What Students Should Know Common Core Standards

What You Need to Know Two Key Components in Path to Rigor

Two Key Components

Rigor Image

The Path to Rigor has two components-complexity and autonomy. This is according to authors Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano, The Essentials for Standards-Driven Classrooms.

Complexity, authors define, is the cognitive load required by the standard. There are four levels in Marzano’s taxonomy: Retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization.

Authors also describe four levels of student autonomy: low, medium, medium-high, and high. Most teaching occurs at low levels of complexity and autonomy, while the newest standards require high levels of both. Authors note there is still a gap between the standards and actual instructional practice. See Chart Below:

Achieving Rigor Image
Achieving Rigor

Complexity A Defining Feature of Rigor

Simply stated, complexity refers to the cognitive demands of the tasks in which students are expected to engage. Authors show how to determine the complexity of a task you are designing by using Marzano Taxonomy. The taxonomy has two dimensions: complexity of the task itself and the type of content knowledge embedded in the task.

Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano explain that by moving from the most complex to the least complex, the levels of complexity are knowledge utilization, analysis, comprehension, and retrieval. You can see this in the above chart.

Authors note each level involves many cognitive processes, i.e. retrieval (lowest level) involved recognition, recall and execution.

There are two types of knowledge: Declarative and Procedural. Declarative is informational, and has its own hierarchy in terms of complexity. Authors note that terms and phrases are important at the lowest level. Details are a level up, and the highest level are generalizations, principles, and concepts.

Authors explain that the complexity of a given task is then jointly determined by the cognitive complexity of the task itself and the complexity of declarative knowledge in the task. So, a retrieval task focused on an important principle might be more difficult than a comprehension task focused on details.

Procedural knowledge includes mental and psychomotor procedures. Authors explain that these two types of procedural knowledge have their own internal hierarchies.

Mental procedures are the lowest level of procedural knowledge, i.e. single rules such as spelling rules. Above the single rules are algorithms and tactics-also referred to as strategies, i.e. how to perform subtraction and how to read a specific type of map. At the highest level are the big procedures called macro-processes, which involve many interacting with single rules, tactics, and strategies, i.e. the process of writing an expository essay.

According to the authors, the complexity of a task that involves its cognitive complexity jointly determines mental procedures and the type of mental procedure it is focused on.

Autonomy in the Classroom

Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano believe teachers need to gradually release responsibility for learning to the students to achieve true cognitive complexity and autonomy – the intent of the standards.

Authors (2017) explain that students value reflection and learning when they have true autonomy, and take initiative to learn more. The responsibility for learning must move from the teacher to students. Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano emphasize this shift hinges on the teacher’s ability to shift from teacher-supported learning to peer-supported learning. “Students become self-guided and take control of their learning,” (pg. 45-46) written by authors. Students know when they have met their learning targets, and how to seek help when they struggle.

Authors (2017) believe there is a balance between teacher as coach who offers supports and guidance, and teacher who asks guiding questions as a facilitator. “The teacher monitors the temperature of the learning. Teachers know their students well enough to know how and when support and guidance might be needed.” (pg. 46)

Planning Instruction Important Part of Rigor

Rigor is important to planning, because taxonomy is the tool teachers must use to scaffold learning, from introducing new content at the foundational level to helping students deepen that content. The end goal is for students to reach higher levels of cognitive complexity with autonomy.

Marzano Taxonomy Image
Marzano Taxonomy

So far, authors have explained how students reach higher levels of cognitive complexity with autonomy. Now the focus is on performance scale. Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano emphasize that the scale drives your planning, instruction, and the design and timing of your assessments. They believe The Essential Model maps the process to create a clear pathway to rigor for you and your students.

Standards Based Classroom Image
The Essential Model

As you can see from The Essential Model above, Standards-Based Planning is discussed in my blog post What You Need to Know Standards-Based Planning Process. The focus now is on teachers’ work together to create common, standards-based scales for their lessons. Authors define performance scale as a continuum that articulates district levels of knowledge and skills relative to a specific standard. This will allow teachers to use minute by minute, day by day formative assessment strategies to track individual student progress and adjust and differentiate instruction. Plus, prioritize feedback and celebrate learning progress when they have evidence of it.

