3 Keys to Unit Design


Teaching is difficult.

Amid the day to day crises of crying students, angry parents, and lost prep periods, the curriculum marches on.

Planning units and lessons becomes less and less frequent, and relying on the stuff you did last year becomes the norm.

The dawn of Common Core has left some districts, and many teachers, to wonder how to manage it all, and still provide quality teaching and learning for their students.

The task is not impossible, and the process is not unfamiliar. It will require some time, but your students are worth it. 

The following three keys can help you create a rigorous standards-based unit:

1. Review YOUR standards.*

  • For math and ELA go to: http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/ 
  • For science go to: https://www.nextgenscience.org/ 
  • Determine which standards are represented in your particular unit and get familiar with them. 
  • Identify recurring concepts from the standards.
    • Ex. I reviewed the Middle school science standards on Force and Motion and it deals with Newton’s Third Law, gravity, electricity and magnetism.

2. Create assessments.

  • Use three different types of assessment throughout the unit:
    • Traditional paper and pencil (multiple choice, short answer etc.),
    • Writing activity  (essay, lab report or powerpoint)
    • Project (poster, model, song, video, debate, etc.)
      • Be sure to have clear grading expectations.
        • Creating rubrics with students is a great way to deepen their understanding and create a collaborative environment.
  • Create your summative assessment**. This end of unit assessment should give students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the standards. Projects work best here.
    • N.B. students can work on summative assessment projects throughout the unit.
      • Specific due dates related to components of the project keep students on task and limits opportunities of procrastination.
  • Use various assessment tools to create formative diagnostic assessments.
    • These formative assessments are based around individual topics. In the above example, you may have them write up a lab on magnetism, have a multiple choice quiz on electricity, and design an experiment around Newton’s Third Law.
    • Some benefits to multiple assessments are: varied student data in the gradebook, opportunities to check students’ understanding and provide feedback. Assessment is the tool to inform instruction and planning.

3. Schedule the unit.

  • I use the following formula:

Number of weeks in this unit ÷ number of concepts + three days to review = unit scope and sequence.

  • Set hard dates for your summative and formative diagnostic assessments. Do not waiver!
    • Moving-on is difficult for many teachers, especially if they feel students aren’t “getting it.” But, if you provide students multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding, and use those results to adjust instruction, students will learn. Every time you push back a lesson you take time away from the next unit. Do not sabotage your scope and sequence trying to reach 100% mastery! 
  • Break down each standard or concept further. 
    • Ex. Q. What about Newton’s Third Law do they need to know? A. Measuring force, and mass.
  • Starting with the interim assessment, work backwards to develop your daily lessons. These lessons should create experiences for students around the specific concepts on the upcoming assessment.
    • Ex. if students are designing an experiment to test Newton’s Third law, they will need to watch videos of similar experiments, witness teacher modeling of Newton’s Third Law, participate in labs, etc.

A well designed unit will help you for years to come. Use rigorous standards-based assessments, take a step by step approach, and use the volumes of resources available to you. 

Roll up your sleeves and immerse yourself in the work, you never know who you’ll inspire.

-Mike Sposito

Owner Spowerks LLC


* Understanding the standards in a linear way (from grade level to grade level), is essential to differentiation, but the core of your instruction should be built around grade level standards. Above or below grade level instruction should be provided to students on a case by case basis.

**follow this link for a comparison of summative, formative and interim assessments.

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