Creating engaging lessons starts with creating effective lesson plans

Lesson Plans That Promote Student Engagement

During my first year as a math coach, a first-year teacher, “Ms. Debbie,” came to me for help. Her 4th graders were disengaged and acting out. They weren’t learning the content. She was concerned that she couldn’t “control the class,” and wanted to work on classroom management. But as is often the case,  the behavior issues could be traced back to lesson plans that weren’t promoting student engagement.

I sat in on one of Ms. Debbie’s classes to see her challenges first-hand. The period began with an “entrance ticket,” a two question assessment of the prior day’s lesson. About 10% of her students breezed through. Half of them tried, but struggled. And the rest made no attempt whatsoever.

After ten minutes, a timer went off. Ms. Debbie collected the slips and began a mini-lecture on “Finding Common Denominators.” She walked through her detailed anchor charts, showing students every step of the process. After 15 minutes, the timer went off again. Time for “guided practice.” Ten minutes later, group work. Another ten minutes, independent practice.

To make it all happen, Ms. Debbie was rushing around the room, constantly transitioning from one activity to the next. The students’ heads were spinning. And to be honest, so was mine.

Finally, they completed an ‘exit ticket:’ a short quiz on the day’s objective. Not surprisingly, about 10% of them breezed through. Half made an effort, but struggled. And the rest made no attempt whatsoever.

Lesson Plans: Keep ‘em Simple, Silly

When we sat down for the debrief, I acknowledged all the thought and effort that had gone into her lesson plans. I could only imagine how much time it had taken to make the entrance tickets, anchor charts, and exit tickets.

I asked Ms. Debbie why she had chosen to include so many activities in the same lesson. It turned out that her school had just switched from 45 minute periods to a 90-minute block schedule. All the teachers had received professional development on how to make lesson plans for a block schedule.

The training centered around a ten-part lesson plan. The idea was that students can’t focus on the same activity for more than ten minutes, so the 90-minute lesson needed to be broken into many little segments. This attention span myth has convinced many educators that the way to keep students engaged is to constantly switch from one activity to the next. But breaking a lesson up like this actually defeats the whole purpose of a block schedule.

The reality is that our attention spans vary enormously based on what we are doing. Sure, students will drift off during a long lecture on dividing fractions. But when actively engaged in activities they enjoy, children’s attention spans can seem endless.

So while the ten-part lesson plan made it easier to fill up time, it did little to ensure that lessons were effective. 

Consider instead, the benefits of the three-part workshop lesson. This simple but effective model was developed by John Van de Walle, for inquiry-based math instruction. Since then, the workshop model has been used to create engaging lessons for every subject area.

In the age of remote learning, engaging lesson plans are only increasing in importance. If students aren’t interested in a class, they may stop showing up. And traditional classroom management doesn’t work in an online setting. The flexibility and effectiveness of the workshop model can help smooth the transition to online learning.

Lesson Plans That Are Engaging and Effective

Try to think of a book, movie, or play that was really boring. It may have had too many characters or too many plot lines. Maybe you weren’t interested in the topic. Or you just couldn’t relate to the writing style  and main character. Soon you got distracted or confused, and eventually you lost interest.

Now, think back to a story that you love. You can see yourself in the main character. You relate to her struggles. Every line connects to the central theme. Sure, it’s divided into scenes, but they’re all connected. Each brings you one step closer to a satisfying conclusion.

A good lesson is like a good story. It has an engaging opening, a purposeful middle, and a clarifying end.  When we activate our students’ curiosity and communicate passion for our subject, our lessons could go on and on, without boring anyone. In fact, our students sigh with disappointment when the bell rings.

Maybe the sighing is just a fantasy. But if you’re worried about “filling time” in your lesson, you may be using too much direct instruction. If you’re thinking, “My students can’t sit for an entire period without getting distracted,” you’re right! But they can spend a whole block exploring, discussing, and discovering.

The key is to connect every part of the lesson to a meaningful “whole.” Start by getting students excited about the topic of the lesson. Then, introduce a challenge for them to work through. Finally, close the lesson by helping students reflect on the learning experience.

Part I: Engage and Inspire

Use the principles of storytelling to create fun and effective lesson plans. Think of the lesson objective as your main character.

First, introduce the “main character” to the “audience.” If you’ve done this part right, your audience will be curious about what happens next. This is what Dan Meyer’s, in his famous TED Talk, describes as “baiting the hook.”

Starting a lesson by building engagement might be the most important part. Students care when they feel connected. If they don’t care, they won’t engage in the activity.

I tend to focus on two types of connections: prior knowledge and relevance.

Prior Knowledge

Activating prior knowledge simply means  connecting the lesson to what students already know. If you’re teaching adjectives, it can be as simple as asking, “Remember when we talked about nouns? Adjectives are words that describe nouns.”

Activating prior knowledge helps students develop a context for the new learning, which is critical for conceptual learning. Prior knowledge also helps students feel confident that they can handle what comes next.


“Why do we have to learn this?”  

“When will I ever use this.”

Many teachers dread these questions. But they show that students are looking for relevance. Answering these questions can be a powerful tool for increasing engagement and motivation. The answer should never be “because it will be on the test.”

Find out how students will use the learning in real life, and design your introduction around that purpose.

