Creating well-structured lessons
Well-structured lessons are vital to student success. However, what exactly constitutes a ‘well-structured’ lesson?
This is a difficult question to answer and could be debated differently by educators from across the world. All different types of lessons have a place in the modern classroom and depending on the learning goal, this can change. However, over time all great teachers develop a consistent lesson structure that enables students to be stimulated, challenged and learn (1).
When structuring, educators often start with units of work, planning the sequence within and between lessons to optimise learning time. This high impact teaching strategy helps both teachers and students. For educators, it helps reduce some of the mental load and organises content into manageable chunks and for students, it can help promote and sustain engagement (2).
In this article, we unpack the key elements of well-structured lessons and their benefits, and explore how to incorporate them into your daily classroom practice.
I like to think of a great lesson almost like a good menu with an entree, main and dessert. So let’s jump into what that looks like!
Entree: Learning objective
Most effective lessons begin with a clearly defined learning objective and corresponding success criteria (3). This sets students up for success as they understand what they are trying to accomplish and the steps they need to take to get there.
If you’re keen to learn more about setting up great learning goals check out our article on learning intentions and success criteria.
Main: Student-led activity
This section takes up the majority of the lesson time and can be broken into one or more learning activities (3). Here, students are acquiring new knowledge, problem-solving, thinking critically, or applying skills to new situations.
Often students will require heavy teacher guidance at the start - and then as the students build confidence, educators can move into an observatory role, checking for understanding using formative assessment strategies (3). This can be the most challenging section for teachers and students, as knowledge is not acquired at the same pace and therefore differentiation may be needed.
Dessert: Lesson summary
As with all good dinners, lessons should end with dessert. And in a classroom context that often looks like a summary of the lesson (4). While it may feel good to have students working so hard that time flies, ending the lesson right on the bell, rather than with a summary, isn't always the best practice. Giving students time to reflect on the lesson outcomes, digest information, and formulate any questions helps them to process the lesson.
Benefits of structuring lessons
It’s been found that structured lessons with summaries, increasing difficulty, and links to prior learning have an impact on student learning (5). Interestingly, research has noted that it is difficult to measure the benefit of structuring lessons alone, as the implementation of this strategy is made up of many factors that can impact student engagement, motivation and attainment (4). However, we can look at two of the major components of a well structured lesson which will help paint the picture of why this HITS is vital to student success.
Every great lesson structure will include scaffolding (4). This can occur at the beginning when outlining learning goals, or throughout the main body of the lesson when students are accessing new skills and information and applying their knowledge. Rarely do teachers let students flounder when seeing new information. Or when they find the content difficult and therefore use the lesson structure to step out of learning activities to ensure time on task is maximised (4). If we look at the impact of scaffolding it’s been reported to have an effect size of 0.53 and we know that this contributes to a well-structured lesson (4).
An often misunderstood concept, teacher clarity is a broad term that can be defined by four key elements. These include organisation, explanation, examples and guided practice, and assessment of student learning (7). These key elements have been found to have an impact on both academic learning and student motivation with an approximate average effect size of 0.86 and 1.23 respectively (8). Linking back to structured lessons all of these elements are established using a well-structured lesson.
Tips for creating a great structure
1. Rhythm and routines
The best place to start is to pick a routine that works for both you and your students and stick to it. It will take a little bit of time for both of you to get used to it and for it to just become the natural flow of your classroom. While it sounds simple, students thrive on consistency and once they know what to expect from each lesson you may even find student behaviour becomes more positive, time spent on task increases, and transitions between activities are less stressful.
2. Bell ringers
Bell ringers are fantastic activities that students can start working on independently or quietly in pairs the moment they come into the classroom. The work students complete in this task could be linked to the last lesson, a reflection activity, or skill-based depending on the nature of your subject. These activities serve several purposes. Firstly, it allows the teacher time to do some administration and get the learning intentions up and ready to go. Secondly, it settles students into the classroom and gets them prepped for learning. Often with the inclusion of bell ringers educators find that student behaviour at the beginning of class is much easier to manage. Finally, students know what to expect and have dedicated space to get their minds ready for learning.