Clustering Targets into Lessons

The key concept is that a cluster of targets will become your lesson plans. When clustering targets, we look for connections of concepts, or themes, between standards, often called strands. Then, we consider how to weave these learning strands for our students, while intentionally planning gradual release. Learning targets that will build foundations are the lower levels of complexity at level 2 on the scale. This is where building the academic vocabulary, connecting to previous learning, and building on the foundational learning by connecting to the higher levels of the scale, according to the authors.

In the Essential model, a lesson is not about span of time, but a chunk of content. Authors note it might take a day or two days. It is the target, or group of targets, that drives your lesson now. Figure 3.2 and Figure 3.3 This is another big shift in the way you think about a single lesson, according to the authors.

Performance Scales Part 1 Image
Performance Scales

Fig 3.2 Scale for 4th grade ELA

Authors note that the scale and clustering of targets for each lesson is sometimes as one target, and sometimes there are several targets. Teachers make these instructional decisions depending on cognitive demand and autonomy for that lesson.

Performance Scales Part 2 Image
Performance Scales

Fig 3.3 Learning Targets for 4th ELA

Authors note the sequence of lessons builds from lower levels of taxonomy (level 2 of the scale) to the highest level of taxonomy (level 4 of the scale). At the same time, the teacher is planning for increased autonomy.

Lesson 1, from Fig. 3.4, has three targets that come from level 2 on the scale, but we can still see within the lesson a building of knowledge from retrieval (recognize, recall, execute) to comprehension (describe).

You can see lesson 2, Fig. 3.5, follows the same pattern, but with a different strand of knowledge.

Lesson 3 is explained in the chart above.

Performance Scales Part 3 Image
Performance Scales

Fig. 3.7 and Fig. 3.8

Bring the analysis back from the previous lessons to build autonomy in lesson 4. Lesson 5 takes students to level 4 of the scale at the taxonomy level of knowledge utilization, where it truly brings all the learning together, from focus individual targets to the full intent of the standard where rigor lives.

Lesson Planning

Authors reiterate that we are no longer planning lessons around an activity or chapter in a textbook. In other words, you are not starting with something for students to do, because when we start with activities, it is often the case that we never do entirely reach the standard. Authors (2017) note that the standards are driving the way we teach, and every lesson is designed to meet one or more learning targets. So, “By breaking down the standard into learning targets, and aligning instruction to the taxonomy, we can feel more confident in our students’ ability to achieve the intent of the standard.” (pg. 55)

Planning Instructional Strategies

Instructional Strategies Image
Instructional Strategies

Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano present the 13 Instructional Strategies in the Essential model, which provide a learning path for students to ultimately engage in complex tasks. According to the authors, the first six strategies are generally used for foundational learning or introducing new content. Authors note this learning is usually lower in complexity, and includes the basic knowledge and processes that are more complex thinking is built on.

The next six strategies are applied to learning targets devoted to taking content previously learned and engaging students in deep thinking. Authors explain the purpose of the lessons for those learning targets is to have students think deeply about the content. These lessons require students to be analytical.

The final strategy is that students are thinking critically with full autonomy and knowledge utilization level. However, authors emphasize that this depends on the taxonomy level of the standard.


Marzano Resources provides a webinar A Guide to Standards-Based Learning. The webinar introduces key steps for transitioning to standards-based learning, and explains how teachers and leaders can leverage concrete tools to navigate the transition one step at a time. Viewers can expect to:

  • Learn about the rationale for standards-based learning
  • Understand how standards-based learning looks in hybrid, online, and in-person environments
  • Discover tools that will help you successfully navigate the transition to standards-based learning


Carla Moore, Michael D Toth, and Robert J Marzano believe teachers will need to achieve classroom rigor. Teachers will need to plan instruction carefully, beginning with unpacking their standards and cluster learning targets on a scale aligned to the taxonomy. Once the scale is developed, it becomes the backbone of the teacher’s lesson plan. Teachers then create lessons using the instructional strategies suited to the targets and taxonomy levels of the targets. It is hard work, but you do not have to do it alone.


Moore, C., Toth, M. D., Marzano, R. J. (2017). The Essentials for Standards-Driven Classrooms A Practical Instructional Model for Every Student to Achieve Rigor,

Marzano Resources.  A Guide to Standards-Based Learning