In brief:

  • All activities in a unit of instruction should follow the general Instructional Framework to include Introduction, Presentation, Practice and Application. These should all work towards helping students meet the learning outcome.
  • When planning a unit of instruction, you should plan both appropriate learning activities and ways to give and receive feedback on learning at each phase of instruction.

This section will guide you through the process of planning a unit of instruction from beginning to end. This unit might include one or more class sessions. We recommend using the Unit Planning Template to guide you through the planning.

As you plan, there are two main components for each instructional phase. The first is to determine the most appropriate learning activities for each phase, and the other is to identify how you will assess them informally in order to give and receive feedback on learning.

Some things to consider as you start planning instruction:

  • Number of students;
  • Delivery mode;
  • Frequency and duration of class sessions;
  • Classroom space and set up;
  • Anticipated variations in student knowledge and skill;
  • The difficulty of the topic and any bottlenecks and/or threshold topics .

For more information on threshold topics, see Threshold Concepts.

Once you are ready, follow these steps to plan your unit.

1. Identify your unit learning outcome

At the unit level, your learning outcomes will target a subset of the knowledge, skills or values in your course-level learning outcomes. As such, the broad learning outcomes will be deconstructed into more discrete, manageable learning chunks. These supporting learning outcomes are at the center of your unit planning.

For more information on writing learning outcomes, refer to the Learning outcomes Module.

2. Determine how you will introduce the topic

The main purpose of the Introduction is to do three main things:

A. Establish what students already know about the topic and help them access that knowledge in order to prepare them to build on it

Getting students to remember related content/ an experience they can build on is an important step to ensure constructs are efficiently formed in students’ schema.

B. Pique student’s interest

It’s important to provide context for students to explain why what they are learning is important or valuable, how it relates to the field, and how it applies to everyday life.

  • Tell a story;
  • Watch a video;
  • Provide an activity that triggers an emotional response to the content;
  • Show examples of real-life applications;
  • Bring in objects.

C. Set expectations

This is a good time to share the learning outcome with students so they know exactly what they will be expected to know or do. You may also want to discuss your role and how you will help them.

The Importance of Background Knowledge

Background knowledge is all the beliefs, knowledge, skills and values a person has around a topic. Research shows that when we connect new knowledge to prior knowledge, we can help learning. However, when prior knowledge is insufficient or inaccurate, it can actually hinder learning. This is why it’s important to determine what students know about the topic in order to help them move forward in their learning. (Ambrose et. al., 2010)

3. Determine & plan how students will engage with the content

In this phase of instruction, students will be engaging with the content.

The first step is to pinpoint exactly what knowledge, skills and values students need to achieve the learning outcome and determine the best way for students to engage with this new content.

As you are selecting the sources of content, you will want to consider:

  • What content is need-to-know vs nice-to-know for achieving the objectives? This is your chance to weed out unnecessary pages from readings.
  • What resources currently exist? (i.e. videos, books, articles, software & simulations, images, learning objects, etc.)
  • How will you make the content accessible to all learners? (i.e. multiple means of representation)
  • How will you ensure content is presented from diverse perspectives? This is particularly important to engage critical engagement with the content.
  • How will you build in (formative) assessment and feedback?
  • How will you ensure students understand before moving onto the practice phase?

Once you have identified the sources of content, you can begin planning the learning activities. The typical ways students are introduced to new content is by: reading, watching a video, listening to a lecture, and participating in an experience.

However, depending on your sources and the nature of the content, you may consider taking a more student-centered approach. For example, are there ways students can “discover” the content? How will you involve learners in actively engaging with the content?

4. Select and design practice activities

In this phase of instruction, students practice with activities that target their understanding of the specific content and performance skills. It is important that they have the opportunity to practice discrete knowledge and skills several times before consolidating it with other knowledge.

When designing these activities, keep in mind that they will need to focus specifically on new knowledge and skills and start simple but sufficiently challenging.

What does the research say about Practice?

Learning is most successful when it is focused on a specific outcome or criterion, is at the appropriate level of difficulty, and occurs often enough for a suitable duration. (Ambrose et. al., 2010)

As you plan this phase of instruction, consider the following questions:

  • How will you model and scaffold skills? (examples, smaller tasks that build)
  • What kinds of support mechanisms can be used (cues, hints & prompts)
  • How will you design activities that allow for multiple means of expression of learning?
  • How will you build in (formative) assessment and feedback?

5. Select and design application activities

In this phase of instruction, students apply new content and skills and integrate these with previous knowledge. The activities should provide opportunities for students to incorporate new and prior knowledge and apply it to new situations and/or real-world scenarios.

As you plan this phase of instruction, consider the following questions:

  • What activities can you design that mimic real-world tasks in the field?
  • How can you design activities that provide students opportunities to draw from their own diverse backgrounds and experiences?
  • How will you build in feedback?
  • Authentic projects and tasks specific to the discipline;
  • Roleplay
  • A scenario or a Case Study;
  • Relate a current event to course work using the Contemporary Issues Journal;
  • Organize or facilitate a community event;
  • Community work.

The next section will:

  • demonstrate ways the Instructional Framework can be adapted for different instructional flows of content.

Resources & Further Reading

(Chapter 5: What Kinds of Practice and Feedback Enhance Learning)

  • Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons. Collaborative Learning Techniques
  • Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.