Creating engaging lessons starts with creating effective lesson plans

Lesson Plans That Increase Student Engagement

During my first year as a math coach, a first-year teacher came to me for help. She was overwhelmed. Her students were disengaged and acting out. Her class wasn’t progressing academically. She wanted to work on her classroom management, but I suspected the problem had more to do with her lesson plans.

After our initial meeting, I visited one of her classes to see her challenges first-hand. The period began with an “entrance ticket,” a two question assessment on the prior day’s lesson. About a third of the students breezed through. Another third made an effort, though it was clear they hadn’t mastered the concept. And the last third made no attempt whatsoever to complete this little quiz.

After ten minutes, a timer went off. The teacher 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.

In order to make this all happen, the teacher was rushing around the room, constantly transitioning from one activity to the next. The students heads were spinning. To be honest, so was mine.

This went on, until finally they completed an ‘exit ticket,’ a short quiz on the day’s objective. Not surprisingly, about a third of the students breezed through. Another third made an effort, but clearly had no idea what they were doing. And the last third made no attempt whatsoever to complete this little quiz.

Lesson Plans: Keep ‘em Simple, Silly

When we sat down to discuss, 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. 

But hard work doesn’t always guarantee results. In terms of student outcomes, this lesson was a major flop. While there were some positive elements, it just didn’t make sense to cram so many activities into one period.

The teacher explained that her school had just switched from 45 minute to 90-minute periods, and many teachers worried about how they would fill so much time. To help with the transition, the school had hired a planning consultant to train teachers on a ten-part template for their lesson plans.

The ten-part planning template was designed to break the period down into manageable chunks. While this may have made it easier to fill up time, it did little to ensure that lessons were effective. In fact, it almost guaranteed the opposite.

Think back to a story you love. Whether it’s a book, movie, or even a song. Every part of the story has a purpose. Each character plays a role. Every line of dialog connects to the central theme.

Now think about a story that tried to do too much. Whether there were too many characters or too many plot lines, the result was probably the same. You started to get confused, and soon you lost interest.

Effective and Engaging Lesson Plans

A good lesson is like a good story. It has an engaging opening, a purposeful middle, and a clarifying end. John Van de Walle developed the three-part workshop model for math instruction, but the workshop model can be used in any subject area.

When we activate our students’ curiosity and communicate passion for our subject, our lessons feel like they could go on forever. Our students should sigh with disappointment when the bell rings.

OK, so maybe that’s a pipe dream. We can’t expect our classroom to feel like a carnival every day.

But if you’re worried about “filling time” in your lesson, it probably means you are using too much direct instruction. If you’re thinking, “My students can’t sit for an entire period without getting distracted,” you’re exactly right. But they can spend a whole period exploring, discussing, and discovering.

The key is to connect every part of the lesson to a meaningful “whole.” Begin by helping students get excited about the new idea we’re about to introduce. Then, introduce a challenge for them to work through. Finally, close the lesson by allowing students to solidify their understanding.

Part I: Engage and Inspire

You can 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 actually cares enough about the character to be curious about what happens next! This is what Dan Meyer’s refers to in his famous TED Talk as “baiting the hook.”

Starting a lesson by building engagement might be the most important part. Students care when they feel connected. When they don’t care, whatever comes after will be easily forgotten.

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. They also feel more 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 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 content across grade levels. Math teachers should consider number proofs, the Sieve of Eratosthenes, and structured problem-solving. Humanities teachers can incorporate story analysis or Socratic seminar.

Engaging Students with Debate

Another great way to create productive struggle is through debate. Debate is often thought of as a humanities activity, but it works well in any subject area.

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 good lesson plans. 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 their ability 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. So can hearing feedback from peers. 

The ‘share’ portion is also a time for teachers to incorporate direct instruction. I’d never want to start a lesson with “Why I think the American Revolution was justified.” By the end, however, I’m happy to build on what students come up with, or 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 also 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.

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. We’ve created a simple template to help you organize your ideas and plan 3-part lessons for any subject.

For additional help planning engaging lessons, connect with an instructional coach. Our expert coaches can help you and your team plan lessons, explore best practices, or even debrief a lesson you’ve already conducted. 


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


Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email