In the Common Core State Standards, one of the key mathematical shifts is rigor. According to the CCSS Initiative, rigor refers to deep, authentic command of mathematical concepts, NOT making math harder or introducing topics at earlier grades. Common Core goes on to describe three aspects of rigor in the major work of each grade: conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.

ccss math rigor display in a three legged chair

Now, before we lose the “non-Math” folks, you may be asking yourself, “What does MATH have to do my (insert non-Math course here)?”

Well, a few months back, a team of teachers and I dug deeply into this notion of rigor and how it might lend itself to the PBL units we were designing. We were looking to take the learning deeper. Sure, we had standards-based project ideas and of course students were crafting products and solutions to great driving questions; we wanted to rev up the rigor! We extended the mathematical definition of rigor in the CCSS for math to envelop all content. We defined rigor as deep, authentic command of concepts, NOT making content harder or introducing topics at earlier grades.

Based on our conversation, research, and planning, we formulated three key ways this notion of rigor could show up in the development of our PBL units, based on the three aspects of rigor from the CCSS.

PBL teaching rubric


Using the “Design & Plan” row of the Project Based Teaching Rubric, we leveraged our Project Assessment Maps (check out project assessment mapping hacks here) as the focus of our initial discussion and used the following questions as a checklist. We check for the following keys, in order to ensure that what we mapped truly showed up in the instructional plan via Buck’s Student Learning Guide and Project Calendar:

★ Key #1: Conceptual Understanding

○ How will we know that students understand the key concepts of the PBL unit?
○ What is our detailed plan for scaffolding and assessing this understanding throughout the PBL unit?


★ Key #2: Procedural skills and fluency

○ What are the procedural skills for the PBL unit?
○ How do students practice the procedural skills frequently throughout the unit?

Please note: Procedural skills show themselves in every content area, be it the
research and annotation skills of ELA courses, the technical components of a
well-composed science lab write up, or how to read primary sources in history.   

★ Key #3: Application

○ In which authentic situations are we asking students to apply the key concepts and skills? 
○ Are the scaffolds from Key #1 and Key #2 supporting students in correctly applying the key concepts and skills?

For each Key, we then made sure we anticipated resources and prepared them to the greatest extent possible. Here, we took time to even craft exemplars and work through activities and learning experiences to ensure we were being as flexible as possible to prepare for various students’ needs. Any keys which were not addressed or for which we did not readily have answers, we utilized those as the focus for our planning sessions and coaching discussions.

Rigor is often portrayed as a three-legged stool, to emphasize the delicate interdependence of the three components. Just as with a stool, when one leg is missing, the rigor is not as sure-footed, stable. As you plan, be sure to address and incorporate each of the three keys above to rev up your rigor!

Let us know how it goes! Take a previously implemented PBL unit, rev up the rigor with the three keys and tweet us about it!  Onward and upward in PBL! @biepbl @iDoSchool

Want to learn more about PBL? Check out our books.

Charity Marcella Moran, Ed.S., Director of District and School Leadership
Charity Marcella Moran, Ed.S. is a former high school PBL teacher, School Development Coach, and middle school-alternative programs Instructional Specialist. Charity believes that PBL is a powerful and transforming instructional strategy that, when leveraged appropriately, dispels achievement disparities and empowers ALL stakeholders to become lifelong learners.