3. Learning intentions
Creating great learning intentions and success criteria is a high impact teaching strategy in itself. Establishing a time at the start of each lesson to work through the learning intentions and what success looks like provides students with a more clear understanding of what they are trying to learn.
Often when students are asked what they’re learning in a class they respond by describing the task (9). Answers such as “I am doing a worksheet” or “I am creating a PowerPoint” will be commonly heard (9). These responses address the task students are completing, not the learning taking place. However, when students are exposed to their learning goals for each lesson, responses are more involved around the learning, such as “I am learning how ecosystems work” - which is a much more clear and more impactful answer!
During the main portion of each lesson, students are given a variety of different tasks. They may be required to create a mind map, write a summary, solve problems, or complete a creative task. We don’t want this to become repetitive for students. So while we are always striving for the structure, we don’t want our lessons to become boring (even though no matter what we do our students could argue they are!). To allow for flexibility here, while also supporting students, we can offer scaffolds to help students access the task, regardless of what they have been asked to achieve.
5. Exit strategies
Exit strategies are a wonderful option for ending lessons. They not only wrap up the lesson and link students back to the learning objectives, but they also help educators obtain formative feedback on student progress. This vital information can help inform a teacher’s next steps within the lesson sequence and inform decisions about what other interventions to use. There are many ways to include this strategy. Exit tickets ask students to write down:
- 3 things they learnt
- 2 questions they have
- and 1 thing they are confused about.
If this is too involved for every lesson, you can also ask students to rate their confidence from 1-5 at the end of each lesson by holding up the corresponding number of fingers. While this won’t give you specific information, it’s a great tool to collect student attitude feedback quickly and easily! No matter how you decide to end your lesson, ensuring it links back to the learning intentions will help your students be more reflective and active in the learning process.
If you’re short on time with collecting exit tickets, using sticky notes is a great way for students to quickly write down the information before leaving the classroom. Better yet, you can ask students to stick their note onto some coloured paper next to the door. Each colour represents how students felt about the lesson (green for good, yellow for okay, and red for bad). This means you don’t necessarily need to read through responses, but will still get a sense of how the students felt about the content overall.
It’s easy to forget the importance of creating a great lesson structure. And how this can support students in their learning and help to keep them motivated. While changing things up helps to keep our lessons interesting, encouraging a structure that can withstand some flexibility and the inevitable school interruptions will help to support all students in meeting their learning goals. It’s important to remember that one size does not fit all in this situation and to play around with what works best for both you and your students.
At Atomi, we want to help you take back time in your busy day. We’re offering a free lesson planning template to guide you in creating well-structured and organised lesson plans. Download it here and use it to form an effective plan for meeting your teaching objectives.
Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?
Discover the ultimate guide to HITS—an exploration of ten high impact teaching strategies, condensed into short chapters and paired with practical tips, tricks and templates to embed into your teaching instruction.
Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.
- Russo, J and Hopkins, S, 2017, Examining the Impact of Lesson Structure when Teaching with Cognitively Demanding Tasks in the Early Primary Years, Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Melbourne
- Evidence for learning, 2023, DET Victoria High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS)
- Schmoker, M, 2013, The lost art of teaching soundly structured lessons, Education Week
- The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government
- Kyriakides, L., Christoforou, C. and Charalambous, C, 2013, What matters for student learning outcomes: A meta-analysis of studies exploring factors of effective teaching, Teaching and Teacher Education, 36, 143-52.
- Hattie, J. 2009,. Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta analyses relating to achievement. United Kingdom: Routledge.
- Titsworth, S, Mazer, J, Goodboy, A, Bolkan, S and Myers, S, 2015, Two Meta-analyses Exploring the Relationship between Teacher Clarity and Student Learning, Communication Education
- Killian, S, 2017, Teacher Clarity: A potent yet misunderstood teaching strategy, Evidence-Based Teaching
- Gassenheimer, C, 2019, Hattie Says Teacher Clarity Is One of the Top Learning Interventions. Here’s How It Works., Alabama best practice centre