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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Carlson

Submission: "How do I design a unit?"

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

A person recently filled out the Google Form on my website asked, "How do I turn lesson plans into lectures/activities?" I think they basically meant, "How do I design a unit?" I don't know if they'll ever see this post, but I'm going to answer and just hope that they do!

TLDR; Personally, I feel like this question is backwards. I decide my lectures, activities, labs, case studies, etc., based on the objectives I define at the beginning of the unit. I then write up my lesson plans from there.

Want a more thorough description? Read on!

You may have heard of "backwards design" before. I had a principal who totally interpreted this concept the wrong way. He had us turn in our end-of-semester exams at the beginning of the school year, thinking that this was what was meant by backwards design!! Ugh, it was so dumb.

Sometimes, things don't go the way you expect.

Sometimes, you don't get to certain topics.

Sometimes, you change your plans halfway through a unit.

I'm not always good at following rules, especially when I think something is stupid ;), so that year, I turned an old exam from a year or two prior. It wasn't even the exam I ended up using, but nothing was ever questioned, and I doubt the principal really ever looked at it.

Backwards design is NOT writing the test first. It is defining what you want students to have learned by the end of the unit, and then designing a unit around those objectives.

You find and/or create your activities, lectures, labs, etc. in a way that helps guide kids to master what you want them to learn. THEN you write your assessments, interspersing them throughout the unit & at the end of the unit. These assessments are used to determine what kids have learned, relative to your objectives.

Assessment data is important not only to gauge what kids are understanding, but it can also help you determine how effective your teaching is. If everyone is bombing your tests and quizzes, let's be real- it's rarely because your entire class is lazy and dumb. The most likely reasons are because 1) the assessments are written really poorly and kids are confused (or the assessment is way too hard), 2) you're not actually assessing kids on what you taught, or 3) they're not mastering what you're teaching, and you need to find new ways to get the content across.

If this happens and you're at a loss, ask someone for help. Have a mentor or experienced teacher analyze your data with you- the way you're teaching, what your assessments look like, etc- and see if you can diagnose the issues and improve from there.

ANYHOO! Back to the point. Backwards design is not creating a test first- again, it's defining your objectives and keeping them in mind the entire time you design a unit. If you teach a class that has pre-existing standards (Biology has NGSS, AP courses have their own standards, etc), start there. If none exist (such as with my A&P class), you need to start by defining the objectives of the unit.

My process for A&P is as follows:

1. Lay out the material of the unit in an outline. What do you want kids to know? What info is important to cover? What order are you going to go in? For example, when I re-structured my cardiovascular unit, I decided to teach in this order:

  • Components of blood

  • Blood typing

  • Blood pathways

  • The heart

I then got more specific from here. What did I want kids to know about blood components? How detailed was I going to get about blood typing? Etc.

I always create objectives in the form of "I can" statements, which both the students and I use throughout every unit. Here is an example (this is just one of two or three pages!).

2. Find activities that help cover the content & objectives. I recommend finding activities, case studies, interesting articles, & labs first, because sometimes, you'll find really good hands-on or minds-on content that allows you to bypass a lecture. Examples:

  • To teach about erythropoietin, I had the kids analyze why some athletes altitude train- I found an article for them to read and then apply to what they learned

  • Blood typing is HARD, so I created a hands-on blood typing manipulative model that kids could use. I wasn't happy with the models that existed already, so I made my own.

  • I have a fun heart rate lab that allows kids to explore what impacts heart rate. While it's not really that challenging of a lab overall, it still gives them practice in experimental design and critical thinking.

3. Decide what lectures you need to fill the gaps. Keep them as short as possible, and as engaging as possible. Check out some of my active learning strategies in my book, Teaching Hacks (on Amazon).

4. Consider how you're going to assess students- throughout the unit, and at the end of the unit. Make sure your assessments line up with your objectives/goals of the unit. Please don't use the textbook test if you don't teach out of your textbook!!

5. Once you have your general plan laid out, then you can create your lesson plans with your objectives, activities, lectures, etc. Hopefully you don't have to submit your lesson plans at school (just another hoop to jump through), but if you do, remember- they don't have to be perfect, and you CAN change them if things aren't going as planned.

Hopefully that helps! And if anyone else has ideas or thoughts to share, please do!

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