Planning with a purpose

Author: Sarah Longshaw
Published: 01/10/2019

Planning is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of a teacher’s job; and yet it can seem to take ages and sometimes it feels as though the lessons don’t always justify the time taken to plan them. Here are some suggestions to guide you through the process.

The first thing to consider is the level of the planning; whether you are writing individual lessons, schemes of work or programmes of study. Hopefully, the latter will have been done for you; but it is always worth considering where your classes need to be and by when, so that you know what you have to cover in each lesson.

Lessons need objectives and outcomes. Probably the most important consideration is what you want students to learn and how you will know that they have done this. This should be the starting point of your planning. 

Many people waste time finding activities to occupy lesson time instead of thinking: What do I want students to learn? What is the best way to achieve this, and how can I assess this learning? If you are planning to incorporate practical work, you should also be clear of the purpose of the practical – is it to teach skills or to illustrate a scientific concept?

Questions are an essential component of any lesson – from eliciting what students already know, to probing their understanding or assessing their grasp of a concept. How do you plan questions into your lessons?

Marking should inform planning; but marking doesn’t need to be onerous. Hinge-point questions are one form of assessment that can help you gauge whether students are ready to move on. 

Habits take time to embed. Use the following as a checklist for your planning to help you save time.

  • Position. Where does this lesson fit into the scheme of work or programme of study?
  • Purpose. What do I want students to learn?
  • Proof. How will I know that they have done?
  • Activity. What will they do to support the learning?
  • Questions. Which ones? To whom?
  • Assessment?

Depth of planning

Many schools have programmes of study, an outline of what is to be covered by when, and schemes of work, which may include suggested resources for each lesson. You need to be aware of these when you need to have completed the teaching of a particular topic.

If your school doesn’t provide you with key dates, you can make your own by looking at the number of lessons you have and the amount of work to cover, and then dividing up the content to fit the time available. A rough guide is one double-page spread of content from a textbook per lesson. Look at the key concepts and decide how many you can tackle in a lesson. Many exam boards provide guided learning hours and outline schemes of work for their specifications too.

Once you have your outline plan, you can track where you need to condense content, if you need to spend more time on something, or you can choose what students might be able to cover for homework.

For example: AQA GCSE Chemistry Atomic Structure and the Periodic Table has a suggested teaching time of 11 hours. If each of your lessons is an hour and you get 3 hours per fortnight; then the topic will take 4 fortnights or half a term – allowing for one lesson for contingency (or for revision or testing).

Lesson planning

When thinking about the structure of an individual lesson, you need to consider the different phases and how long you will spend on each. For example:

  • Starter/recap of prior knowledge: 10 minutes

  • Teacher-led introduction to new information: 10 minutes

  • Student activity to explore new information: 20 minutes

  • Discussion/questioning: 10 minutes

  • Plenary: 10 minutes

Think about how to embed routines for collecting equipment and the start and end of lessons, as this will save you time in the long run and is well worth the initial investment at the start of a term.

Objectives and outcomes

Lessons need an objective – so that students understand what it is they are intended to learn. They also need an outcome – so that you can tell whether students have met the objective (or need more time and guidance). It can also be helpful to have a context – a reason for why students are learning something. Science can be more complex, in that sometimes we want students to acquire knowledge and sometimes we want them to develop skills (and sometimes we want them to do both).

The learning objective should be succinct. For example:

  1. To distinguish between plant and animal cells.

  2. To describe the difference between series and parallel circuits. 

  3. To use a burette in performing a titration.

The outcomes for all the above lend themselves to assessment of the learning:

  1. Give students a series of images of cells to identify as either plant or animal (justifying their decisions).

  2. Ask students to build either a series or parallel circuit (or both). 

  3. Get students to carry out a titration and record (concordant) titres.

You may notice that within the outcomes there is also scope for differentiation:

  1. more complex cells

  2. more complicated circuits

  3. concordant titres.

