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Two Steps to Improve Lesson Planning Through Instructional Design

Utilize instructional design principles to improve student learning and increase effectiveness in lesson planning


In order to provide an equitable, engaging, and effective education for all students, teachers must feel capable of creating meaningful learning experiences and spaces. Regardless of content or grade, great lessons share several attributes, including instruction that is:

  • Targeted and relevant,

  • Actively engaging,

  • Socially connected, and

  • Growth-oriented.

Each lesson presents an opportunity to achieve these outcomes, but it can be challenging to know the specific steps and instructional moves that turn this vision into reality. By utilizing instructional design principles when lesson planning, educators can better create personalized, mastery-based, and whole-child-focused learning experiences with their students.

Instructional design refers to the process and choice points of planning learning experiences. Educators implement it on a regular basis when designing curriculum, instruction, and professional development. By utilizing instructional design concepts in lesson planning, educators can better align their learning materials, tools, and experiences to rigorous learning outcomes and the larger vision and goals of a course – all while meeting the unique needs of learners.


Step 1: Start with the end in mind. Where do we need to go?

Effective lessons begin with a clear vision of how learning fits into a larger picture and will be utilized. To develop this vision, educators should:

  • Consider their unique classroom and students' context. What is known about learners – their motivations, needs, preferences, and goals? The more a learning experience is personalized for learners, the more likely they are to grapple with challenging content and concepts and apply them meaningfully to their own context. This increases both the relevancy and social connectedness of a classroom.

  • Create essential questions. What is the big-picture vision or purpose of this lesson? What will an understanding of this content allow students to think about, connect to, or explore? How does it fit into the scope and sequence, building off previous concepts and/or connecting to future learning? Determine what big-picture questions learners can answer as a result of this lesson to ensure content is rigorous and cognitively engaging.

  • Determine indicators of success. How are learners expected to apply this content? What evidence would indicate that the learning experience was successful? There are a variety of ways to measure a student’s ability to apply their learning. While assessments are a traditional tool, consider other methods aligned with students’ unique strengths and needs. Performance tasks (e.g., portfolio, performance, summative project) are an alternative way for students to demonstrate an ability to apply learning in a variety of manners.

  • Draft clearly defined objectives. What key ideas or points must students internalize? What specific skills are necessary for the larger application of learning? Once the details around big-picture vision and application have been determined, educators must break down the key knowledge and skills that learners must develop throughout this experience in order to adequately apply concepts. Ensure the objectives are observable, measurable, and right-sized, meaning they can realistically be achieved in the time given.

Many refer to this process as “backward planning.” For more on this approach, explore the Understanding By Design (UbD) Framework, a resource that supports teachers in building understanding and application in students. To increase access and engagement for all learners, regardless of their unique needs and abilities, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework offers a variety of considerations and ideas.

Step 2: Design the learning. How will we get there?

Once an educator has set a clear vision and drafted strong objectives, it is time to design the learning experience. To ensure strong alignment with their vision, educators should:

  • Select the learning approach. What is the best way to introduce and build key concepts? How should students engage throughout the lesson? When developing a lesson, educators must choose a pedagogical approach best suited to their desired outcomes, while considering the unique strengths and needs of their students. Whether they choose an inquiry-based model (e.g., “The 5 Es”), a more traditional structure (e.g., “I do, we do, you do”), or any other approach (e.g., flipped classroom), teachers must think critically about the ways in which students will actively engage with ideas and application in an order that leads up to the big-picture vision.

  • Plan for student practice. How will students “try on” the learning throughout the lesson? How can practice be differentiated for learners with diverse strengths and needs? What is the ratio of thinking to applying/doing? Opportunities for students to practice the application of learning should be directly aligned to indicators of success (noted above), and, when possible, used throughout the entire lesson – not just at the end.

  • Build in opportunities for feedback. How will students know if they are on the right track to mastering content? What are the key points in a lesson where misunderstandings commonly occur, and how will they be addressed? Feedback is critical to creating a growth-oriented learning environment and ensures students are not applying misunderstandings for long before receiving support or intervention.

The ADDIE Model for instructional design offers additional considerations for teachers to construct meaningful learning experiences throughout the lesson-planning process.

By implementing these instructional design steps, educators can better align lessons to a meaningful vision, meet the unique needs of their students and setting, and facilitate both understanding and application for learners. With a strong lesson plan, educators are better prepared for implementation, where they can collect and analyze meaningful data about students’ progress and restart the steps above.

Strategy Resources

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines

Based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, the UDL Guidelines serve as a... Learn More

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Understanding By Design (UbD) Framework

The Understanding By Design (UbD) framework is a planning resource that supports the design of... Learn More

The ADDIE Model for Instructional Design

The ADDIE Model for instructional design helps educators to create meaningful learning experiences and training... Learn More

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Equity Focus

Instructional design frameworks often require instructors to know, consider, and plan for the unique needs of their audience. UDL, in particular, has been utilized to increase both learning experiences and outcomes for diverse learners in a variety of settings (e.g., professional development for adults, lesson plans for youth). By designing learning experiences with users’ needs and required applications of their learning in mind, educators can improve equitable access for a greater number of students.

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The instructional design frameworks referenced in this resource have been utilized and researched for decades, with documented evidence of their effectiveness presented across a variety of professional fields and contexts.