Planning and Assessing Your Lesson

Planning and Assessing Your Lesson

The Three Questions

I. What tasks will my students perform (or perform better) as a result of this lesson? 
II. What activities and assignments can my students do before, during, and after class that will help them perform each of these tasks?
III. How will I evaluate my students’ performance of each of these tasks? 

Short Directory of Essentials

Bloom’s Taxonomy
Diagnostic Exam
First Day of Class
Group Work
The Lecture
Reading Assignments

Key words: high-stakes assignments; learning objectives; low-stakes assignments; metacriticism; scoring rubric; scaffolding; skills

There are three questions that I put at the center of any lesson plan, and for that matter of any syllabus I build, although this section is specifically about the former. The questions can be asked in any order, but this where I start: What tasks will my students perform (or perform better) as a result of this lesson? Second, what activities and assignments can my students do before, during, and after class that will help them perform each of these tasks? Third, how will I evaluate my students’ performance of each of these tasks? In what follows, we consider the theoretical and practical value of asking each question.

I. What tasks will my students perform (or perform better) as a result of this lesson? 
Sometimes we are preoccupied with explaining some difficult concept, and in such situations this question might seem restrictive, as if insight and deep thought can be reduced to mechanical operations. Ironically, that is the very occasion when the question is most useful, because the effort of answering it forces us to get outside the tangle of our own thoughts and evaluate the efficacy of our communication from the students’ perspective. 

Let’s illustrate with some course content, which could come from any subject—take ,athematics, for example. Imagine that the instructor plans to cover the Law of Sines (a/sin A = b/sin B = c/sin C), and comes up with a lesson plan that looks something like this:

  •  Recap Pythagorean theorem for right triangles.
  •  Explain usefulness of Law of Sines for non-right triangles.
  •  Walk through proof to end up with the formula.
  •  Take questions.
  •  Summarize main points.
  •  Apply to a word problem.
  •  Take questions.
  •  Set homework.


The plan follows the arc of an idea from the theoretical to the practical. It makes sense at one level to move from principle to application and to leave students to wrestle with application problems on their own, which are time-consuming though instructive in the details. By having the general principles addressed first, the students receive a road map that should enable them to tackle any problem once broken down sufficiently into its component elements.

Yet this may not be how most students learn, and it is not necessarily how we ourselves learned, however habituated we are now to the movement from theoretical to practical.

What this hypothetical lesson plan, thus constructed, does less effectively is generate rich and varied answers to the question of what observable tasks the students were performing while the lesson was in progress. Some obvious answers are: listening (we hope), taking notes (we hope), and then asking questions if they haven’t understood.

As for the students who do not ask questions, we have no way of telling apart the one silent student who has followed every step from the other silent student so hopelessly lost that she or he cannot even formulate a meaningful question. As instructors, we are so absorbed with explaining the logical steps clearly that we cannot be as attentive as one would wish to students’ signs of comprehension or its absence. If we were to follow this hypothetical lesson plan, we would not find out who understood and who did not until the next graded assignment, which might be many days away. 

So with a view to answering differently the question of what tasks the students will perform as a result of the lesson, the instructor might reorient the majority of class time to a case study or word problem that articulates all the stages of analysis into discrete tasks. Let’s say that the instructor decides to address a problem that involves using the Law of Sines to survey the terrain of a small town, and proceeds to assign different parts of the problem as group work. The instructor will still give them the formula, and at some point show them that the formula is the outcome of a logical process (the proof), but these general principles are embedded in the context of the problem. The question—“what tasks will my students perform as a result of this lesson?”—might now be answered differently: identifying the dependent and independent variables; expressing the problem algebraically and graphically; explaining their method in their own words to a peer; calculating the height of structures too high to measure directly; and so on. By breaking down the analysis into discrete operations, and by pointing out the critical markers, the students synthesize and internalize as they slowly gain dexterity in manipulating different problems and applications. The instructor’s revised lesson plan might then look something like this:

  •  Evaluate a scenario in which the Pythagorean theorem will not apply.
  •  Briefly demonstrate how to solve the scenario with the Law of Sines.
  •  Set up town-survey problem for in-class analysis.
  •  Identify discrete tasks for different groups/pairs to perform or for whole class to perform in sequence: roughly sketch entire town; identify all known quantities and unknowns; identify relevant algebraic formula for different town features; calculate measurements for different town features.
  •  Walk through logical steps of proof to explain formula.
  •  Students write for three minutes describing proof and application in their own words.
  •  Assign second word problem for homework; model initial steps of solution.


