As a student growing up, I somehow managed to be both a perpetual overachiever and a chronic procrastinator. Both of these behaviors were closely connected to a sense of anxiety I had--and still have, if I’m honest--around what others expect of me. The thing that would inflame my anxiety, making me stress out or avoid work most severely, was any kind of vagueness around what exactly I was supposed to do and how. Pointless make-work, poorly defined projects, and unclear instructions were the bane of my academic existence. Apparently, I am not alone in this. According to Eleanor Dougherty (2012), students in general need clarity around their assignments to do them well. “Rubrics provide a kind of advance organizer for students, giving them the guidance they need to perform to expectations,” she says in Assignments Matter. “Without a prompt and a rubric that clearly set up the teaching and learning cycles, teacher and students can’t do their work effectively” (p. 58). The mechanism for this clarity, at least when it comes to assignments, is rigor.
According to Dougherty (2012), rigor is broken up into two components: demands and qualities. “Demands constitute the ‘do it this way’ element,” she says,
and are usually described in the prompt as well as the rubric…Think of demands as descriptors that set conditions and establish a level of difficulty by complicating the task and asking students to manage a number of elements (p. 29).
Qualities, on the other hand, are, "those characteristics that distinguish student work that is poorly or marginally executed from work that is well performed as measured against expectations set out in a rubric for proficient or advanced levels. It is the ‘how good is good enough and more’ element" (Dougherty, 2012, p. 29). In simplest terms, demands define what the student is expected to do; qualities define how well they are to do it. Together, these elements compose the rigor of the assignment.
Dougherty (2012) has a lot of specific ideas about how to incorporate rigor into a classroom assignment. The assignment’s rigor--that is, its demands and qualities--should appear all over my assignment design, but especially in the prompt and the rubric. Further, as I alluded to earlier, these elements should be clearly and explicitly communicated to the students as I teach the assignment (Dougherty, 2012) because it is of huge benefit to a student to know what to do and how to do it. She also says that I should take my demands and qualities directly from the standards (Dougherty, 2012). To illustrate how that works, let’s take a look at the following 4th grade ELA standards:
RI.4.3 Reading: Literature; Key Ideas and Details; 4th Grade
W.4.3 Writing: Text Types and Purposes; 4th Grade
If I were to craft an assignment based on these standards in accordance with Dougherty’s method, the first thing I would do is identify the skills in these standards, represented by the verb phrases in them. I might select the words “describe,” “write,” “drawing on,” and “develop real or imagined experiences or events.” Doughtery (2012) suggests that to write an effective prompt, use these phrases as your demands and simply put them into your prompt. Similarly, the adverbs, adjectives, or other modifiers from the above standards should guide my choice of the qualities I’ll incorporate into my assignment (Dougherty, 2012). For example, the phrases “in depth,” “descriptive and specific details,” “effective technique,” and “clear event sequences,” taken from the above standards would be my qualities. By defining my qualities and demands in this way, I can steep my assignment in the rigor demanded by the standards.
To write an effective prompt, Dougherty (2012) says to, “align your demands to the common core state standards or your state standards by adopting key words and phrases in your prompts” (p. 45), so I can put the demands and qualities copied from the standards right into my prompt, which could look like this, "We’ve been discussing the strengths of and problems for people living in Chicago today. Imagine that a fictional character from any of our readings this year was suddenly transported to Chicago. How would they interact with our problems? Could they solve any of them? How? Would they even want to? Why? Write a fictional story about your chosen character, describing in depth how they deal with a Chicago problem. Draw on details from the character’s text to develop a clear beginning, middle, and end to your story. The narrative should be between two and and three pages long." Here, we can see how the standards echo through the prompt to communicate to both teacher and student the level of rigor expected.
Rigor is then elaborated in an assignment’s rubric. As Dougherty (2012) puts it, “when you write the rubric, you further clarify qualities by using language that partners with demands” (p. 30). If we imagined the above assignment, the top line of the rubric might look like this:
By echoing the language used in the standards I will know I am on the right course, or as Doughtery (2012) says, “the confluence of demands and qualities embedded in an assignment establishes its rigor, and at best ensures that an assignment isn't too easy, too hard, redundant or off-standard” (p. 44).
Dougherty (2012) also emphasizes that we can change the level of rigor in our assignments, and that sometimes it’s best to alternate between very rigorous and less rigorous assignments to “establish control over the pace and effort involved in the student learning process” (p. 31). If I knew my class’s interest was piqued in a topic or skill, I might make sure the assignment associated with it was more highly rigorous, for example, to take advantage of my students’ enthusiasm. Dougherty (2012) suggests some ways to delineate a higher- from a lower-rigor assignment. A higher-rigor assignment “ask[s] ‘why,’ for example, rather than ‘what’” (Dougherty, 2012, p. 46), and its qualities “[involve] both linguistic and cognitive fluency; [demonstrate] nuanced understandings, insightfulness, and reflection; and [show] a deep regard for a topic or issue” (Dougherty, 2012, p. 46). One particularly useful way to delineate higher- from lower-rigor assignments is laid out in Terry Roberts’ concept of “thinking modes.” According to him, basic thinking modes include causation, transformation, classification, and qualification, while complex thinking modes include problem-solving, decision making, critical thinking, and creative thinking (as cited in Dougherty, 2012, p. 44). A more rigorous assignment might make use of the complex thinking modes, while a less rigorous one might engage more basic thinking modes--to be used if the students need a particularly complex set of skills reinforced or just need a breather (Doughtery, 2012). I would argue the prompt and rubric written above represent a highly rigorous assignment as it asks to write an original narrative (creative thinking), asks into motivations of a character (‘why’ over ‘what’ thinking), asks how a problem could be addressed (problem-solving), and sets high expectations for student writing ability (involve linguistic and cognitive fluency). If there was less interest in the subject at hand, I might lessen the rigor for this particular assignment and, in this case, ask for an essay about their characters instead of a narrative, and perhaps focus on only one standard. If that were the case, I’d save my higher-rigor assignments for another topic. In any case, I’d be sure to think carefully about the level of rigor being asked of my students.
When I approached education as an elementary student, I often struggled with overly complex or vaguely-explained assignments, and it frustrated and confounded me. Invisible expectations make work a misery. As a teacher, I hope to inspire my students to do their best work by maintaining and, more importantly, communicating high expectations for them in the form of rigor-infused assignments.
Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Andrew is a teacher, teaching artist, and storyteller in Chicago, IL