Keeping the context separate is important if students are to be able to transfer a skill to a new scenario. For example, instead of asking students to write a method for making a salt by neutralisation, the learning objective would be to write a method (and the context is for making a salt).

Writing a learning objective as a question means that the outcome becomes the students’ ability to answer the question. For example:

  1. How do animal cells differ from plant cells?

  2. In what way are series and parallel circuits different?

  3. How is a burette used in titration?

Lesson activities

Having determined what you want students to learn and how you will ascertain whether they have achieved this, you then need to plan a sequence of activities for them to acquire the knowledge or skills. This may include a practical activity, some information gathering, taking some measurements, sorting some data, or a variety of other different tasks. 

Before selecting the tasks, you need to have an idea of what students might already know. Having established your starting point, you will most likely need to give students some further instruction and then you will probably need to give them an independent activity to carry out. This is so that they can practise using the knowledge or skills they are learning.

What’s the point?

If you want students to show they have understood a concept, decide how you want this to be demonstrated, and how you will assess their learning.

Will you ask them:

  • for an independent written explanation?

  • to answer questions in writing, or orally?

A good tip is to ask yourself ‘What is the point?’ for each activity you want to include. This way, you will start to identify which methods are the most effective at achieving your objective.

If you are teaching students how to use a burette, it is likely that you might ask them which equipment is used for measuring volumes (elicit prior knowledge); then demonstrate how to use the burette (introduce new learning); give the students a chance to practise doing this for themselves (embed the learning), and finally ask them to write a method describing how to carry out a titration or to order steps of the method (assess learning).


Trawling through resources is one of the most time-consuming tasks. Use one or two tried and trusted sites and be clear about the type of activity that you want to use. If you are teaching a technique, consider whether a practical demonstration or a video is better (or whether there is time for both). 


How often do you plan your questions, and how often do you plan what you will do with the answers to the questions?

Questioning serves lots of different purposes and it is important to be clear why you are asking a particular question. It is important to elicit prior knowledge – but totally pointless if that doesn’t inform your next steps. So, when you ask students what they know about a topic might be important – particularly if you are not confident about adapting lessons whilst you are delivering a topic. In this case, try finding out what students know about the topic you want to cover in the next lesson, at the end of the current one. You can use this to inform your planning and help you to decide on your starting point for the next topic.

Questions can take different forms:

  • closed questions to confirm knowledge

  • more open, higher order questions to demonstrate understanding 

  • follow-up questions to really probe a student’s depth of understanding. 

Using Bloom’s taxonomy as a guide can help to develop the level of questioning by moving from simple recall, through description and explanation, to analysis and evaluation (remembering to ask students to justify their thinking as they go). 

Another way of extending questioning is to ask a different student whether they agree with an answer and why.

Targeting questions is one way of differentiating, and no hands up should help to increase engagement, whilst mini whiteboards can give you a chance to assess everyone’s understanding quickly.

You can find more on the use of questioning here.


Marking is one way of giving feedback to move learning forward. It is an essential tool to help assess students’ understanding. However, if it takes place too long after the work has been completed, it loses its impact.

Using mini whiteboards in lessons can give immediate feedback on whether students have understood something, but for this to be effective you need responses to be quick to assess. This kind of live marking works well for single words or statements, true or false, or multiple-choice questions.

When marking student work, you may find that you are writing similar responses on lots of the work. There are a variety of approaches to dealing with this – including giving class feedback, where you use a code to designate a particular response and a follow-up task. 

It is the follow-up tasks that are important here – so when setting the original activity, try to think about what it is that you intend the student to gain from the task. Once you are clear why they are doing something, it is much easier to determine the next steps activity.

For example: If students have been given a cell to label and classify as an example of a plant or animal cell, the follow-up task may be determining what is in each type of cell, drawing a typical plant cell, or listing the differences between plant and animal cells.


Sarah Longshaw

Sarah Longshaw leads the Cheshire and Stockport Science Learning Partnership and is an active member of the Association for Science Education (ASE) through which she holds Chartered Science Teacher status