Initial Publication Date: October 6, 2011

Improving Lesson Design and Implementation

What is lesson design and implementation and how does it affect learning?

This topic covers what the teacher intended to do. Once the instructor is familiar with how students can interact effectively with one another and with the instructor, it will become easier to design and implement a more student-centered learning environment. A lesson that is organized to explicitly engage students with their existing ideas and actively explores new concepts through authentic inquiry can help students to change what they already know, make connections, and integrate this new knowledge. The On the Cutting Edge Designing Innovative and Effective Courses module has a lot to offer in terms of help for developing courses and activities that engage students with the material, including a Course Design Tutorial.

Characteristics/examples of classes with low and high lesson design and implementation scores

Classes with poor lesson design and implementation are not designed to explore students' prior knowledge or encourage student input. These classes typically focus on convergent problems, are completely instructor directed, and don't provide opportunities to explore ideas before instruction. Instructors often miss opportunities to pose questions to students or they make generic inquiries ("Any questions?").

In contrast, a well-designed lesson might begin with the instructor making an effort to determine how much students already know about the topic through a small group discussion followed by a report-out activity. As the lesson proceeds, the instructor can pause at key breaks in the lesson to ask a few low-stakes multiple choice questions (individually or in groups) to check for understanding. Alternatively, she might assign students to work in teams to complete an exercise linked to previous material or ask them to explore a new concept in a non-technical way. This instructor solicits multiple ways to approach a problem or investigation and provides students with opportunities to influence the direction of the lesson.

Consider structuring your class so that it:

  • begins with a short exercise to assess students' pre-existing knowledge of topics from a prior lecture.
  • incorporates references to students' personal experiences or material from other classes.
  • includes opportunities for students to complete tasks in pairs or small groups on more than one occasion during the class period.
  • incorporates an exploration activity at some point that is well integrated with the subsequent material.
  • provides an opportunity for students to plan an investigation or analysis using a method of their devising.
  • includes a couple of pauses for students to reflect on the material and ask clarifying questions.

Tips and examples for improving lesson design and implementation.

  • I want to use and assess students' prior knowledge from previous lessons, assigned readings, everyday experiences or other courses.
    • Bring in students' prior knowledge. Begin with a review of the previous class. Ask students to discuss what they remember. If you're beginning a new topic, open class with an open-ended question. Give students a chance to discuss, write, and/or think and then respond to an inquiry about previous material.
    • Ask students to interpret a map or diagram that incorporates local features or recent events to further encourage students to reflect on personal experiences.
    • Try an interactive lecture demonstration. Refer back to student input from the demonstration throughout class.
    • Start your class with a few conceptual multiple choice questions (ConcepTests) that investigate previous course content or readings and use the response to guide the direction of your course.
      • Use analogies or ask students to come up with their own analogies for a concept.
    • I want to engage students in seeking and valuing alternative modes of investigation or multiple ways to solve problems.
      • Ask open ended questions and create exercises where students have an opportunity to come up with alternative correct answers. For example, have students in small groups design a 5-item checklist for assessing earthquake risk or for the development of a groundwater aquifer.
      • When you get multiple answers to a question, value them and refer to them during the course of the class.
    • I want students to feel that they are members of a learning community that explores content and generates ideas that determine the direction of the lesson.
      • Seek feedback from your students by asking them to respond to a question. Refer back to multiple students' answers.
      • Use knowledge surveys to assess how much your students know. Ask them to rate their confidence in their ability to complete a specific task or answer a question, or report back on items they want to cover in more detail.
      • Use a minute paper to have students describe the main idea from the lesson or the muddiest point. Items brought up in the "muddiest point" can be used to guide the next class.
      • Small group work or Think-Pair-Share Activities: These exercises give students the opportunity to vet their ideas before responding to a question posed by the instructor-thus strengthening the sense of being a part of a learning community.
      • Adjust your lesson using student input.