The merit of this revised lesson plan is that students perform a wider range of tasks, the theoretical material is better contextualized and thus has a better chance of being retained and applied, and when someone asks the students, “What did you do today in class?” they can reply on point: “We used the Law of Sines to do a land-survey of a town.” 

Up to this point, I have avoided using the terms “skills” and “learning objectives” because they can sometimes be regarded as empty jargon invoked at the beginning of every syllabus that have little bearing on the daily business of class time. Yet the terms are applicable and meaningful: “skills” comprise those discrete abilities the students develop through careful articulation of case studies such as the town survey; “learning objectives” comprise the instructor’s dogged focus on ensuring students perform tasks that have an observable outcome. Listening is also essential, but when that is all students are asked to do, they can run into difficulties when asked to perform applications independently—few of us can accelerate that fast without opportunities to process, practice, and make mistakes in a safe environment. Learning objectives are helpful because they keep us honest as teachers, preventing us from doing all the talking, requiring us to evaluate our material from the perspective of the most important people in the classroom: the students.

II. What activities and assignments can my students do before, during, and after class that will help them perform each of these tasks? 
We will consider pre- and post-lesson assignments shortly, but for now will focus on in-class activities. If I am able to give a sufficiently fine-grained answer to the question of what tasks students can perform as a result of my lesson, then many of the in-class activities take care of themselves. The more general the learning objective, the harder it is to visualize as a concrete activity; the more specific it is, the more easily it can be visualized as an exercise. For example, an objective such as “to explain their method in their own words to a peer” easily translates into a 6-minute activity in which students work with whomever they’re sitting beside (in pairs or groups of three) to explain in ordinary language how they addressed a problem. The usefulness lies in the sheer doing, the effort of articulating complexity and incomprehension; no grading is required! Exercises such as this one give students the chance to process their thoughts and talk their way to better understanding. 

After you have designed a number of different activities for the lesson, it can be instructive to step back and regard the lesson as a whole, considering how many of the following you can check off as having occurred in that class period:

            In-class Activity Checklist

  • Students had an opportunity to use prior knowledge, gleaned both from earlier class material and from life experiences.
  • Students had an opportunity to engage with new knowledge (through reading assignmentsthe lecture, watching video, etc.).
  • Students had an opportunity to listen, read, write, speak, and both work alone and interact with peers. It is not necessary for every lesson to involve this full range of activities, but if all your students are doing for the full period is listening to you and writing down what you say, then it is likely that their attention has strayed. Think about adding some group work, reflective writing, or requiring questions.
  • Students had an opportunity to process the new material in multiple ways by doing such things as: paraphrasing in their own words (orally and in writing); posing questions; graphing/drawing; finding analogous examples; finding counterexamples; applying to a new situation; role play; debate; spotting the deliberate error; rearranging out-of-order elements in proper sequence. It is not enough to lecture on the material and then move straight to the test. Class time provides the ideal opportunity for students to absorb the material variously. Primary school pedagogy leans heavily on such strategies as drawing pictures of or miming stories because representing knowledge in different media is a sure way to thoroughly internalize it. (See the entry below on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which explains some of the learning theory behind this recommendation.)
  • Students had an opportunity to reflect on their own learning process. This kind of metacriticism is immensely useful but generally underused. An ideal example is to ask students straight after a test to go back over incorrect answers and reflect on the reasons for their mistakes. By doing this, students get a chance not only to learn material they originally misunderstood but also to understand themselves as thinkers—that they made mistakes because they tried to do five steps in one, for example, instead of taking them seriatim; because they didn’t pay proper attention to the original question; because they didn’t double check; and so on. Give your students the chance to value their mistakes.


For pre-lesson activities, see reading assignments below. The basic rule is to give students something with a specific focus. Just instructing them to “read” or “watch” as homework will have haphazard results. If there’s something in particular they should be thinking about or looking for, then tell them.

A post-lesson assignment does not have to be a graded piece of work, but for this purpose, it is taken as such because it leads straight to the third question, which deals with assessment. In designing an assignment for grading, the same rules apply: keep the prompt clear and direct; identify what competencies students need to demonstrate in the assignment (these will be the criteria you use for grading); if possible, include draft states in which students have explicit permission not to worry about presentation and proofing; think through every step of the assignment from the student’s perspective, looking for vague language or instructions that might be misconstrued.

