Category: Strengthening Rigor

6 Ways to Strengthen Rigor in Your STEM Classroom

In recapping this series on Strengthening Rigor in STEM, we’ve talked about how to define rigor in the classroom.   We’ve discussed that rigor is not making the work harder or assigning more problems.

We’ve also outlined the basics on tools such as the Rigor/Relevance Framework that we can use to guide our planning and instruction to establish and maintain rigor in the classroom.

This list generated by this series is by no means exhaustive, but is a tangible list of strategies you can use to begin to building rigor into your classroom:

By using or reintroducing these strategies into your classroom,  students can begin to stretch their thinking and begin to perform in ways that will help them to grow them academically as well as help them achieve mastery and beyond.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Student Choice Menus

Student Choice Menus a very useful way to both differentiate student learning and strengthen rigor in the classroom.  Recall that rigor is for ALL students, not just our high performers or our gifted students, so all students can benefit from this model.

Since all students have different ability types, it sometimes becomes difficult to create a project that will force all students to stretch their thinking but not lose or confuse anyone.  Student Choice Menus are a viable solution because they can allows student choice yet meet each student where they are. They are great for easing students into STEM projects too because they allow students to “practice” having latitude in projects and “practice” students each working on different things.

Student Choice Menus can be created in a couple of ways:

Students are given a a tic-tac-toe board containing different tasks or explorations in each block.  Students will then choose a “path” to complete.

Restaurant Menu
Students are provided a list of choices in each category (Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts).  Students are then asked to choose to complete a set number of labs, tasks, etc. in each category.  The restaurant menu concept works well for younger students, but you might consider naming the categories differently for older students.

List Menu
Students are provided with a lists of explorations, experiments, tasks, etc.  Each one is assigned a point value based on its difficulty level.  Students will choose enough items to meet the point requirement determined by their teacher. (This is a great way to differentiate by assigning different point requirements to students.)

Even though Student Choice Menus are more rigid than how we would normally teach a STEM unit, they are a great introduction to STEM units and projects as they provide a small bit of choice and latitude in comparison to the choice and latitude in a normal STEM unit.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- PBL Elements

Another way to strengthen rigor in the classroom is through the use of PBL (Project Based Learning) elements.  PBL and STEM have a great deal in common and many believe that PBL is one of STEM’s predecessors.

Although PBL lacks some elements of STEM, it has a similar goal- to teach the whole student and to focus on life skills like the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, creativity, creative thinking).

Making sure that these PBL elements are included in your STEM lessons and units will help to maintain rigor and keep students performing on a higher level and applying their knowledge.

An Essential Question
In STEM units, our essential question is focused on a real life problem or issue that needs to be solved. Constructing this question carefully is paramount as it will guide the student’s learning.  A well-defined question will be tight enough to identify a relevant problem to be solved but loose enough to allow students to explore and find their own solutions.

White Space
The essential questions in our STEM units usually provide some design requirements, but for the most part allow the students to use inquiry, innovation and the 4C’s to research and construct a viable solution to the problem.  Enough guidance is provided to lightly steer students, but students are expected and encouraged to drive their own learning.

21st century skills
STEM units stress 21st century skills and aim to groom students to mastering the 4C’s.  In addition to content mastery and knowledge application of science, technology, engineering, and math, students polish additional skills like team building and brainstorming.

Inquiry is probably the most difficult element to teach.  Too much guidance and all students are coming up with the same solution.  Too little guidance and students are lost.  When students conduct inquiry, they are, essentially, playing the part of the detective and following the trail of where their research leads them.  It is the part of the skilled teacher (facilitator) to help guide students in their problem solving so that they don’t get too far off track.

By incorporating or ensuring that these components are present in your STEM units, both you and your students can work toward building and maintaining rigor in the classroom.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Rubrics

Using rubrics is an excellent way to establish rigor and hold students to high standards in the classroom.

Using rubrics to maintain rigor can be used in two ways:

  • Students- to demonstrate the expectations and levels of mastery for the lesson/project
  • Teachers- to assist in planning rigorous lessons for students

Providing rubrics for younger students and/or developing rubrics with older students is a clear-cut way to define expectations and establish rigor in the classroom.  By providing a set of “guidelines” for student achievement, rubrics help students to understand the expectations. A thorough rubric also helps students progress from understanding the basic components to thinking deeply and not only demonstrating mastery, but applied skills like problem solving.

