- Lesson plans outline the activities you and your students will do during one class session.
- A lesson is one component of a unit of instruction that most likely includes other activities out of class. As such, it’s important to design the whole unit before planning individual lessons.
- As the content expert, you should plan for the best use of your limited time with students. You should also ensure your activities reflect the appropriate phase in the instructional framework.
- Your lesson should be divided into learning episodes (activities) of approximately 20 minutes in order to maximize student engagement and information retention.
- You should plan to receive and give feedback on student learning at least once during each lesson.
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Once you have a unit plan, you should have an idea of which learning activities will be best suited for the time you have with your students.
A lesson plan is a document that outlines the activities you and your students will do during one class session.
Although many approaches to lesson planning stipulate that you must have a learning outcome for each class session, and that your lesson should include the introduction, content, practice and evaluation activities, this is not always possible in practice. It’s simply not realistic to assume you can move through all phases of instruction in a single class session. Instead, we suggest looking at class time as it relates to all the learning activities around a specific topic. Many lesson planning templates appear more like our unit planning template. This is why we recommend first planning the entire unit before planning individual lessons.
Lesson plan versus lecture notes
Lecture notes are typically a summary of the content that you want to present in class whereas lesson plans outline each step or activity in a lesson.
If you haven’t already done so, we recommend you plan the unit before you plan any individual class sessions. A unit plan will make planning class time much easier.
We recommend using the lesson planning template to plan your lessons. Your lesson plan can be as detailed as you need it to be.
Follow these steps to plan your class session.
As you begin planning your lessons, look at your unit plan and determine how many class sessions you will need to devote to this unit, and consider the following questions:
Which of these phases of instruction and/or activities are best suited for the classroom?
Can students do passive activities at home (such as reading or watching a video of the content) and come prepared to practice and/or discuss the content?
At what point in the instructional process is my presence most useful/valuable to students?
Given that you have limited time with students each week, how can you make the most of that time with them? Is the best use of your expertise as a disseminator of knowledge, or is your expertise more valuable as feedback to them as they work on discussion, practice and/or application activities?
Depending on your content and how long your class sessions are, you may only be able to move through one instructional phase during one class session. And, depending on how many class sessions you’ve dedicated to this specific content, the instructional flow may vary from unit to unit.
Examples of a unit instructional flow
Here are a few examples of what a unit instructional flow might look like.
If your content is shorter or your class sessions are long enough, you may be able to move through more than one phase of instruction in a single class session.
There are a number of factors that will affect many aspects of your lesson. While you do not need to explicitly indicate these on your lesson plan, it’s important to keep these in the back of your mind as they will affect the kinds of activities you design and how you implement them.
Students’ knowledge or experience with the topic
This might affect how you introduce the topic, your pace and how you group students.
Number of students
This will affect the kinds student-focused activities you design. Smaller classes make it easier for different kinds of group work, but it is possible to do group activities in large classes. See Active Learning Module for more information.
Set-up of the room
This has an influence on how you set up learning activities. Rooms with fixed tables and chairs are less flexible than other kinds of rooms. You will also want to consider where the focus of the room is and how to best utilize or de-emphasize this. None of these challenges should preclude you from building active learning techniques into your lessons. See Active Learning Module for more information.
Classroom technologies have the potential to improve learning when used effectively. What access do students have to devices? How good is the Internet connection in the room? What technologies are available to you to make teaching more and/or inclusive? What is your ‘Plan B’ if there is a tech problem?
Time of day
If it’s an early morning or evening class, you might expect some students to arrive late or leave early. Classes after lunch can be full of students who are ready for a nap. How will you adapt to these factors?
In general terms, your lesson should be divided into three main sections: an introduction, the learning activities and some kind of closure.
Even if this particular lesson is not an introduction to the topic, it’s always important to have an introduction at the beginning of each class meeting. It could be a quick recap of the previous lesson or homework, or a quick warm-up activity. Either way, you will need to activate the schema, that is – help students access the part of their brain where the information related to the day’s lesson is stored in their schema.
The learning activities are the meat of the lesson. This is where they are working directly with the content. The kinds of learning activities you select will depend on the phase(s) of instruction you are planning. If you have planned your unit, you should already have a list of activities that you want to implement in class. In general, it is important to use a variety of instructional techniques in your teaching. As a reminder, here is a list of some of the activities that can be used for the different phases of instruction.
A closing activity is also necessary to wrap up the lesson and put things into perspective. It could be a kind of summary or recap, or you may want to take this opportunity to do a Minute paper with students as a formative assessment to find out their major takeaways from the lesson and their most pressing questions.
An important part of lesson planning is assigning times to each learning activity. This will help you determine how much you can do in a class session and help keep you on track while teaching.
A lot of research has been done on learning, information retention and student attention spans as it relates to class time. A broad finding that has come out of this is that students tend to lose focus during long learning episodes. Organizing class time into smaller chunks (like mini-lectures followed by practice activities) reduces the amount of down-time. Sousa (2016) suggests episodes of approximately 20 minutes are most effective for students. This pacing of activities will also be beneficial in keeping the group energy sustained throughout the lesson.
Images source: SOUSA. For accessibility, please download chart 1.docx
Therefore, if you are planning to lecture, consider where you might have natural breaks in your content and where you can pause and engage students in a short discussion or activity. If you will not be lecturing, try and keep each activity to about 20 minutes when possible. Based on this research, Lenz et. Al (2015) suggest the following Lesson structures for a 60-minute period:
Image Source: Lenz et. Al (2015). Optionally, download a textual description of the chart in a Word document.
Depending on the length of your lectures and the activities you have planned for the lesson, it won’t always be possible to follow such a rigid lesson flow. However, organizing your lesson into smaller teaching and learning segments as much as possible is best for optimizing learning.
For more information on planning active learning activities and related research, see the Active Learning Module.
At each phase of instruction, students need feedback on their learning, and as the instructor, you need to know what students are struggling with in order to make adjustments to your instruction.
Depending on how you organize your class, there are different ways to build feedback into your lesson. For example, many of the learning activities listed in the Planning a Unit module provide evidence of learning (e.g., clicker questions, advance organizers, lecture wrappers, defining features matrix, group grid, etc.), that will indicate students’ understanding. By the same token, class discussions or summaries of group discussions (e.g., think-pair-share, buzz groups) may also provide insights into muddy points that you can address on the spot. Of course, you won’t be able to assess each student individually and give them feedback. However, students will be able to get feedback from their peers when working in groups, and you will be able to offer feedback to the class through prepared models or through review of the responses and summaries shared by students in class.
Here are some quick techniques for gathering feedback on student learning:
Based on what you learn from your feedback, you may need to make adjustments to instruction. For example, you may decide to revisit a concept the following class, create a short lecture or demo video and post it to Moodle, or add an additional learning activity to the unit.
Resources & Further Reading
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.Collaborative Learning Techniques
Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Lenz P.H., McCallister J.W., Luks A.M., Tao T.L., Fessler H.E. Practical Strategies for Effective Lectures.
Sousa, D. A. (2016). How the brain learns. Corwin Press.