With the beginning of a new school year upon many districts, demands for improved connectivity and devices, increased instructional minutes, transparency of grades, attention to the social and emotional needs of students, and calls for more “rigor” through distance learning will be greater than ever. In his July 17, 2020 news conference, Governor Newsom laid out guidelines for when schools will be allowed to reopen and, when necessary, offer distance learning. Newsom insisted that distance learning must be “rigorous” and include “daily, live interactions” between students and teachers, “challenging assignments” equivalent to in-person classes, and lessons adapted for English language learners and students with disabilities.

Aligned with these demands, stakeholders are calling for stark improvements in distance learning outcomes. Teachers, school, and district leaders will undoubtedly feel the pressure to increase rigor, close achievement gaps, and accelerate learning in platforms that are still very new to them and their students. To help make this important shift to higher standards and expectations, it will be essential to understand that calls for rigor will demand more quality, not just complexity or quantity.

The research is clear: Rigor is not more!

One reaction to a call for more rigor will likely create expectations of teachers to provide more homework, more demanding tests and quizzes, or increase the complexity of grade-level content. This can often lead to a desire to push down higher-grade level content in an attempt to accelerate intellectual development. An editorial published in Science notes this approach to rigor is counterproductive and often leads to “overly strict attention to rules, procedures, and rote memorization” at a time when developing minds of children are not yet ready to process this complex information.

In addition to increasing complexity, another approach to add rigor through distance learning will be driven by pressures to try and “make up” for missed curriculum from the spring. This, too, can create pressures on teachers to cram too much content into a lesson, unit, or semester. Students may be asked to complete more work independently at home instead of using homework more effectively to reinforce or introduce new learning. Additional stress to ramp up learning can also encourage a one-size-fits-all, that neglects the ability level and the individual needs of students. Parents, too, will likely pressure teachers and school administrators for more rigor by demanding ineffective strategies such as long lists of spelling words, more complex math problems, or insisting on extra credit assignments not realizing the severe consequences these demands can have on their child’s motivation to learn. These “cram” more into the day, week, semester, or school year, approaches not only fail to address rigor but are not supported within the existing scientific research. “Not only does no such data exist, but an emerging body of research indicates that attempts to accelerate intellectual development are in fact counterproductive.”

Practical approaches to improving rigor in distance learning environments

While demands for rigor will be challenging, applying a few practical approaches can help preserve academic and creative rigor.

  • Providing Professional Development: First, it cannot be said enough how important it is to provide teachers with ongoing professional development, coaching and time to expand their expertise in using online platforms, creating lessons, collaborating with their colleagues, and delving deeply into the tools and content they will use to help students succeed in a distance learning environment. Through ongoing professional development, time and practice, teachers can begin to build rigor into their daily lessons that engage students, embrace higher-level thinking, comprehension, and the use of activities where the learner directly interacts with the content, peers, and teacher.
  • Project-based learning (PBL): A highly engaging strategy, PBL integrates lessons where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges to help deepen content knowledge. Examples of this strategy include students exploring racism and social justice in language arts through the use of articles, poems, songs, documentaries, and books like “The Hate You Give” and “Just Mercy” to address relevant issues. Teachers can also assign history lessons that compare and contrast the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Death in the 14th century.
  • Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities: The strategic combination of “synchronous” learning where students meet regularly online with their classmates and teachers, with “asynchronous” activities where students think deeply and engage with the subject matter or with other students independent from the teacher, is another key to engagement.  Additional efforts must include an in-depth understanding and focus on creating lessons designed specifically to lead students successfully into the content and build on prior knowledge and foundational elements to support complex hands-on skills. [1]
  • Parts, Purposes, and Complexity: Another practical approach for distance learning is Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Parts, Purposes and Complexity “make students’ thinking visible through creating lists, maps, and drawings of the parts, purposes, and complexities of various objects and systems.” This strategy provides students the ability to look beyond obvious features of an object to stimulate curiosity, identify questions for further inquiry and engage them directly in the content. If students are trying to understand a system, such as a “democracy,” having them create a list or draw a picture of what they believe the parts of a democracy might be can help identify what they understand a democracy to be. Participating in a discussion about a democracy can build background knowledge and help students engage in the content.
  • Technology Tools: Through high-quality professional development, and time to explore and implement new interactive resources to keep students engaged, teachers will have the resources to keep the use of worksheets, textbooks, and other paper to pencil activities to a minimum in their lessons and explore more interactive and multimedia resources. Practical tools such as Flipgrid allow students and teachers to record short, online videos, WeVideo, an online video editor that can be linked and directly uploaded into Google Drive, Storyline, an excellent resource for read alouds that has many videos of celebrities reading popular children’s books and Mystery Science, that provides great science lessons for students to work on at home and engage directly in content in ways that are not static.

Importance of self-assessments, feedback, independent learning and organizational strategies

  • Student self-assessment/feedback: A key strategy to increase rigor and allow students the opportunity to understand gaps in their learning and explore additional content to help address these gaps. Quizzes and tests should be considered not only for a grade but as a resource for students and their teacher to relearn and reteach until new knowledge is obtained. There is no stronger support for rigorous distance learning than feedback. Feedback begins with the teacher and should also include the parent/guardian who is accessible to help at home to support the student. This should include scheduled check-ins to directly engage with the student and their parent/guardian to help facilitate their social and emotional needs and thinking and learning in an online environment.
  • Independent Learning/Organization: In addition to providing students the ability to engage in dialogue and work with others, it will be important to give students opportunities where they engage with the content independently as well to learn at a pace that works for them. For example, in one study, students who were allowed to watch assigned videos in any order, fast forward, rewind, and replay them significantly outperformed those who had to use the videos in a pre-determined standardized fashion. It will also be important to be intentional in efforts to provides students with a choice on how to engage with content and help students organize, self-manage, and regulate their time at home to ensure they are in an environment that allows them to focus on learning.

As we raise the stakes for rigor in a distance learning environment, we must understand the pressures teachers will be under and help to avoid traps that include more homework, more content, and more static resources. Instead, we must support their efforts through professional development, time and coaching to provide quality lesson design, teaching and learning, that assures quality not just quantity. Administrators, teachers, and parents must fight the natural tendency to want to push through these learning gaps to recover lost learning all in the spirit of rigor. While we understand the sense of urgency and the pressures and the importance of addressing the learning needs of all students, learning in a new environment takes time, and we must get this right–students, educators, and families are counting on us.

[1] Darling-Hammond, L., Schachman, A., & Edgerton, A. (2020).  Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond.  Palo Alto: Learning Policy Institute.


Tom Armelino