When constructing a rubric for students, be mindful of the categories chosen and the levels of mastery within each one.  As you write each mastery level, take special care to choose your words carefully, making sure that each level is one step above the prior.  Rubrics should not be too cumbersome, but should be tightly written to ensure high standards and work towards applied knowledge.

As teachers, we can benefit from rubrics as well.  Many rubrics have been developed to help teachers establish rigor when planning lessons, projects, or units.  By keeping a rigor rubric handy, we can keep rigor at the forefront of our planning and thus construct better and more rigorous lessons for students.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Student Portfolios

Student Portfolios are a useful tool in increasing or establishing rigor in the classroom.  Through the use of portfolios, students can not only reflect and collect artifacts to display their work, but can also demonstrate their depth of knowledge and understanding of problem solving skills.

There are generally three types of portfolios in the process:

  • A Working Portfolio
  • A Display Portfolio
  • An Assessment Portfolio

A Working Portfolio is just that- a sort of rough draft if you will.  It is a series of work or artifacts that the student may want to include in a final portfolio.  These could be diagrams, writings, or even works still in progress, but is not yet a final product. These pieces demonstrate both student strengths and weaknesses and will help both the student and teacher determine what skills still need to be worked on or refined.  More thought and care needs to be put into selecting the final artifacts that will be included in the final portfolio- a Display Portfolio or an Assessment Portfolio.

A Display Portfolio allows students to display the work that they feel is their best work, most successful project, etc.  Through this type of portfolio, students select a final group of artifacts (from their Working Portfolios) to share what they are proud of.  Careful thought and consideration should be used when selecting these artifacts as this portfolio represents the student, their effort and their accomplishments.  When most teachers think of portfolios, this is the type they usually have in mind.

The last type of portfolio is an Assessment Portfolio and a way to establish or maintain rigor.  Assessment Portfolios are not only to document what the student has learned, but they also contain reflective notes that reveal the student’s thinking process about how or why a particular artifact was chosen.  During this process, students think critically about each piece chosen and show how it has helped them to grow.  With the use of these reflective notes, students reach a stage of more complex and purposeful thinking.

By using the portfolio process in the classroom, students can move through the stages of becoming more reflective learners and deepen their critical thinking skills.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- The Art of Questioning

As teachers, we are constantly checking for understanding.  We question and probe students daily to test their depth of knowledge, but are we asking the right kinds of questions that will help our students exercise their critical thinking skills and develop better problem solving skills?

Asking rigorous questions is determining where a student is ability-wise and asking them to consider further possibilities to push their thinking. (Remember that ALL students benefit from rigor, not just high-performers!).  It is also providing students with key elements to help them be successful.

While I was observing a 7th grade math class, the teacher asked the class to find 15% of 65. Surprised that no one was talking (about anything), I asked the two students closest to me what they thought of the problem.  They seemed surprised that I was talking to them, but before I could even start into a discussion with them, the teacher was on to the next problem.

This scenario illustrates some key elements that help us to focus on how to use questioning to build rigor:

  • Rigor is carefully crafting and presenting a problem or question.   A rigorous math class may only work on a few questions for the entire period, but it is the careful consideration of each problem and the various solutions students share that help students to develop critical thinking skills.
  • Rigor is accepting different solutions. Depending on the question posed to the class, there may truly only be one answer, but students should feel comfortable driving their thinking and arriving at that answer through different strategies.
  •  Rigor is providing time.  Students need adequate time (and space- both on paper and physically) to think through solutions to problems.
  • Rigor is collaborative.  Students should be encouraged share their ideas with their team/classmates and use each other as sound boards for possible solutions.
  • Rigor is being supportive. Students need to feel supported and know that a wrong answer is an opportunity to examine their work to find out what happened, not the equivalent of a demerit. They also need to feel secure in asking their own questions to clarify a concept or confine a problem.

By keeping these key elements in mind, using questioning to build rigor in the classroom becomes less elusive and helps students to think deeper to build problem solving skills.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Interactive Notebooks

In the Rigor/Relevance Framework, we learned that in order to establish and maintain rigor in the classroom, students need to be performing in Quadrant D.  In other words, students need to think in complex ways and apply their knowledge and skills to find solutions to problems.
One way to keep students performing at these higher levels of thinking is for students to keep an interactive notebook.  May teachers already do this, but just DOING it is not enough.  To establish and maintain rigor, we need to be sure that we are asking the right questions and developing higher-thinking skills through the notebook process.

