Lesson plans are useful not only in terms of classroom activities, but also in the broader learning environment. This multi-purpose document can serve as a guide for planning pre- and post-class activities; support collaboration with learning designers; and provide scholars with a clear view of an entire subject in development, action, and review.
At Victoria University (VU) we take a blended learning approach to curriculum development and delivery. We are also working on the VU block model, that means we don’t offer any lectures. Instead, all of our courses run as 3-hour seminars – large blocks of time to organize and plan for.
During a recent and ongoing curriculum revitalization project at Victoria University Business School, we (re)discovered the far-reaching usefulness of lesson plans in organizing these seminars. Lesson plans used to be considered late in the play (and sometimes as an afterthought) in our curriculum design and development processes. Foregrounding has turned it into a powerful design and development tool.
The role of lesson plans in classroom success
Here’s how using lesson plans worked for us.
1. Lesson plan as a blueprint
Academics view units through a pedagogical and content lens, while learning designers view them from a structural perspective. This different perspective can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. It was sometimes difficult to bring these two groups together because they don’t necessarily share the same language and priorities. They work simultaneously, but not always synchronously, on the same units/subjects. The lesson plan acts as a live work-in-progress document where the needs of each party can be visibly addressed. The symbiotic relationship between content and structure also becomes clear. Using the lesson plan as a curriculum creation tool, rather than a document describing a curriculum that has already been created, keeps everyone on the same page, literally and figuratively, during the design and development process.
As work continues on a unit and more lesson plans are added, they serve as a blueprint for measuring how a unit addresses its learning outcomes. Redundancies are more easily identified, as are gaps. The constructive orientation (or not) of assessment and learning activities also becomes clear.
2. A template for telling a coherent story
Template-based lesson plans (many freely available online) ensure that the critical elements and structure for your students’ learning are considered in the planning of each session. The lesson should also tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Such a structure helps you organize your material and gives students a format they can understand, with each element building on the previous one to create a coherent picture.
So what should you consider when planning your lessons?
These five elements can provide a framework for creating successful lesson plans.
A lesson plan is not just a list of assignments
A lesson plan is more than a to-do list. Each item or activity listed needs explanatory text that reminds the teacher what to do and why, and what to expect from the students in response. Classrooms can be hectic, and reminders like this help us stay on track. They also help learning designers see the logic and reasoning behind their work when creating the blended learning spaces to support it.
Timing makes planning easier
Noting how long the activities are expected to take can help ensure you have enough material, but not too much, to tell your story. Or if you want to prepare more items than you can use in one session (to change the mood and tone of the class depending on the day), these times will facilitate such decisions in the live classroom. Timings also allow us to see who is speaking during a session. If you’re speaking 120 minutes of a three-hour seminar, you probably need to look for ways to change your approach to give students space to speak.
address learning outcomes
Each session must address some or all of the subject specific learning outcomes (LOs). List the relevant ones as the first item at the top of your template, and make a brief note on each activity listed below, describing how you address it. Consider the LOs listed as your essay question and these notes as your path to making sure you stay on topic. If you can’t see how an activity appeals to them, should it be there?
Include activities before and after class
If you’ve stopped reading it, it’s probably relevant. Make discussion of this a regular part of your lesson plan. Also, as part of your summary, tell students why and how reading will help them for the next session, rather than just yelling, “Read Chapter 2!” like they ask for the door.
Top and tail your lessons
The narrative of your lesson includes a beginning (welcome), a middle (summary), and an end (summary and farewell).
Warm welcome: Make sure each lesson plan begins by greeting students, and do so by name if possible, as this helps build trust. I know that if I don’t incorporate this into my lesson plan, sometimes I’ll jump straight into the session, especially when I’m tired or rushed. Take the time to deliberately pause and recognize your students as fellow travelers on the dusty highway of higher education. A good lesson plan takes into account the people involved in the lesson, not just the activities completed in it.
run down: she know (in great detail) what you will be doing in each session but your students will not, so make it clear to them by providing an outline of each plan. Tell them what you will cover and how. Tell them why the learning activities they will be participating in will be useful for potential employment or skill building, how they relate to their assessment and so on. This information helps students to contextualize their learning.
Conclusion and goodbye: The same principles that apply to the greeting apply to the end of the lesson. Plan to end with a review and a sincere Cheerio to all students. It can be helpful to think of your lesson plan as a game script, and these top-and-tail elements as your prologue and epilogue: Prepare audiences to engage with your story and help them understand it once they do is done. Hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare…
Take a note
A lesson plan is the best place to make notes about what worked, what didn’t, and what changes you might make in response. Give yourself a dedicated spot on the plan to make notes about it, otherwise you’ll forget and it’s only when you present the same doomed activity again that you realize it didn’t work the first time and why.
John Weldon is Associate Professor and Head of the First Year College Curriculum at Victoria University, Australia. He is a co-author with Jay Daniel Thompson of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer-Nature, 2022).
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