Planning a College and Career–Ready Lesson

The most cognitively complex task in the history of the world.

By Scott Sterling

A few weeks ago, we discussed planning a rigorous unit. Of course, a unit is made up of individual lessons. Those lessons need to be focused on the goal of college and career readiness, as dictated by your state standards. However, on a daily basis, what does college and career readiness look like?

Rigor—the meeting of autonomy and complexity—is a big part. You want to move toward more cognitively complex tasks, dealing in real-world scenarios that students will encounter after they finish high school.

Before discussing what some of these tasks might actually look like, let’s discuss:

  • How to mine a standard for what you need
  • What your objectives might be for a lesson


Unpack the standard

In the Rigorous Unit post, we briefly touched on the concept of unpacking a standard. We will go into more detail on this important topic next week. Essentially, it’s mining a standard for what it requires—both content and tasks—so that you can plan an appropriate lesson.

Content is usually easy to find. The standard will come out and say, “Two-digit division.” The tasks that students are required to perform with two-digit division are a little subtler. It may be up to you to decide what those tasks should be. To make them as rigorous as possible, we need taxonomy.

The new educational objectives

We’re all familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and we’ve all designed lessons that move up and down the ladder/pyramid/random graphic organizer. Perhaps this isn’t much of a departure, but here at Learning Sciences International, we’re starting to employ a new taxonomy for the era of college and career readiness:

  1. Retrieval: Recognizing, recalling, and executing information
  2. Comprehension: Integrating, symbolizing, matching, and classifying information
  3. Analysis: Analyzing errors, generalizing, or specifying information
  4. Knowledge Utilization: Decision making, problem solving, experimenting, and generalizing


Notice how true “tasks” don’t really make an appearance until the end of the taxonomy, in knowledge utilization. Sure, classifying information is a task, and one that will be called for in the workplace, but it’s not necessarily complex; it only demonstrates a mastery of the previous level, retrieval. That’s why we scaffold.


Although the goal is to have students performing knowledge utilization tasks, you can’t drop them into the deep end of the pool without water wings—the previous three objectives. In fact, in a rigorous college and career–ready lesson, you move in order.

For those who work in Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching Observation and Feedback Protocol, you’re already familiar with this practice in the form of design questions, with Design Question 1 coming before Design Question 2 and so on. Cognitively complex tasks are found mostly in both Design Question 4 and the knowledge utilization category in the new taxonomy.

Cognitively complex tasks

Although this isn’t an exhaustive list (and the creative teacher will come up with many, many more), here are a few tasks that can be considered cognitively complex. They not only reflect a deep understanding of the content and skills of the lesson but also tend to resemble tasks that students will be asked to perform in the “real world”:

  • Experimental Inquiry: Make a prediction, design an experiment to test that prediction, and then examine the results. Experimental inquiry isn’t devoted exclusively to the territory of science; predictions happen in every subject area.
  • Problem Solving: Use knowledge to overcome certain difficulties.
  • Decision Making: Select from equally appealing options based on knowledge, then be able to explain that decision rationally.
  • Investigation: Test hypotheses about past, present, or future events.


Frame these tasks in the context of real-world scenarios in your subject field (or multidisciplinary studies) and you’ve just created the end of a college and career–ready lesson. Everything else should fall into place.

Next week: Unpacking Standards

How has your lesson planning changed in this new era of college and career readiness? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

For more information about the Marzano Center 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.

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