What is rigorous learning?



It’s fair to say that ‘rigour’ has been a buzzword in education for the past two decades, yet there is little common agreement about what it actually means among educators. For many it is believed the rigorous learning means giving students more work. Others mistakenly assume that rigour means making things more difficult.

Central to most definitions seems to be a focus on ‘challenge’, yet even this word can be interpreted in different ways. To some, challenge means ‘pitching’ the learning material very high, not accepting mediocrity, paying attention to details and expecting precision, whereas to others challenge means striving for ever deeper levels of meaning. The one thing they both have in common is that challenge is not about acceleration; it is not about helping learners progress to more challenging work sooner. 

Interestingly, such is the growing emphasis on rigour that Fieldwork Education (the providers of the IPC & IMYC) place an expectation on its member schools to develop their own definition of rigour. As a helping hand, Fieldwork Education offer the following guidance: 

"We think that the definition of rigour from the Glossary of Education Reform is a good starting point. It states that: ‘rigour’ refers to experiences that are sufficiently and appropriately challenging for individual children or groups of children. We believe that rigorous learning experiences motivate children to learn more and learn more deeply, while also giving them a sense of personal accomplishment when they overcome a learning challenge, whereas lessons that are simply ‘hard’ may lead to disengagement, frustration, and discouragement."

In stating that rigorous learning experiences motivate children to learn more and learn more deeply, there appears to be a direct relationship between rigorous learning and motivation. In fact, whereas most definitions of rigour focus predominantly on challenge alone, Fieldwork Education makes additional references to the importance of choice, interest and connecting with others, which demonstrates a clear overlap with the four dimensions of motivation, as shown below.

Four dimensions of motivation/(Usher and Kober, 2012) Relatedness Interest / Value Competence Control / Autonomy
Features within Fieldwork Education’s definition of Rigorous Learning Sharing Learning Interest Challenge Choice

As mentioned previously, many people think of rigour as being related to the existence of appropriate and sufficient challenge, however, it appears that this will only satisfy one dimension of motivation. Ideally, the more dimensions that are met - and the more strongly they are met -  the greater a person's motivation will be. This phenomenon is known as ‘psychological need satisfaction’ (Ryan and Deci, 2016). As a result, our school has adopted the following definition:

‘Rigorous learning is the satisfying of a learner’s inherent psychological needs.’

A good way for teachers and parents to reflect on the importance of each dimension is to think back to their own learning experiences in school and think about the times they experienced each dimension (or did not experience them, as the case may be). For example, what difference did it make to your motivation and engagement when you found the learning interesting, when the level of challenge was just right (not too easy and not too hard), when you could choose what to do or who to work with, and when you felt a strong sense of connection with your teacher? Conversely, what was the result when these elements were not present?

If accepted, the evidence above points to the need for us to start asking a different question. Instead of asking how we can teach children better, the focus shifts to how can we better motivate them. 

Nurturing the four dimensions of motivation at Saigon Star

With this in mind, our school has adopted the following structures and systems in order to better satisfy children’s inherent psychological needs (and to help avoid psychological need frustration). If successful, we will see an increase in children’s motivation and engagement, which will ultimately lead to improved student outcomes.

Relatedness Interest / Value Challenge Choice
High expectations:‘Not finished yet’ policy Age-appropriate topics Clear Learning Goals & Success Criteria Choice of tasks within Home-Learning Menus
Exit Points(to share learning) Entry Points (to stimulate interest) Knowledge Harvests ‘Exploring the Theme’
Feedback Policy Start with Why “Don’t stop until you’re proud!” posters  
Wow! Wall (for children to showcase their proudest achievements)   Chilli Challenge (self-selected challenge)  

To answer the title question ‘What is rigorous learning?’, it might be summarised as follows: It is believing that I matter, this learning matters, and the provision of challenge & choice.

Mr. Brendan, Director of Learning

22nd May, 2020

Share this post:

Related posts:
KS1 English

Throughout the year we have worked hard to ensure English within Key Stage 1 has been fun, motivating and inspirational. We have carefully chosen topics to coincide with our fabulous IPC topics whilst also tying in the children’s own personal...


In Computing this year, we believed we needed to alter our Computing program to ensure we are providing an up-to-date Computing Curriculum for Saigon Star children. We wanted to adapt our curriculum, so it did not become stagnant and repetitive.

Target Your Maths

In Mathematics this year, there have been several changes. We have introduced a series of vastly differentiated textbooks to support teaching. These "Target Your Maths" books provide ample practice for concepts and skills developed in class and allow teachers to...