Ask ten different teachers what rigor looks like in their classrooms; you’ll likely hear ten different answers. Responses typically reflect some understanding of rigor mixed in with a few common misconceptions. Working to build a common understanding of how to support deeper learning begins with dispelling misconceptions and then collaboratively developing strategies that support all students in being successful with rigorous tasks.

Let’s begin with some definitions:

Cognitive rigor encompasses three key ideas: the complexity of the content, the cognitive engagement with that content (sometimes called Depth of Knowledge/DOK), and the scope or breadth of the learning activity. Cognitive demand describes the potential range of mental processing required to complete a given task, within a given context or scenario. We can use strategic scaffolding strategies to purposefully make either complex content or complex tasks more accessible to all students, thus reducing the overall cognitive demand.

When I work with schools to conduct walk-throughs, there are several observable behaviors I look for when students are thinking deeply. First of all, I pay close attention to the questions students ask and how teachers respond. Does the teacher answer the question? Or does she redirect students to consider where to locate evidence (e.g., in a proposed solution or resource), or to discuss and delve deeper into the question in small groups? It is often not one question, but the series of probing questions a teacher uses that causes students to pursue deeper meaning.

What is Cognitive Rigor?

  1. Linked Ideas to Consolidate Learning

  2. Applied Learning or Transfer

  3. Productive Struggle

  4. Higher Order Thinking

  5. Thinking Made Visible

  6. Thoughtful Questioning

Below is my short list of observable student behaviors and a few research-based strategies teachers can use to support students when giving open-ended, challenging tasks.

Table containing cognitive rigor student behaviors and teacher support strategies


Hess, Karin. (2018). A Local Assessment Toolkit to Promote Deeper Learning: Transforming Research into Practice. Corwin.

Hess, Karin. (coming in 2022). Rigor by Design, Not Chance: Five Key Teacher Moves that Promote Cognitive Engagement, Self-Direction, and Deeper Thinking. ASCD.

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