Planning a Rigorous Unit: the Map to Student Achievement

Your current unit plans might just be going in circles

by Scott Sterling

When you look at your curriculum at the beginning of the year, some units just naturally stick out. It might be because every year, teaching place value is an uphill slog—or that the poetry unit always turns out to be a highlight. Some lessons just belong together.

We operate in units because it’s a lot easier than writing a lesson plan every morning, but these tried-and-true units might not necessarily meet the goals of college and career readiness standards, including increased rigor.

How do we get them there? We have a system for that.

The unit plan design process

There are seat-of-your-pants teachers and those who are more purposeful about their planning. Teachers should be deliberate about both their planning and their practice. New goals for education in this country demand that kind of dedication. Process is important.

There were a few practice sessions at Building Expertise 2014 based on rigorous unit planning, from which I am plainly stealing because the content was so good. All of these sessions espoused a similar process for unit plan design. We’ll go further in-depth with some of these topics in later blog posts:

  1. Organize Content
  2. Unwrap Standards
  3. Create Scales and Targets
  4. Develop Assessments
  5. Scaffold and Design Lessons

Organize Content

Like I said, some standards just naturally go together. Others have to be shoehorned. Whatever the case, figuring out what goes with what is the first step in unit planning. Some standards are essential while others are supplemental. Class time is valuable, so you need to figure out the right mix.

Isolate your scales for the entire unit (you will also have lesson scales later). As usual, you want to know where the students are going and how you (and they) will be able to measure their progress.

Unwrap Standards

We’re going to have a whole post on this topic because it’s so critical to deliberate practice, but for those who don’t know what unwrapping a standard means, it’s the process of analyzing a standard for the knowledge and skills a student needs to know. You take it apart, find key ideas, and organize them into the goals and scales you’ll use during the lessons.

Create Scales and Targets

Take your unwrapped standard(s) and use them to create the students’ roadmap to success. As we have discussed previously, these will be shared explicitly with the students during the unit.

Develop Assessments

It’s up to you whether to employ pre- and post-tests for each lesson or for the unit overall, but they should mirror each other and make it easy for you to put each student on the scale. Use formative assessment strategies to monitor progress between the two tests. These all need to be planned ahead of time.

Scaffold and Design Lessons

Finally, come up with a sequence for your targets and the lessons you will use to get there. These should cover what will be happening in the classroom on a daily basis using the most appropriate Domain 1 learning strategies. This is perhaps the most deliberate part of deliberate practice.

Next week: What is Deliberate Practice?

How does this differ from your current unit planning strategy? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

For more information about the Marzano Center’s new Essentials for Achieving Rigor initiative and how it can improve your instructional practice, visit this new page and download Teaching for Rigor: 
A Call for a Critical Instructional Shift by Robert J. Marzano and Michael D. Toth.