First, though, before we focus on content, it’s important to discuss the organization of the notebook.  Every Interactive Notebook should have the following components to help students get and stay organized:

  • Table of Contents (either teacher-created or student-created)
  • Numbered Pages
  • Dated Pages
  • Page Dividers for Different Sections (I personally like the self-adhesive kind)
  • Glossary

You can adapt these sections to reflect different age groups or different subject focus, but starting students off by modeling the way that an interactive notebooks works is a good skill for students to learn and helps them to better understand the process.

Once students are organized, they can begin to use their notebooks to grow their thinking skills by putting elements in their notebooks such as:

  • Drawings/ Diagrams
  • Charts
  • Reflections
  • Graphic Organizers
  • “Notes” to Solve Problems
  • Investigations/ Labs

Depending on age group, the teacher may be responsible for deciding which elements are most appropriate for the skill that we are looking to develop.  Older students may be responsible for their own content, but either way,  choosing meaningful elements for the notebook are essential.  To help us to make these meaningful choices, the teacher or student can ask themselves key questions:

  • What skill(s) do I hope to develop through this lesson?
  • What element will best exhibit/develop/sharpen this skill?
  • How will using a ______ (graphic organizer, etc.) help to further this skill?
  • How can students leverage this ______ (graphic organizer, etc.) to take their learning further?

By selecting meaningful elements, we can help students start to think deeper, faster.  By asking key questions sooner and providing a notebook element as a scaffold, we help the student to spend more time thinking critically.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- The Rigor/Relevance Framework

Now that we’ve discussed what rigor looks like in the classroom, we need to introduce the Rigor/Relevance Framework.  The Rigor/Relevance Framework is a graphical representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy meets the Daggett Application Model.  It is a great visual for how and why we need to establish and strengthen rigor in STEM.

Each quadrant below shows where students are performing during a particular lesson or project.  Quadrant A represents basic understanding and recall.  Quadrant C represents more sophisticated comprehension, but still is demonstrating knowledge in one discipline.  Quadrant B represents students showing knowledge and applying it and Quadrant D (where we want students to be) represents students solving problems and using their knowledge to create unique solutions.

As teachers plan lessons and create/research engagements for students, consideration should be given to where students would fall on this Framework.  In order to establish and strengthen rigor, students need to be performing in Quadrant D, which allows students to think in complex ways and use strategies for solving problems creatively.

In this series, we’ll examine different strategies for how to get (and keep) students performing consistently at a high level.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Defining Rigor in the Classroom

Merriam Webster has many definitions for rigor.  Among the most relevant are:

1: a (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible   b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty  3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable

Yuck! That doesn’t really sound like how we want our children to learn- unyielding or inflexible- or become contributing members of society.  So, in the sense of education, what does rigor actually mean?
According to Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor is not a Four Letter Word, rigor is:
creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so that he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level.

Achieving this definition in the classroom then consists of three basic parts- the content, the instruction, and the achievement.  Most teachers have little to no control over the curriculum, but we try to make each standard as engaging as possible through instruction.  The high-quality instruction that students participate in helps them to take charge of their learning through collaboration and reflection.  When these basic parts intersect, students excel.

Now that we’ve defined rigor, it is probably becoming clearer how rigor looks in the classroom.  Before we talk about what rigor looks like, we should talk about what it isn’t.  Rigor is not:

  • more homework
  • “doing” more
  • only for accelerated students
  • something else on top of everything else

So how does rigor look in the classroom?  Rigor is:

By establishing and strengthening rigor in the classroom, students will become stronger and more critical thinkers and will become better collaborators and learners.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM: Putting the R in STEM…Wait, What?

As we embark on our journey to make our children and students more critical thinkers and problem solvers, we often come upon really fun activities for students to engage in.  (Those who know me are cringing because they know how much I hate the word “fun”. Fun implies that nothing is being learned, so I much prefer the word “engaging”.)

Unfortunately this hazard transfers to students because the engaging activities that we’re asking them to participate in really are…um, well, fun.  And that’s great, but we want to make sure that we don’t lose site of the goal to learn so we need to introduce our R into STEM- Rigor.

How do you Strengthen Rigor in your STEM projects?  In this series, we’ll explore different ways to keep students engaged yet ensure that they are learning and stretching both in content and STEM Skills.


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