Whether you use a DoNow, a video, or a mini-lesson, make sure the focus is on generating interest. Not on explaining content. Imagine if you went to the movies, and they started off by explaining the purpose of the story and telling you the ending. Where’s the fun in that?

Part II: Hands on Activity

Once our audience cares about what they’re about to learn, it’s time to introduce the challenge. 

The activity, not the introduction, is where the deep learning happens.

This part of the lesson is typically the most difficult, both for teachers and students. For teachers, the challenge lies in shifting from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide by the side.’ Textbooks don’t really prepare us for this style of teaching.

Helping students learn through workshopping also requires an extra layer of thought and planning. Instead of delivering information, it’s like we’re creating a maze or a puzzle. By navigating the maze and solving the puzzle, the students figure out what we want them to learn.

When students work to find solutions, they actually understand and remember better. The trick is ensuring the challenges actually lead to understanding, rather than simply creating busy work. That is no easy task, and it helps to have the right resources

There are a number of problem-based lesson models that can be adapted for different subjects and grade levels.

For math, try the following activities:

Humanities teachers can incorporate problem-based learning with the following:

  • Story Analysis: Students work in teams to identify plot elements, main characters and more. They also create their own comprehension questions. I used this activity as part of a student-taught short stories unit. (Buy Story Analysis Organizer)
  • Socratic seminar: Students learn the habits of productive talk, and actually run their own discussions. Provide them with broad, conceptual discussion questions, or have them write their own.

Engaging Students with Debate

Debate is often thought of as a humanities activity, but it can work well in any subject area. Debate can also be used as a step in the writing process for an expository essay.

Select a controversial idea and have students choose a side. Students then find and present evidence to support their position.

Ideas for debate-based lesson plans in multiple subjects. For language arts, students can debate a character's decision, such as "Should Romeo and Juliet have followed their families' advice?" For math, the purpose of numbers: "Do we need both fractions and decimals." And for history, an important decision, such as "was the American revolution justified?"

You could easily analyze the situation for them and explain both sides. But by going through the process themselves, they are learning more than just information. Organizing and presenting their thoughts helps students to develop higher-order thinking and communication skills.

With hands-on activities, good facilitation is just as important as a good lesson plan. If you’re not accustomed to this mode of teaching, you may find that students get distracted or fail to self-start. Rubrics are an effective tool for communicating your expectations and assessing participation. You may also consider graphic organizers and group work protocols to help students share responsibilities.

Part III. Share and Reflect

Once students have taken part in a deep learning experience, it’s important to help them cement their learning. Providing time to share and reflect is an important step that is often overlooked, but it should be part of every lesson plan. By helping students process the learning, we can improve retention and help them to apply their learning in other contexts.

Sharing enables students to process their experience as a group. I like to have students present at the end of a lesson. By explaining their ideas, students have a chance to clarify or revise their thinking. Sometimes the simple act of speaking their ideas out loud can help deepen understanding. As can hearing feedback from peers. 

The ‘share’ portion is also the time when we finally bring in direct instruction. I’d never want to start a lesson with “Why I think the American Revolution was justified.” But once students have engaged in productive struggle, I’m happy to add to their ideas if they’ve missed something important.

Reflection is another way for students to solidify their understanding. Some students will enjoy the opportunity to write a short reflection about what they’ve learned.

More traditional assessments, such as exit tickets or homework (a last resort) can be effective closers. If you feel that only some students are engaging in group work, ending lessons with a formal assessment can help you understand student need while incentivizing less active students.

Engaging Online Lessons

As educators shift to online instruction, we face a perplexing challenge. Getting students excited about learning is more important than ever. But how do we create interactive learning experiences through a Zoom call?

Instead of trying to recreate the traditional classroom online, focus on the unique benefits of online learning. The online learning experience shouldn’t consist of lectures and pre-recorded videos. Consider the following when designing your online lessons:

  • Breakout Groups: In-person classes aren’t always the best for group activities. Some groups need more time than others. And it can be hard to spend quality time with each group. Start your online lessons with a brief, whole-group Engage and Inspire. Then, split students into breakout groups for the Hands-On Activity. Schedule check-in times with each group, and reconnect for Share and Reflect. In an online classroom, these don’t all need to happen on the same day – you can schedule small-group sessions whenever they’re convenient for you and your students.
  • Collaborative Documents: The Google Drive suite offer students several ways to collaborate from a distance. The simplest is creating a shared Google Doc. But Google Slides, Sheets, and Drawings are also useful for inquiry-based activities.
  • Digital Paper: Some activities just seem better on paper. Either because you already have resources you like, or because you want students to draw pictures or diagrams. You can turn .pdf’s or even pieces of paper into digital documents using Google Classroom and Kami. This video shows you how to set it up, and how students can edit and submit these assignments.

Create Your Own 3-Part Lesson Plans

Now that you know the three parts to an engaging lesson, you’re ready to plan one for your students. I’ve created a simple template to help you get started. This free download will help you organize your ideas and plan 3-part lessons for any subject.

For more support, schedule a free consultation with an instructional coach. Whether you’re planning for an online or an in-person classroom, we’ll help you apply the 3-part workshop model to any grade level and subject area.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff