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Targeting aspects of rigor in math instruction

by Sarah Tierney

Math teachers, spurred by new standards, are striving to increase the rigor of their instruction. But…what exactly is rigor?

According to the Common Core, achieving rigor requires us to teach math in a way that balances students’ conceptual understanding, their procedural skill and fluency, and their ability to apply what they know and are able to do to real-world, problem-solving situations.

What is rigor in math?

But this is easier said than done, especially when most of us learned math through a less balanced approach that favored rules and tricks over deep understanding. In light of the Common Core, many teachers have found it necessary to expand their instructional practices to support student learning across all three aspects of rigor.

Conceptual
Understanding
Procedural Skill/Fluency Application
Understand
Reason
Explain
Interpret
Fluency
Count
Read/Write
Evaluate
Word problems
Real-world scenarios
Multi-step problems

The language of the standards helps us identify which aspect of rigor is being targeted, as shown in this chart. Once you understand that, you can identify the most effective instructional practices to employ. Different standards demand different ways of learning math—conceptual, procedural, or application—and that means our teaching needs to adapt to meet those demands, too.

Different standards demand different ways of learning math—conceptually, procedurally, or application-based—and that means our teaching needs to adapt to meet those demands, too.

Sound tricky? We created this guide to help spark ideas for how to structure your instructional approach based on the aspect of rigor.  The guide might also come in handy if you discover that material didn’t quite “click” for students the first time around—it might help you re-think your approach or choose a different strategy to engage students with the same math topics in a future lesson.


We’ve spent ten years learning from thousands of leaders and teachers across the country about the things that make a big difference for schools. Now, we want to give you the opportunity to do the same. We’ve organized these Lessons From the Field in a new section of our website by our main areas of focus—everything from harnessing the power of formative assessments to fostering a culture of adult learning.

Sarah is a director of new partnerships and former coach at ANet. She’s leading the Lessons From the Field project.

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