Teacher with a group of students

Lesson Plans That Increase Student Engagement

As an instructional coach, I spend a lot of time helping teachers develop their lesson plans. During my first year as a math coach, a teacher came to me for help. She was overwhelmed, spending nights and weekends on planning. But nothing seemed to be engaging her students. Before we started, I decided to visit her class and see if any ideas jumped out.

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, but 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. Most of the students looked as bewildered as I was.

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 the lesson, I acknowledged all the thought and effort that had gone into it. I could only imagine how much time it had taken to make the entrance tickets, anchor charts, and exit tickets. Not to mention creating the lesson plan itself.

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 to the lesson, it just didn’t make sense for so many activities to be crammed 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 longer periods.

The ten-part planning template was a way 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.

The Three Part Lesson Plan

If you feel the need to “fill time” in your lesson, it means you should revisit your curriculum plans. When I was excited about my curriculum, there was never enough class time to get to everything.

Feeling like you need to fill time during class can also point to an overuse of 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 extended time exploring, discussing, and discovering. That is, if they are interested in the topic.

A good lesson is like a story. It has an engaging opening, a purposeful middle, and a clarifying end. John Van de Walle developed the three part lesson for math instruction, but the idea applies to any subject area.

The key is to make sure everything in the lesson connects to a meaningful “whole.” Think back to a story you read that tried to do too much. Whether there were too many characters or too many plot lines, the result was probably the same. You got a little confused, and soon you lost interest.

This is what happens when we put too many activities into our lesson plans. Students may go through the steps laid out for them, but unless everything ties together, it just doesn’t work.

Part I: Engage and Inspire

You can use the principles of storytelling to create fun and effective lesson plans. Start by thinking 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 what happens to her!

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 tends to 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.” This helps students to developing a conceptual understanding of subject matter. 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. Find out how students will use this in real life, and design your intro around that.

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 for the excitement to begin. The activity, not the introduction, is where the deep learning happens.

This is the part of the lesson that is the most challenging, 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 involves an extra layer of thought and planning. Instead of delivering information, it’s more like creating a maze or a puzzle. By solving the puzzle or navigating the maze, students master the objective of the lesson.

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.

One way to create productive struggle is through debate. Select a controversial idea and have students choose a side. Students then find and present evidence to support their position.

3x2 table that reads language arts, math, history by "What to Debate" and "Example."

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 can be a great tool for communicating your expectations. You may also consider group work protocols to help students share responsibilities.

Part III. Share and Reflect

Now that students have taken part in a deep learning experience, we’ll 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 all your lesson plans. By helping students process the learning, we can improve retention and their ability to apply their learning in other contexts, both in, and out, of school.

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 to cement 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 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 Plan

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 in any subject.

Our remote coaches can also help you and your team with every aspect of student-centered learning. Set up a time with one of our experts to help plan lessons, discuss best practices, or even debrief a lesson you’ve already conducted. 




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