My definition of rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels. Focus, if you will, on the second part of this definition: each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels. This is a critical component of the definition of rigor because it relies on an interdependent relationship between rigor, motivation, and engagement.
While students can be motivated by external rewards, that motivation is temporary and will not last once the novelty has worn off. Therefore, as teachers, we should work to help our students become intrinsically motivated, such that the “rewards” they expect are personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Intrinsic motivation necessitates that students value the content, and believe that they can successfully learn and apply it. In order for students to value content, they must be able to recognize its worth in their lives. Why is learning the given material beneficial to them? Or, as I like to refer to it, WII-FM (the radio station that plays in their heads): What’s In It For Me?
In other words, learning must be meaningful, with clearly evident real-world applicability. Motivation is stifled if students believe that they are just going “through the motions,” and if they view school as sort of a dress rehearsal, rather than something with immediate impact over them and their lives. We want our students to desire positive impacts through valuing what we are teaching, believing in their own potential for success, and then making that success a reality. Success leads to success, and the achievements of small goals or tasks are the building blocks to larger ones.
Keep in mind that when students’ motivation and success is increasing, their desire to take on more challenging work also increases. Two common misconceptions that abound are that students cannot do harder work, and that they do not like harder work. These are only true when that harder work is perceived as having little to no value, and any attempts to understand or complete it will be met with failure. If we develop lessons that provide adequate support through scaffolding and differentiated instruction, and that offer real value, students will experience success, and will become intrinsically motivated to seek further challenges—to learn at high levels.