Why lesson plans matter beyond the classroom

Lesson plans are useful not just in regard to in-class activities but in the broader learning environment, too. This multipurpose document can guide the planning of pre- and post-class activities; support engagement with learning designers; and afford academics a clear overview 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 also work on the VU block model, which means we don’t offer lectures. Instead, all our classes run as three-hour seminars – big chunks of time to organize and plan for.

During a recent, and ongoing, curriculum revitalization project in the Victoria University Business School, we’ve (re)discovered the wide-ranging usefulness of lesson plans in the organization of these seminars. Previously, in our curriculum design and development processes, lesson plans were considered late in the piece (and sometimes as an afterthought). Foregrounding has turned them into a powerful design and development tool.

The role of lesson plans in classroom success

Here’s how using lesson plans has worked for us.

1. Lesson plan as blueprint

Academics view units through a pedagogical and content lens, whereas learning designers come at them from a structural point of view. This disparity of perspective can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Bringing these two groups together has at times been difficult, because they don’t necessarily share language and priorities. They work simultaneously, but not always in sync, on the same units/subjects. The lesson plan acts as a live work-in-progress document within which each party’s needs can be visibly addressed. The symbiotic nature of the relationship between content and structure also becomes evident. Using the lesson plan as a tool for curriculum building, rather than as a document that describes a curriculum already built, keeps everyone on the same page, literally and figuratively, during the design and development process.

As work on a unit continues and more lesson plans are added, they act as a blueprint for measuring how a unit addresses its learning outcomes. Redundancies are more easily identified, as are gaps. The constructive alignment (or not) of assessment and learning activities is also made apparent.

2. A template for telling a coherent story

Template-based lesson plans (there are plenty freely available on the net) ensure that the crucial elements and structures for your students’ learning are considered in the planning for every session. Lessons should also tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Such a structure helps you organize your material and gives students a format they can understand, where each element builds 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 stuff to do

A lesson plan is more than a to-do list. Each item or activity listed needs explanatory text, reminding the teacher what to do and why, and what to expect from the students in response. Classrooms can be hectic, and such reminders help keep us on track. They also help learning designers see the logic and the reasoning behind your work as they create the blended-learning spaces to support that.

Timing makes planning easier

Noting how long you expect activities to take will assist in making sure you have enough material, but not too much, to tell your story. Or, if you like to prepare more items than you can use in one session (so as to swing the mood and tone of the class depending on the day), these timings will make such decisions easier in the live classroom. Timings also allow us to see who is doing the talking during a session. If you’re talking for 120 minutes of a three-hour seminar, then you probably need to look at ways to change your approach to give students room to speak.

Address learning outcomes

Each session must address some or all subject learning outcomes (LOs). List the relevant ones as the first item on top of your template and make a brief note against each activity listed below describing how they address these. Think of the listed LOs as your essay question and these notes as your way of making sure you stay on topic. If you can’t see how an activity is addressing these, should it be there?

Include pre- and post-class activities

If you’ve set pre-reading, presumably it’s relevant. Make the discussion of this a regular item in your lesson plan. Also, make telling students why and how the reading they are to do for the next session will help them as part of your wrap-up, rather than just yelling: “Read Chapter 2!” as they charge for the door.

Top and tail your lessons

The narrative of your lesson includes a beginning (welcome), middle (rundown) and end (wrap-up and goodbye).

Welcome: make sure every lesson plan begins with a welcome to students, and do this by name, if possible, because this helps build trust. I know that if I don’t include this in my lesson plan, I’ll sometimes jump straight into the meat of the session, especially if I’m tired or feeling rushed. Make time to intentionally pause and recognize your students as fellow travelers along the dusty highway that is higher education. A good lesson plan considers the people involved in the lesson, not just the activities completed therein.

rundown: you know (in great detail) what you’re going to do in each session, but your students don’t, so make it explicit for them by including a rundown in each plan. Tell them what you’ll be covering, and how. Tell them why the learning activities they’ll be engaging in are useful for potential employment or skill-building, how they relate to their assessment, and so on. This information helps students contextualize their learning.

wrap-up and goodbye: the same principles that apply to the welcome are also key to the end of the lesson. Plan to finish with a review and a sincere cheerio to all students. It can help to think of your lesson plan as a play script and these topping and tailing items as your prologue and epilogue: preparing the audience to engage in your tale, and helping them make sense of it once it’s completed. Hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare…

Make a note to self

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 place on the plan to make notes about this, otherwise you’ll forget and it won’t be until you present the same doomed-to-fail activity again that you realize it didn’t work the first time and why .

John Weldon is associate professor and head of curriculum of First Year College at Victoria University, Australia. He is co-author, with Jay Daniel Thompson, of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer Nature, 2022).

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