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This is a post on the importance of lesson planning. I’ll first explain what a “lesson plan” is, and show how it can (and should) be built around learning objectives and incorporate different kinds of activity (mini-lecture, interactive elements and activities, student-led discussion, an exit ticket). I’ll then give an example of what a lesson plan looks like from my own course, and I’ll end with a few reasons to try teaching from a lesson plan, even if this isn’t something you regularly do.

What is a ‘Lesson Plan’?

A lesson plan is exactly what it sounds like: a document wherein you plan a lesson. In most of the education world, though, it has a somewhat more specific meaning. Typically lesson plans include, and are built around, learning objectives, and include a rough outline of how in-class time will be spent. My lesson plans also include reminders about what students have read for that day, some key concepts I want to remember to emphasize, links to my slides and in-class activities we’ll be doing.

Planning Lessons Around Learning Objectives

A learning objective is a brief, descriptive statement of one thing that a student will take away from a day’s lesson. Typically, a given lesson will have two or three objectives, and they will look like this (bolded words are key concepts):

  1. Upon completion of this lesson, you will understand why Socratic ignorance is a form of skepticism, and why Socrates thought it was a virtue.

Some learning objectives identify knowledge or comprehension goals (like this one), and some identify skills or practical knowledge (like how to properly cite a source, or how to look up academic sources on a database). (Click here for a post that more fully define what learning objectives are, and gives some advice about you how you can make them “S.M.A.R.T.”er…)

It’s a good idea to tie these objectives to concrete activities you can do in class that will help students progress toward accomplishing them, and that will give you evidence about the extent to which they have. In fact, my lessons are built entirely around these two goals. I first ask myself (1) what (theoretical) knowledge will students need in order to accomplish my learning goals for the day? I typically outline a “mini-lecture” based on my answer to this question. I then ask myself (2) what activities would help students apply this knowledge, and build any skills I’ve identified in my learning goals? I then plan between one and three activities based on my answer to this question. Finally, I ask myself (3) how will I know if students have accomplished the goals for today? I then make sure that I’ll either get this evidence from the activities I’ve already planned, or that I plan a quick “exit ticket” (more on this below) to ensure that I get this information before they leave the classroom.

Incorporating Different Activities Into Your Plan

Like I said above, I determine how in-class time will be spent by thinking about my learning goals. I typically follow the following, fairly set structure: announcements, mini-lecture 1, activity 1, mini-lecture 2, activity 2, student-led discussion, exit ticket, dismissal. But I determine the content of the “lectures” and the form of the activities by considering how my students will most effectively advance toward the learning goals.

For instance, in a recent class in which I was teaching Plato’s “Apology,” I really wanted students to understand and internalize the charges being brought against Socrates, and to start to articulate Socrates’s responses to those charges (in a way that eventually helped them appreciate what “Socratic ignorance” is). So after a mini-lecture that provided some crucial background and context, I gave them this activity, where they broke into small groups and analyzed different key passages from the work. When we reconvened as a large group, I put their responses to the questions up on the board, and we worked through some of the more difficult interpretative issues together.

Activities can be more or less formal, can have merely verbal or verbal and written instructions (I prefer the latter in most cases), and can take a wide variety of forms.

Using Student Feedback to Evaluate Your Plan (Exit Tickets)

There are lots of ways that you can gather feedback on the effectiveness of your lesson plan throughout the class period. For instance, you can read nonverbal cues while you lecture to see whether students are generally tracking (though, be forewarned that we are easily mislead by such cues when speaking publicly), and you can quickly drop in to small groups while they are performing activities to observe student interactions, and even to ask a few quick comprehension questions.

One valuable formal mechanism for feedback, though, is the administration of “exit tickets” at the end of your lesson. In my current class, we typically call these “Mastery Questions” (even though they are sometimes demonstrations of skill, and don’t always take the form of a question). Whatever you call them, though, “exit tickets” are quick activities, completed at the end of class, that produce some data or evidence regarding the extent to which students have accomplished that day’s learning goals. On a particular day, you might ask students to reflect on the day’s topic in a way that incorporates two or three key concepts, and to write out their reflection in two or three sentences that they’ll turn in on a half sheet of paper. You might also just ask them to write out, on a sheet of paper: 3 things they learned that day, 2 things they’re still confused about, and 1 thing they’d like to revisit in a future class period (this is called a “3-2-1”). You can get lots of helpful examples of exit tickets online, and it can be a great way to aid student comprehension, while simultaneously giving you useful feedback that can inform future lessons.

An Example of a Lesson Plan

Here’s an example of a lesson plan from my own teaching this semester. As you’ll see, it contains a fairly detailed outline, and various devices to help me move through the lesson in a timely manner.


Hopefully you can see from the above description of what lesson plans are and how they function, why it is valuable to use them in your teaching. If I had to put it in one sentence, I’d say: lesson plans ensure that in-class time is spent acquiring content and building skills that are central to the course, and provide the necessary structure for students to be active participants in the process of their own learning.

Lesson plans don’t have to be complex (or even as complex as the example I’ve given), but any structure you can give to students’ in-class experience will eventually pay off. You challenge for the week is to plan your next lesson around two S.M.A.R.T. learning goals, and to use an exit ticket to evaluate the effectiveness of that lesson.

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