Designing units that challenge and engage remote learners

By March 1, 2021 No Comments

This is the final installment in an eight-part series by Bryan Goodwin on applying the research and teaching techniques in Learning That Sticks (ASCD and McREL International, 2020) to remote learning. See the other posts in the series: 1 | 2 | 5 | 7 | 8

To design experiences that both challenge and engage remote learners, you’ll likely find it’s easiest to begin with the end in mind. Here’s a list of questions to guide you through the process:

  1. What enduring understandings or skills must students develop? Start by considering what key insights or skills you want students to obtain and retain. What should they learn when they’re 7 or 17 and still recall when they’re 70? For instance, if you’re teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, you’ll likely determine it’s more important that years from now they remember key themes from the play—such as the nature of love, loyalty, or free will—than whether Juliet’s last name was Capulet or Montague. Once you know exactly what learning is of lasting importance to students, you’ll find it much easier to design a unit that guides them towards those understandings.
  2. How will students demonstrate these understandings? What are the success criteria? How will you (and students) know when they’ve mastered their essential or enduring understandings? Ideally, frame these outcomes as success criteria—for example, Students will be able to deconstruct Romeo and Juliet, writing a persuasive literary essay that provides a cogent, detailed analysis of one of its key themes. You can use these success criteria to help students develop a personal learning goal for the unit—one that focuses on mastery (what they will learn), not performance (what grade they will earn).
  3. How will you spark student interest, making these understandings relevant and meaningful to students? Now that you know where you want the unit to end, consider how it will begin. How will you hook student interest in the topic and make it personally relevant for them, giving them a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)? For example, you might introduce them to the idea of free will versus fate and consider what happens to people who believe themselves to be victims of fate.
  4. What key learnings must students focus on, make sense of, and practice to master the enduring understandings? Next, consider the key steps students must take to achieve their mastery goal. Identifying these steps will, in turn, help you shape the lessons you will teach during the unit. For example, what must students know and be able to do in order to write a compelling literary essay? And what key elements of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespearean tragedies should they learn about, contemplate, and discuss in order to write a compelling essay?
  5. What challenging learning tasks will I use to frame this unit? Having considered the previous questions, you’ll find it much easier to identify the challenging learning task your students will engage in to demonstrate mastery of your identified enduring understanding. For example, you might have them tackle a complex problem, analyze a piece of literature, or conduct a scientific experiment and write a report on it. Your challenging learning should provide students with some meaningful choices that will challenge and engage them—for example, they might select whether to explore a particular period of history from a political, scientific, or socio-cultural perspective. This is where your own professional wisdom and creativity come into play. It’s also where you ensure student learning moves beyond the ineffective teach-study-test cycle and instead engages students in a performance assessment that requires them to engage in deep learning.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it pays off immensely, creating learning experiences that are more enjoyable for both you and your students. Your time online with students will zip past because instead of trying to fill the time with teaching, you’ll be filling it with learning instead.

Also, don’t go it alone. Share this post and the seven previous ones in this series with colleagues so that together, you can design amazing learning experiences for your remote learners.

Finally, you can take some solace in knowing that yes, someday, our schools and classrooms will go back to in-person learning. This approach to lesson and unit design, however, will be just as (if not more) effective once you are back together with your students. And by helping them become curious, self-directed learners in an online or hybrid environment, you’re helping them come back to school even more ready and eager to learn.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International.


McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.