Ten Simple Rules for Creating an Effective Lesson

I’m preparing a couple of talks based on Teaching Tech Together, and this seems like a useful topic to cover. Updated notes are below; I’d be grateful for feedback by email. (I’ve disabled comments on this site until the trolls find someone else to pester.)


  • There are many kinds of lessons, formal and informal, from seconds long to lifelong
  • This guide is about prepared instructional plans and content for half an hour to a day

A Little Bit of Theory

  • Psychology of learning
    • Load short term memory
    • Keep it there long enough to transfer to long term memory
    • Create links so that knowledge is retrievable (bigger obstacle than outright retention)
  • Goal for novices is to build a mental model
    • Following a path through a concept map helps ensure connectedness
    • Naming subgoals help
  • Cognitive load theory points out that learners are trying to:
    • Recall factual knowledge
    • Choose a solution strategy
    • Formulate a response
    • Use tools,
    • So teach these all separately and synthesize as a lesson in its own right
  • While we’re here, a few myths:
    • Mindset and stereotype threat are probably not as important as initially thought (this is how science progresses)
    • VAK learning styles
    • The “Pyramid of Learning”
    • And teaching evaluations are suspect, as are self-assessments

1. Write Learner Personas to Define Your Audience

  • A lesson is a user interface for knowledge, so borrow methods from user interface design
  • You are not your learners (expert blind spot)
  • General background
  • What they already know
  • What they think they want to know
  • What they actually need to know in order to achieve their aims (which may be different from what they think)
  • Special considerations (e.g., accessibility, child care)
  • How the lesson will help them achieve their aims
  • First four parts are usually shared across multiple lessons and instructors

2. Write Summative Assessments to Set Concrete Goals

  • “Understand linear regression” is vague; a specific exercise makes aim much clearer
  • Also helps communicate value of lesson to learners
  • Derive learning objectives from what learners will do to demonstrate knowledge
  • Remember, “understand X” isn’t checkable
  • Draw a concept map!
  • This series should be “7 plus or minus 2 Rules”

3. Write Formative Assessments for Pacing, Design, Preparation, and Reinforcement

  • Spend 1-2 minutes checking in with learners via formative assessment every 10-15 minutes
  • Pacing: are they still with you?
  • Design: they act as milestones building toward the summative assessment
  • Preparation: everything in the summative assessment should be exercised by a formative assessment
  • Reinforcement: learners remember more if they use material right away (problem isn’t forgetting, but access)
  • Doing this almost always tell you that you’re trying to cover too much
  • Makes prerequisites explicit
    • Enumerating prerequisite knowledge and skills helps you overcome expert blind spot
    • And helps stitch lessons together
    • Be careful not to intimidate learners who have impostor syndrome
    • As with summative assessment, works best when concrete
    • Not “understand linear regression”, but “can do the following”

4. Be Inclusive

  • Choice of language or examples will tell people whether or not they’re welcome and likely to be taken seriously
  • (If you don’t already know this, you’re probably a member of a privileged group)
  • Do not use a deficit model (“they” are missing something, “they” need to try harder)
  • For example, Lach2018 explored two strategies:
    • Community representation: highlights students’ social identities, histories, and community networks using after-school mentors or role models from students’ neighborhoods, or activities that use community narratives and histories as a foundation for a computing project. Major risk is shallowness, e.g., using computers to build slideshows rather than do any real computing.
    • Computational integration: incorporates ideas from the learner’s community, e.g., reverse engineering indigenous graphic designs in a visual programming environment. Major risk is cultural appropriation, e.g., using practices without acknowledging origins.
    • When in doubt, ask your learners and members of their community what they think you ought to do and give them control over content and direction.
  • DiSa2014a demonstrates effectiveness

5. Eliminate Incentives for Cheating

  • Cheating is usually not a symptom of moral failing, but a rational response to poorly-designed incentives
    • Beck2014 found that cheating is no more likely online than in person
  • Motivation and demotivation in adult learners
    • Motivators: agency, utility, communality
    • Demotivators: unpredictability, unfairness, indifference
  • Examples from Lang2013:
    • Set the cost of failure very high
    • Rely on single assessment mechanisms like multiple-choice tests
    • Arbitrary grading criteria

6. Use Concreteness Fading

  • PETE (Problem, Explanation, Theory, Example) goes from specific and tangible to more abstract
  • What is the authentic problem that the lesson solves next?
  • Explain a concrete solution
  • Fill in the underlying theory
  • Provide a second example so that learners will understand which parts generalize
  • Authentic problem may be an end goal, or in later lessons, may arise out of a previous solution
  • Build a usable mental model so that learners have somewhere to put knowledge, then correct the model as necessary
  • E.g., ball-and-spring model in chemistry, evolution solely by descent, CPU-memory-disk model in computing

7. Design for Peer Instruction

  • Scalable approximation of individual tutoring that engages learners
    1. Students do pre-class reading
    2. Instructor poses question
    3. Students vote publicly
    4. Students discuss reasoning with each other
    5. Students re-vote
    6. Instructor reviews
  • Crou2001 and Port2016 are just two examples of studies showing its effectiveness
  • In practice, often do some instruction in class, but always leading to peer discussion as quickly as possible
  • E.g., type and run a few lines of code, then ask “what happens if I add X?” or “what line do I add to achieve Y?”
    • Thanks to Mark Guzdial for this example
  • The Discussion Book has many other methods (e.g., think-pair-share)

8. Design Around Worked Examples

  • Learners learn faster from worked examples than they do from solving problems on their own
    • They eventually need to do the latter, but step-by-step explanation of why and how helps more
  • Live performances (music, programming, theorem proof) are effectively worked examples
    • The “PEE” in “PETE”

9. Show How to Detect, Diagnose, and Correct Common Mistakes

  • One aspect of worked examples that’s important enough to deserve its own section
  • Novices spend much of their time making mistakes and trying to fix them, because they’re novices
  • Including DD&C in the lesson reduces frustration, which in turn accelerates learning
  • Also helps solidify their mental model

10. Foster Collaboration with Other Instructors

  • DiSa2014b shows that lessons are often not findable
  • FAIR Principles for data (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) also apply to lessons
    • But “reusable” is aiming low
  • Instead of one author broadcasting for others to use, foster collaboration in a teaching commons
    • Open source software and Wikipedia demonstrate the benefits
    • Increases inclusivity and reduces lesson maintenance burden
    • And it’s more fun

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