Accelerate Learning by Maintaining Academic Rigor and Cognitive Complexity

Explore 11 ways to design rigorous and cognitively complex learning experiences for your students.

Grades K-12 9 min Resource by:
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No matter which academic mountain your students are climbing, it’s important that the goals are rigorous and cognitively challenging. For most learning targets, there are rich instructional approaches that you can use to maintain cognitive complexity throughout any learning process. In many cases, these strategies increase the rigor by shifting more of the responsibility for learning to the students. As Harry Wong and Rosemary Wong famously wrote in their book, The First Days of School, “The person who does the work is the only one who learns.” We need to make sure that students are doing most of the work, and that work must be appropriately challenging. In other words, the more learner-centered we can make the learning experience, the more opportunities students will have to own the learning. It is through this ownership that they will be challenged with cognitively complex decision-making and rigorous learning experiences. There are numerous strategies for maintaining academic rigor while allowing students to own the work.


11 Ways to Design Rigorous and Cognitively Complex Learning

Begin your planning with grade-level standards as your academic targets. For students to grow, they must continue to be challenged at grade-level rigor. If students only spend time remediating earlier standards, they will continue to fall further behind. Explore the AVID Open Access article, Accelerate Learning by Prioritizing Outcomes and Providing Just-in-Time Support, for ways to address gaps in learning while continuing to move ahead at grade level.

Students collaboratively explore the meaning of a selected text. This often takes place in a fishbowl format. Students ask questions, provide interpretations, and provide textual evidence for their ideas. This is not a debate with a winner or loser; rather, it is a quest to think deeply about an author’s message and intent and to explore ideas with an open mind. Ideally, with proper scaffolding and practice, this process becomes student-driven and student-led.

In this strategy, students work in collaborative groups to identify a specific question from an area of study. Once this question is identified, students engage in a process very similar to a Socratic Seminar in order to dive deeper into the content and form a collaborative understanding of the material. In many ways, this takes Socratic inquiry to the next level by allowing students to own the process in smaller groups with even less teacher guidance.

There are several popular models of leveled thinking.

Costa’s Levels of Thinking includes three different levels:

  1. Gathering (e.g., define, explain, identify)
  2. Processing (e.g., classify, deconstruct, examine)
  3. Applying (e.g., construct, create, test)

Bloom’s taxonomy is another often-used model and includes six levels:

  1. Remembering (e.g., list, memorize, repeat)
  2. Understanding (e.g., describe, paraphrase, translate)
  3. Applying (e.g., demonstrate, solve, use)
  4. Analyzing (e.g., compare, organize, question)
  5. Evaluating (e.g., critique, defend, support)
  6. Creating (e.g., design, invent, write)

No matter which model you use, strive to have students process at the highest levels. A powerful strategy is to have students understand these frameworks and then generate their own questions and tasks at these higher levels.

Creation sits at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy for a reason. It requires students to pull together all of their learning and expertise to come up with something that didn’t exist before. They need content knowledge and a deep understanding of the subject, and then they must take that foundation to a new level. This will involve synthesis of ideas, creative thinking, and evaluation—all higher-order thinking skills. Discover ways to integrate student creation into your classroom with the AVID Open Access article collection, Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice.

This concept involves transitioning control and responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. In the end, the goal is to empower students to work independently and effectively. One popular format for this is the “I do,” “We do,” “You do it together,” and “You do it alone” sequence. This progression gradually transfers the ownership from the teacher to the students. Gradual release of responsibility can also include the scaffolding of skills and routines needed for students to complete tasks with little or no teacher guidance. This is often the case when using station rotation or playlist models of instruction.

Stations and Playlists: These blended-learning strategies provide ideal environments for students to practice autonomy. In both experiences, students are asked to guide their own learning and make choices. Learning experiences can be both rigorous and scaffolded to align to specific student needs.

By giving students the ability to make choices and help direct their learning, you will be transferring ownership and responsibility to them. This often improves students’ motivation while potentially increasing the rigor.

Much like the Socratic process, inquiry learning requires students to ask questions. However, in this more involved learning model, students take it further. Instead of relying mostly on discussion, students actively research and seek out answers beyond an original text. You can learn more about this process in the AVID Open Access article collection, Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning.

As with inquiry learning, project-based learning requires students to search for answers and solutions to problems. In PBL, students work toward producing an authentic final product that is (ideally) presented to a real audience. Learn more in the AVID Open Access article collection, Inspire Students With Project-Based Learning.

The 4 A’s are Adopt, Adapt, Accelerate, Advocate®. The Adopt level is teacher-driven, while the Advocate level is student-centered—much like project-based or inquiry learning. Although you should strive to implement Advocate-level learning in your classroom, not all learning needs to be at this level. While you will want some learning to happen at the Advocate level, you must choose the level that is appropriate for each specific learning objective and situation.

Ultimately, if we want to accelerate learning, we must challenge our students to grow. This includes providing rigorous, cognitively complex learning experiences. Weight lifters must continually push themselves to lift heavier weights if they wish to get stronger. Runners must challenge themselves to run longer distances at a faster pace if they wish to increase their speed. Climbers must summit increasingly challenging mountains to develop their skills. Similarly, your students need to be challenged experientially and academically to increasingly stretch their abilities as learners and thinkers.


AVID Connections

  • AVID Digital Learning – The 4 A’s: The 4 A’s is a tool for helping educators develop a mindset where the roles of teacher, students, technology in the environment, and AVID strategies are considered and incorporated into learning activities. The 4 A’s should not be viewed as a continuum to move through in a linear fashion. An educator’s goal should be to consider which aspect is most appropriate for achieving the specific learning outcomes.
  • Collaborative Study Groups (CSGs): In Collaborative Study Groups, students identify a specific question from a content area, collaborate to develop and deepen their understanding through Socratic inquiry, and apply their new learning in order to enhance classroom performance.

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