rigor:

1. Setting the standards that help each student to learn at a high level;


2. Supporting students’ work through appropriate instructional methods;

3. Organizing the demonstration of the students’ achievement.


What Are the Main Characteristics of a Rigorous Classroom?

– Students know what the expected outcomes are and are provided with necessary guidelines and examples;

– Teachers select the content that is relevant, relatable, and engages students in a productive dialogue;


– Students are encouraged to demonstrate a proactive attitude to their studies and readily take ownership of the learning process;

– Students see difficulties as a challenge and eagerly accept it rather than immediately give up;


– Students are allowed to revise their academic attempts;

– Students are not afraid of asking questions and turn for help when the need arises;


– Students can effectively work both individually and as a part of a team;

– Students are curious about new material and are always eager to try new hands-on activities;


– Teachers never cease to learn and encourage their students to see learning as a life-long journey;

– Students receive positive feedback from the teachers and are encouraged to develop a ‘growth mindset.’


How Can Healthy Academic Rigor Be Cultivated in Your Classroom?

1. Socratic seminars are a great way to stimulate discussion and foster critical thinking.

2. Thought-provoking, open-ended questions help students focus their attention on the crucial aspects of the material and make independent conclusions.
3. When students are provided with a wider choice of homework options, they are more motivated to take ownership of their studies.


4. The teachers who provide their students with consistent, positive feedback and guidance witness steady academic growth and a healthy atmosphere in their classrooms.

5. Rigorous classroom environment is built on four major columns: critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. 


6. In a rigorous classroom, all students are expected to participate and give their answers to the teacher’s questions. However, this principle can be realized through a variety of ways which include peer sharing, small group work, written assignments, online forums and blogging, etc.

7. Teachers who show their students how the knowledge and skills acquired in class can be applied in their daily lives support productive rigor in their classrooms.


8. Students’ progress is tracked regularly and consistently.

9. Students are encouraged to peer-review each other’s works.


10. Teachers support the students’ growth through sharing with them success stories, ‘recipes’ for academic success, insights based on the latest research, study tools, and motivating life lessons.

11. Different media (texts, visuals, talks, music, etc.) are involved in the discussion of one and the same topic and are looked at from a comparative perspective.


12. Students are encouraged to reflect on their progress, challenges, and achievements.

To Sum Up

Whichever strategies you choose, remember that students can benefit from a rigorous learning environment only when they feel safe and appreciated, when they know they can ask as many questions as they need, and when they are sure that their teacher believes in them.

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