Rigorous, or Just Difficult? – For the Teachers

This past weekend on #satchatwc on Twitter the topic was rigor in education – what does it mean, what does it look like.

From several people on Twitter and blogs, and again in an actual face-to-face conversation with a teacher friend, similar examples were used to describe the difference between an assignment that is just hard and an assignment that is rigorous.

Challenging/Hard: Memorize the list of United States Presidents

Rigorous: Write and present a speech explaining which President had the most significant impact on American history

These examples were especially meaningful to me because as a junior high student, I was actually given both of these assignments.



History BookIn 8th grade, I attended a small, private junior high school. Because it was a private school, my parents paid for my textbooks, and I got to keep them all at the end of the year. The end result is a couple of very heavy shelves on one of my bookcases.

My history class that year was particularly challenging, and I keep that book because I’m still proud of the many notes written throughout it and the doodles that decorate the cover and the sides of the pages.

My ever-so-clever 8th-grade-self wrote on the cover: “This book is history on June 5…”

For the final exam in that class, we had to label a map of the United States with the state names and capital cities, take a six-page test and, the real kicker, list all of the U.S. Presidents, the number of terms each served, and one thing each of them did while in office.

I was a decently smart kid (a good memorizer, at least) so I was one of the only students in class who passed that exam on the first try. In fact, I got a 96%. I still have that test somewhere, just waiting to be framed or gilded, as I thought that grade deserved at the time.

To memorize the Presidents, my mom helped me develop several mnemonics, means of remembering a long list using the first letter in each item on the list.

For example, to come up with part of the list, I remembered “Hungry Rachel took every kitchen jar; now fat collects regularly.”

Hungry H Hoover
Rachel R Roosevelt
Took T Truman
Every E Eisenhower
Kitchen K Kennedy
Jar J Johnson
Now N Nixon
Fat F Ford
Collects C Carter
Regularly R Reagan


This was the last of five sets of Presidents. To remember the order of the sets: “Wishing Tami’d Grow Real High.” (My mom came up with that one. I had surpassed her in height that year.)

Then, for the years in office, I made up a little song with the number of terms each served: “2,1,2,2,2,1,2,1…”

The thing each did in office was just memorization as well. I started with the easy ones (Washington, Lincoln, FDR) and then filled in the rest.

The first thing that I did when the test was handed out was to turn it over and, on the back, I wrote out the list of names from the mnemonic, the terms and the thing to remember for each. Once that was done, the rest of the test wasn’t so bad.

It was hard. But I think I used more depth of knowledge skills coming up with the mnemonic devices than on the actual content.



The next school year, I transferred to a public school for 9th grade and, because of differences in the curriculum between the private and public schools, ended up in another U.S. History class (and, as an unfortunate result, never did take a class on World History…)

I got into the “advanced” history class. That spring, we were assigned to write an Inaugural Address for a particular President.

And, oh, how I struggled with that.

My memorization tricks were of no use to me. I had to understand the cultural and hot political topics of the time, what had happened during the previous presidential terms, what the incoming President’s platform was. That was rigor. That required creativity and deep thinking and analysis and evaluation.

I don’t remember what grade I ended up with on that speech, but I know it wasn’t a 96%.

I struggled with similar assignments in other classes in high school and college. Knowing how to think at that level took practice – I had to learn how to think at a deeper level.


I wasn’t the only “smart” kid who had to learn to think: My freshman year in college, I met a student who had been valedictorian of her high school class. She ended up failing her first semester in college and dropping out. She didn’t know how to do the kinds of deeper-thought-required assignments she was being given or how to monitor and complete work without a teacher telling her what to do.

We need to model for students what the deeper thinking sounds like. We need to talk with them, have conversations, listen and encourage. We have to teach them to think and not assume that they’ll just figure it out. We need to give them opportunities from their earliest days in school to be creative, to analyze, and to share ideas.

We want a future filled with people who are innovative thinkers, not just a bunch of memorizers.



Rigorous, or Just Difficult?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.