MERC Publications

Document Type

Research Report

Original Publication Date


Date of Submission

June 2016


Rigor can be defined in any number of ways. We found an imbalance between the ways in which rigor has been defined by the Virginia Department of Education, and how education scholars define rigor in the respective academic disciplines.

(1) The Commonwealth of Virginia defines rigor as college and career readiness as measured by attendance in post-secondary educational institution, achievement of high Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, as well as participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

(2) Educational Psychologists tend to define rigor in ways that are generalizable across contexts. Researchers in this tradition focus on academic press, or the extent to which educational stakeholders, including students, are oriented towards demanding coursework. Studies in this tradition have also found that student motivation is crucial, and that this motivation is mediated by the extent to which tasks are challenging, related to the world outside of school, and provide opportunities for students to collaborate when problem solving.

(3) Discipline-Based Scholars of Teaching and Learning define rigor in ways that reflect the core concepts of their discipline. Thus, a rigorous math class is one where students are encouraged to think mathematically, i.e. to use mathematical approaches to solve problems. Although specific pedagogical styles are discussed in this literature, the overall emphasis is on depth rather than breadth, with curricula being designed around building understanding of key concepts rather than covering (or efficiently delivering) factual information and procedural steps. In other words, a US history course might be organized around the way that the idea of freedom developed over the course of US history.

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