III. How will I evaluate my students’ performance of each of these tasks? 
If I have been clear and specific in identifying my learning objectives, and if I have assigned readings and designed in-class activities that help students directly fulfill those objectives, then evaluating how well they have done so follows logically enough. In evaluating student performance we are simply asking ourselves to identify how we know when the objectives have been fulfilled, setting up a controlled environment for assessment (the test or assignment), and working out a fair system of measurement (grading the test or assignment). 

In considering what observable behaviors will indicate to me that my students have “got it,” I am bound to come up with a list that is similar to the objectives themselves—for example, “students will graph this or that function” is as much a learning objective as it is an in-class practice activity as it is a criterion for formal assessment. If that circularity seems bothersome, it should not be, for the objective-practice-assessment relation triangulates its components rather than forming them as a linear sequence of cause and effect. I could just as easily plan my lesson by taking the graded assignment or outcome and abstracting the learning objectives from it.

Assessment can be done variously, and not everything we assess necessarily carries a grade. (For example, we might routinely ask questions of the students as we lecture, and form impressions of their various abilities by their answers, but those impressions do not necessarily directly translate into a grade.) In this unit, we will deal only with assessments that comprise some part of a final grade. They are subdivided here into two kinds: low-stakes assignments and and high-stakes ones.

By low-stakes assignments in this context, I mean tests or tasks that, taken individually, comprise only a small percentage of a final grade. Examples might be: 14 weekly quizzes of which the highest ten scores are averaged to give 20% of a final grade (each quiz thus representing 2%); a first draft of a term paper that must be submitted to complete the assignment but does not carry a separate grade; or a Blackboard discussion entry in which keeping up-to-date is more important than being well written. The virtue of low-stakes assignments is that they keep the student accountable on a frequent basis, reward effort (perspiration) as much if not more than ability (inspiration), and require little energy in grading beyond simply checking that the work has been done. 

High-stakes assignments refer to the more obvious kind of assessment hurdles that require major preparation and carry a significant percentage of a final grade: e.g., a one-hour midterm test, worth 20% of the final grade; a term paper, worth 40%. For these, it is essential to have a clear and communicable grading metric. The best way to do this is to devise a scoring rubric that answers the following questions: exactly what is being rewarded, and by how much? All too often (and especially in right/wrong quizzes) scoring rubrics can descend to the banal:

Criteria Exceeds Expectations Meets Expectations Approaches
Fails to Meet
Gets correct answer 9 or 10 correct out of
7 or 8 correct out of
5 or 6 correct out of
4 or fewer correct out
of 10


What is being assessed here is simply getting the right answer. Yet there are other criteria perhaps harder to ascertain that cut deeper into the learning process, such as: correctly recognizing the applicable formula; being able to explain why a particular formula applies; attentiveness to details that complicate the solution; ability to reduce the problem into discrete components; and so on. A more thoughtful scoring rubric for the exact same test might then look something like this:

Criteria Exceeds Expectations Meets Expectations Approaches
Fails to Meet
Understanding the
issue: 30%
You diagnose the issue
efficiently and correctly
You correctly
understand the issue but include some irrelevant material.
You imply but do not
state the issue.
You fail to identify
the issue or misidentify the issue.
Identifying the
applicable rule or formula: 30%
Correctly applying the
rule or formula to the specific facts or problem: 30%
Drawing the correct conclusion/getting
the right answer: 10%


Note that the criteria are proportionately weighted because they are not always of equal importance. 

To help your students understand what is expected of them in a high-stakes assignment, it is worth sharing the scoring rubric with them ahead of time and, even better, fill out the grid with them (as above for the first criterion). Filling out the grid describes student performance within a defined interval; it does not give away the correct answer. You can fill out the grid more thoroughly after you’ve graded the submissions because you have better insight into the students’ performance, but a pre-submission rubric still helps keep them straight about expectations and helps you keep your judgment balanced while grading.

A rubric such as the above combines what is known as summative assessment with formative assessment. The former aims to measure performance against an external standard; the latter refers to the process of gathering and implementing feedback.


Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010). 
Not really a beginner’s book, but beginners nonetheless should know about it. Apart from being deeply thoughtful and explaining many key principles of education, it also has really useful appendices at the end on learning objectives, scoring rubrics, and more.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Lots of very practical assignment ideas here, adaptable for all disciplines.

