Lesson Planning Step-by-Step

This post outlines in brief the process for planning a lesson using principles of backward design and gradual release of responsibility, two widely accepted instructional approaches.

Goal conversation. What do you want the students to be able to do? Talk with the professor for the class about their goals, and consider reviewing with the professor the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy [or one of the tools]. In reviewing guidelines, consider that you’ll probably want to target just a few with any given instruction session, and probably no more than 3. (This doesn’t mean that your lesson won’t touch on many of the guidelines, but in selecting a focus consider which skills may be most important for the given group of students to learn.

Compose your goal. Write your instructional goals using student-centered language. Consider using this sentence stem and completing it for each goal, “By the end of this session, you will be able to…”

In writing your goals, consider using the SMART acronym to formulate manageable goals: (S-specific; M-measurable; A-achievable; R-relevant; T-time bound). Goals also generally use active verbs and avoid technical language. Goals can be leveled according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives, a hierarchy of thinking skills (https://ctl.yale.edu/BloomsTaxonomy). The skills are, from lowest to highest: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating. Many handouts available online, such as this one, offer a variety of verbs for each level of Bloom’s that can be incorporated directly into your objective.

Plan assessment. Consider how you will know whether students have achieved their goals in your session. You may want to plan an assessment that aligns with your learning objective. Keep in mind that assessments can be as simple as verbal checks (“thumbs up”/”thumbs down”) or observations.

Choose an activity. Research possible activities that might focus on your chosen goals. Most educators agree that “active learning” helps students to assimilate new skills. Active learning also fits into the “gradual release of responsibility” model for instruction.* Resources for activities include (links). Write out the procedure step-by-step in your lesson plan (writing it helps to identify potential logistical gaps!)

In choosing an activity keep in mind different learning modalities (the idea that everyone learns best in a single modality has been debunked, but different modalities still appeal to and engage different learners in different ways—for example, research has shown that children learn better when they move while learning. In thinking about learning modalities, also think about different learning styles an learning or physical disabilities. How can your lesson accommodate students with disabilities?

Check for gradual release of responsibility model*. The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction holds that students need time seeing someone with mastery demonstrate a skill, practicing skills with someone with mastery, and practicing on their own in order to achieve independence. Can you identify each of these in your lesson, or in your students’ experience? For example, perhaps students will have worked previously with their professor or have been asked to do some prepared reading that may count as the “direct instruction” portion. Perhaps students will have an assignment that may count as the “independent practice” portion. In either case, you might consider how you’ll activate that knowledge and make transparent those transitions in your session.

Reflect. After your lesson, reflect on your lesson plan and make notes about what went well and what might be changed while it’s fresh in your mind.

*About the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: The lesson plan template in the Guidelines Toolkit is drawn from a “Gradual Release of Responsibility” instructional model, which was developed by educational psychologists for literacy instruction in the 1980s (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983). The general idea behind the model is that learners adopt facility with a task through a combination of watching an instructor perform the task (“direct instruction” or “focus lesson”), performing the task together with the instructor (“guided instruction” or “guided practice”) and with peers (“collaborative learning”), and performing the task themselves (“independent”). Lessons can begin and end in any of the four levels, and the transition process can take a day, multiple days, weeks, or months. Still, individual lessons often follow a basic trajectory of direct instruction (“I do it”), guided practice or collaborative learning (“We do it together”), and independent practice (“You do it”).


Pearson, P. D. and M. C. Gallagher, “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. 2005. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

~Melissa Barton and the RBMS Instruction and Outreach Committee, 2019

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