Unit Plans

Unit planning begins with identifying the particular content to be taught and your goals for learning outcomes. Goals are about your purpose or aim. They relate to your rationale for teaching the particular content that your students will study.

Goals help set the stage for study and typically are written as broad statements. Often they are tied to state or national curriculum standards. It is important to always remember that your goals should go beyond the basic cognitive (knowledge) domain. Don't neglect to consider the affective and psychomotor domains (for more on this, you may wish to research the White House Conferences on Education). Note that other scholars have also created models for educational domains. So, using Yager and McCormack's (1989) domains, you will need to go beyond the knowledge (knowing and understanding) domain and also address the creative (imagining and creating), attitudinal (feeling and valuing), process (exploring and discovering), and application (using and applying or connecting) domains.

Your introductory lesson to the unit should be given extra attention. You will want this lesson to grab your students' attention and stimulate them to want to know more. There are many exciting ways to begin a new unit, but reading a chapter out of a textbook is not one of them. Likewise, you should give attention to your culminating lesson. You will want to wrap up your unit by helping students reflect upon and synthesize the content that they studied. If there is to be a final test or exam, you might also plan a review activity that is also fun. Framing a review in a game such as "Jeopardy!" is an example. Another way to wrap up a unit is for students to present individual or group projects. Depending on the project and the quality you expect, you might even consider culminating with presentations to other students, or to family and community members.

Single-Topic Units

Probably the most typical way teachers plan their classroom curriculum is in terms of instruction in units organized around a single topic. This kind of organization generally reflects a daily schedule in which reading, math, science, social studies, and so forth are taught separately and divided from each other by assigned time periods. Many of us have been taught most often this way. Remember the unit on the Civil War? It is likely it was organized this way. Another example would be the math unit on fractions and the science unit on weather.

Thematic Units

Thematic units use a single topic to address several subject areas.

Instruction through thematic units assumes students learn best when the curriculum is a coherent whole and when they can connect their studies to the real world. The challenge for the teacher is to integrate content from many subjects, all the while being specific enough to be practical yet broad enough to encourage creativity.

Instruction in a unit organized around a theme integrates, for example, reading, math, and science through the study of a broad area, like, for example, "energy" or "exploration." The rationale for the thematic approach is that it demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of learning itself. First among the reasons for using a thematic approach is that student interest and engagement are likely to increase. Thematic planning lets you use collaborative and cooperative learning, as well as classroom computers. Further, you end up with a more compact curriculum—with less content overlap and simpler organization of the content. This approach also expands both your assignment and your assessment options.

Often, thematic units are team taught, and several teachers work together to plan and teach the unit. Either way, you begin by selecting an appropriate theme reflecting the curriculum, student interests, experiences, issues, or problems. Identify the goals you wish students to accomplish by the end of the unit. These can be related to state and local standards and competencies. Select and organize content-rich and challenging activities to use. Activities will be broad based, integrating many subject areas.

When your unit is completed, it should be stored for later access. Probably it will first reside on your computer hard drive. We suggest you back up your hard drive regularly and also store a hard copy of it in a file folder in a filing cabinet, where it will be easy to find the next go round. Alternatively, a looseleaf binder will do if that works for you. Either way, a hard copy will probably be helpful as a place to make notes for changes as you go, and it can later be used for making revisions on the electronic version. The hard copy in the file cabinet can be altered as your class and the content change and as different teaching resources become available.

Single Topic Units

Most typical. This kind of organization generally reflects a daily schedule in which reading, math, science, social studies, and so forth are taught separately and divided from each other by assigned time periods.

Thematic Units

Assumes students learn best when the curriculum is a coherent whole and when they can connect their studies to the real world. The rationale is that it demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of learning itself.

Goals and Objectives

Objectives for a daily lesson plan are drawn from the broader goals of the unit plan but are more specific and often stated as learning outcomes that are achieved over a defined time period. In writing lesson objectives, consider first what you want your students to be able to do as a result of the lesson. Also consider the conditions students will work under to accomplish the desired outcomes and the criteria you will use to judge a satisfactory attainment of the objectives—in other words, how your students will demonstrate that they have met the objectives of your lesson. Also consider if your students are ready for the new material or if first they will need some prerequisite knowledge or skills to succeed. This step allows you to factor in any needed preparatory work so that the necessary prerequisites are attained and students are able to meet the objectives. Finally, based on the unit goals, decide how many lessons will cover the unit and write a specific objective for each lesson.

While every education professor will have preferences for how you do lesson plans for his or her class, there really is no single right way to organize your units or lessons. Check to see if your school or school district requires a particular format. Many states will have sample lessons available that illustrate how to teach to their standards, so look for those to see if they are useful for your own classroom. You can always modify such lessons or the lessons you find that are suggested in textbooks. The format of the sample lessons might be useful as well as a guide for your own planning. We will consider a couple of different formats in this unit.

Usually lessons are planned in the context of a unit of instruction—a series of lessons organized around a theme or related concepts. In science, for example, a unit might be created on weather or mammals; in social studies, perhaps on Colonial America; in math, on fractions. So, we recommend you first conceptualize your unit. Begin by roughly sketching out what you want your students to learn in general: the unit goals.

In writing your goals, ask yourself why you are teaching this unit. What do you want your students to learn from it (knowledge, skills, attitudes, and appreciations)? How will you answer when a students ask, "Why do we have to learn this?" Consider giving an answer that tells them how learning whatever it is will benefit them now in their daily lives, rather than, for example, when they are in high school or college or working a job.

An example will illustrate how goals differ from objectives. A unit on biomes in science may have the following goal: "Students will understand and appreciate the diversity of plants and animals that make up each of the biomes." The lesson objectives, however, will be more specific and contain indicators that will inform you if the student has achieved the objective, such as, "The student will define diversity in the words of others or in his or her own words," or "The student will explain how maintaining the species diversity in a particular biome can be achieved."

In general, units will have goals, which are more general statements of what is to be accomplished, while lessons within the unit will have more specific objectives.

Elements common to most lesson plans include:

  • Objectives (sometimes combined with the state standards being addressed)
  • Activities (read-alouds, investigations, role-plays, WebQuests, homework, etc.)
  • Time estimates
  • Materials needed
  • Alternatives (for students who may be absent during a lesson, or for differentiating instruction for different ability levels or interests)
  • Assessment

Sometimes teachers also include prerequisites that indicate what the students need to know or be able to do to achieve the objective(s). It is always important to consider prior knowledge and skills when you are planning instruction, since researchers have found that most learning, more than two-thirds, is dependent on how prepared the students are for the instruction.

Activities are the "meat" of your lessons and should be carefully planned. Don't include activities just to keep students busy. Each activity should contribute to the students meeting the lesson's objectives.

Using your calendar as a rough guide, you can write out or word process your units and lessons. Teachers vary a great deal as to the level of detail they create in their lesson plans, and this typically changes with years of experience as well. Some will use an outline with times indicated to help keep track, while others will write out detailed notes on the content. We recommend that you have a daily agenda prepared that can be shared with your students, and this will help you to make smooth transitions as you move through topics and activities.