Huston, Therese. Teaching What You Don’t Know (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). 
Presents an intriguing argument: that the vulnerability new instructors feel in having to teach unfamiliar material is actually a positive opportunity that can bring out your greatest strengths as a teacher.

Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008). 
Hands-on guide that walks the beginner through the basics of teaching, from syllabus construction to grading exams.

Bloom’s Taxonomy 
The phrase refers to a map of learning goals that are shared by most if not all disciplines, even though dedicated vocabulary within individual disciplines might disguise the commonality of the domains. It originates from work done in the years after WWII by a task force of educators led by Benjamin Bloom. The ideas were developed and revised over decades, so the term refers to the ongoing science of mapping the learning process in order to establish effective learning objectives. Without needing to know too many of its details, there are two important points to note about the taxonomy.

First, the taxonomy subdivides into three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Most scholastic interest centers on the cognitive domain, but the affective and the psychomotor should not be ignored. The affective domain covers essential mental acts such as valuing and prioritizing, without which pure cognition is severely restricted in scope and application. When a student sees the relevance and importance of a topic, learning ability spikes. Psychomotor competencies have less obvious impact in scholastic mastery, unless some specific skill (e.g., in the surgery or laboratory) is called for, yet cognition is thoroughly dependent on them (writing, typing, and reading are all psychomotor skills), and abstract ideas can come alive for a student when asked to model them in some way by means of kinesthetic activities (sketching, miming, etc.). The point is that the more students can visualize a complex idea (i.e., one from the cognitive domain) in both affective and kinesthetic terms, the better they internalize it.

Second, the taxonomy often represents the learning process as a hierarchy of mental acts from recollecting ideas (at the bottom) to synthesizing them (at the top). Yet any examination of our own thought life should show us that the mind shuffles back and forth among stages in no set sequence, and that understanding holistically connects its component acts. As teachers, we can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help us break down an idea into discrete steps and sequence them from the simplest to the most complex. This strategy is also known as “scaffolding.”

At the same time, however, we should recognize that such articulation is a device for learning rather than a real description of a student’s mental process once mastery is achieved. Even so, it still provides a guide for us to check assignments we give. Have we asked students to jump from stating a formula to analyzing its application in some complicated scenario? Break the assignment into discrete steps, and only then ask your students to synchronize them all in tackling the most challenging task.

Diagnostic Exam 
Diagnostic tests should be directly aligned with the learning objectives for a course. An entrance diagnostic (as distinct from an exit diagnostic) assesses whatever competencies your students ideally should already possess at the start of semester. Assess only those competencies; don’t complicate the issue by importing extraneous material that distracts performance from the priorities.

Grade the test as clearly and objectively as possible. Do not include any diagnostic results in the final grade, or else students might be tempted to cheat and thus compromise the diagnostic value. If not including the results in the final grade disinclines students from taking the test seriously, emphasize that simply taking the test(s) counts positively for participation regardless of any score achieved.

There is much value in assigning an exit diagnostic near the end of the semester (same rules for administering it as with the entrance diagnostic). It is up to you whether to administer a similar/identical test as the entrance diagnostic or to test for different competencies learned through the semester.

First Day of Class
Here is how not to teach your first day of class: begin with the roster; distribute syllabus; spend 30 minutes repeating its contents and dealing with practical questions about textbooks, etc.; assign reading for next lesson; dismiss class early. 

The first lesson represents an important opportunity to engage your students and for learning to occur even if they know nothing about the subject and haven’t done any homework. It is understood that some part of the lesson has to be spent on “housekeeping” matters (important dates of exams, getting textbooks, etc.), but that still leaves room for learning something. Here are some key principles:

  • Students draw from prior knowledge. Assume no knowledge about the topic of the course, but they will have opinions and past experience to deploy. Use that resource.
  • Students encounter new knowledge. This can be delivered in various formats: a video clip, short lecture/demonstration, or reading excerpt.
  • Lesson addresses key concepts that inform the course. However modest the disciplinary content covered in the lesson, link it to the big questions and exciting ideas that the course addresses. Aim to convey the intellectual excitement of the topic.
  • Instructor gauges students’ abilities. This can be done informally (by asking questions of students and listening to their comments), but the most effective way to identify where your students are “at” and tailor your material to their needs is through a diagnostic exam.
  • Students relax and interact. It is perfectly appropriate for students to have fun, especially in this first lesson, for it is often through “play” that we learn best.
  • Instructor interacts with students. Making an effort to know students’ names and validate their individual perspectives has a direct and dramatic effect on student motivation and retention. The first meeting is the time to demonstrate its importance, but it should be reinforced every class. Set aside as much time as possible throughout the semester for one-on-one interaction (whether in person or by email) with your students and encourage (even require) them to visit you during your office hours.


Group Work 
This entry deals with informal collaborative learning during class time and does not refer to a high-stakes group project, which requires a lot of detailed preparation. Here are some guidelines:

  • Keep the prompt short, specific, and very clear.
  • Give them slightly less time than comfortably needed, to keep them on task.
  • Organize the task around an end product, such as a list of issues, evidence from a text, specific example/application, etc.
  • Keep groups at optimum size: work in pairs, or threes—five should be the maximum size of a group.
  • Identify different roles/tasks (e.g., a note-taker or someone who looks for counterexamples) to ensure fair division of labor within the group, and let them select.
  • Have a clear system for forming groups. If you don’t want them moving around, then have them confer with the person on their right or left. Or go around the class numbering everyone off according to the number of groups (“threes” in one corner, “fours” in another). This method has the advantage of splitting up cliques of inattentive students.
  • Walk around the groups, being unobtrusive but available. Group work is not a chance for you to finish your grading or check Facebook. Stay engaged, even if you say nothing.
  • Follow up. Check (however summarily) that the work was done, through a quiz or oral/written reports. The learning should occur in the collaborative act itself as much as or more than any post-group debrief.
  • Pull it together with a brief overall summary that hits on the main findings the group work was supposed to generate.


The Lecture 
Opinion about the appropriateness of the lecture remains divided among individuals and disciplines. For some, it remains the classroom staple, the most effective way of conveying knowledge; for others, it is sidelined in favor of more hands-on group- or lab-work and student presentations. Whichever way you lean, consider mixing your style a little. A lecture has the power to inspire and fascinate, but without built-in pauses to process the material in various ways, most of it will flow past students’ ears. Here are some guidelines:

  • Have a clear learning objective for your lecture, just as you would for a lesson, an assignment, and the whole course. Focus your material around being able to answer the question: “By the end of this lecture, my students will have/will be able to…”.
  • Stop every 12–15 minutes for 3–5 minutes to give time for students to process material. See Checklist in section II above for some suggested ways to process the material: paraphrasing in their own words (orally and in writing); posing questions; graphing/drawing; finding analogous examples or counterexamples; applying to a new situation; role play; spotting the deliberate error; rearranging out-of-order elements in proper sequence; brief multiple-choice quiz.
  • Use PowerPoint slides as prompts rather than substitutes-for-handouts. If all the necessary information is on the slide, then students will stop listening to you and copy unthinkingly what is on the slide; little is achieved by this. If you want your students to listen to what you are saying, limit your slide to one key word or to an image that requires interpretation. If, however, you want your PowerPoint slides to be a complete record of your lecture, then email  the slides to students and do something else during the lesson. When you do use PowerPoint, look at the students when you speak, not at the projected image.


Reading Assignments
Students might have the requisite literacy skills, but that does not necessarily mean that they know how to read analytically. Confronted with academic prose, with its complex sentence structure, footnotes, and technical vocabulary, students often either read too quickly, gleaning only vague impressions of content, or too slowly, trying unselectively to take notes on and absorb everything (which inevitably means they lose the forest for the trees and fail to complete the reading). When assigning readings, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Only assign readings that you yourself have thoroughly read and find appropriate.
  • Always relate readings to subsequent work; the students should be able to see that what they read connects to assignments.
  • Discuss with your students how fast/slow and how effectively they read; be willing to adjust amounts to make the workload manageable.
  • Help students know what to look for as they read by giving them one directive question ahead of time.
  • Build quizzes for readings to ensure they are completed and understood. In-class quizzes are effective but not always thorough. Deeper reading comprehension can be achieved with open-book quizzes built in Blackboard for completion before the lesson. With open-book quizzes, questions can be more searching and aimed at understanding rather than merely recollecting material. It takes a little time to build quizzes for Blackboard, but they provide excellent reading guides for students, can be reused for subsequent sections, and are auto-graded.
  • Assume the reading has been done if it has been assigned; plan the lesson on that assumption. Sometimes instructors assign a reading, then spend part of class summarizing it for students who didn’t do it, but in so doing they send a double message, tacitly permitting students not to complete the reading assignment.


by Valerie Allen