Chunking The Lesson


When teaching with students in groups throughout an entire class period, we can’t just stand up in front of the class and teach the whole time because students will quickly get off task. Instead, it’s important to break each lesson into small parts and have a plan for each part. This keeps the lesson flowing and helps maintain engagement. As a result, instead of groups being a potential challenge to keeping students on-task, groups are enabled to become an invaluable resource for students to utilize.

We can call the process of breaking the class into smaller parts, “Chunking the Lesson.” Here’s  the basics:

  • Work through the lesson before teaching it
  • Decide where good cut off points are throughout the lesson
  • Choose a learning strategy or teacher move to use for each chunk
  • Anticipate how students will respond to the problems within each chunk
  • Have a plan for how to respond to anticipated student responses

That’s the flyover view. Now let’s take a closer look using a lesson I taught earlier this year as an example. Read through the Warm Up, Notes, and Practice & Spiraling links within the lesson before going further in this post.

Chunk 1: Entire Warm Up

I decided the entire warm up would be the first chunk of this lesson. Students were given 5 minutes to work (I rely heavily on the timer on my phone throughout the class to time chunks) either individually or as a group, and during this time, I circulated the room to get a feel for how they were doing with the problems. Based on my preview of the lesson, I decided I would only go over the following problem with the class because it seemed to be the most necessary to debrief.

After 5 minutes, I first asked students to share their estimations for the estimation challenge of the day. After some students shared, we revealed the answer and immediately moved on to debrief the warm up problem above.

Before talking through the problem, I announced that number 1’s would be the reporters for today (this is a version of the Numbered Heads learning routine), meaning that only students at a number 1 desk in each group were allowed to speak during this class period.

Next, I called on a number 1 from a group and asked the student to break down what the problem is talking about and what his group’s answer was. As always, I reminded the student that he was reporting a group answer not an individual answer, and he is allowed to talk with his group anytime before or during his answer.

After going over the problem with the class, we moved on to the notes for the day.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: Entire Warm Up
  • Duration: 5 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Numbered Heads

Chunk 2: First Two Problems in the Notes

Based on my preview of the lesson, I decided students had enough prior learning to attempt the first two problems in the notes without any introduction. Therefore, I asked students to work individually on the problems and silently complete the writing prompt (quick write learning strategy).

While students worked, I circulated the room and noticed the great majority of students were having success. Therefore, when debriefing, I simply drew the correct answers on the board without explanation in order for students to check their work. It would be inefficient and likely cause students to get off task if I went through a full explanation since so many students already had the correct answers.

However, I did ask one quick question about why point F didn’t move. Any number 1 was allowed to respond to the question. Finally, we watched the 12 second animation at the given link, and I quickly reinforced that rigid motions map every point from the pre-image to the image.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: First 2 problems in Notes
  • Duration: 3 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Quick Write / Numbered Heads

Chunk 3: Third Problem in Notes

I decided to only focus on one problem for the third chunk because it is a higher-level question, and I wanted to make sure students had time to really focus in on it.

Therefore, we used Think-Pair-Share to approach the problem. Students were given 1 minute to think about the problem silently and 2 minutes to talk it out with their group. Finally, we debriefed as a whole class. During the debrief, I called a couple number 1’s to share some thoughts their groups had about the problem along with possible strategies. Then, just to make sure the class was clear about how to approach it, I went ahead and did a full breakdown of how I would go about solving the problem. I felt that a full breakdown was necessary this time because I noticed some confusion as I circulated the room during the pair portion.

Note: Henri Picciotto has great advice about when to use challenging problems in the curriculum. He recommends going back and forth between easy and hard. Here’s his quote:

“Throughout the unit, go back and forth between easy and hard the whole time. Avoid the trap of starting easy and gradually making it harder, for two reasons. One, starting too easy gives the wrong impression, and students don’t launch into the unit with the right attitude. Two, gradually getting more difficult gives the impression to some students that there’s a time where they might as well give up. Going back and forth is a way to keep everyone alert and challenged, and to have times where the pressure is lessened.”

This has been a great change in my classroom. Students are more engaged in harder problems now, and it’s not as big of a deal when we get to them because it’s just part of our class routine now. I highly recommend adapting this philosophy.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: Third problem in Notes
  • Duration: 5 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Think-Pair-Share / Numbered Heads

Chunk 4: Fourth Problem in Notes

I decided to only focus on a single problem again for the 4th chunk of the lesson. However, this time, the reason for only focusing on one problem wasn’t the difficulty of the question. This is a “proficient level” question in my opinion.

Instead, we focused on this single problem because it was the first time students experienced a reflection across a line that wasn’t vertical or horizontal. Therefore, I decided to direct teach this problem as an example for students to use to solve upcoming problems.

I decided to show students a shading method. Here’s what I mean.

I displayed this image on the board and asked students to silently think about what they noticed and wondered. After about 30 seconds, I asked for number 1’s to share their thinking. Finally, I gave an explanation of what’s happening in the picture and directed students to try the next three problems in their notes with their group.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: 4th problem in Notes
  • Duration: 2-3 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Notice & Wonder / Numbered Heads

Chunk 5: 5th-7th Problem in Notes

These are the next 3 problems in the notes. I gave students about 2 minutes to work on them with their groups, and I circulated the room to get a feel for understanding. For the most part, students seemed to be doing well. However, I did notice some confused faces about the problem with segment FG. Therefore, I decided to demonstrate that one on the board for the whole class.

After breaking the problem down, I quickly displayed the answers for the next two and clarified any remaining questions students had.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: 5th-7th problem in Notes
  • Duration: 4-5 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Groupwork / Numbered Heads

Chunk 6: 8th and 9th Problem in Notes

To continue with the theme of going back and forth between easy and hard questions, these two problems represented the next chunk in the lesson. I knew that students would be able to do these, however, they would need to recall what x = -1 and y = 4 look like. Therefore, I asked the students to think silently for 20 seconds about what those equations represent on the graph. Then, I called a number 1 to quickly share. After the refresher, students were released to work on the problems individually or with their groups.

When most students were finished, I quickly asked a number 1 to share what she did with triangle EFG since the line of reflection goes through the shape.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: 8th and 9th problem in Notes
  • Duration: 2-3 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Numbered Heads

Chunk 7: 10th Problem in Notes

For this chunk, we did another Think-Pair-Share because it’s a really challenging problem based on current student understanding of reflections. Students were given 1 minute to silently think about the problem and 2 minutes to work with their groups. During the 2 minutes, I circulated the room to get a feel for student understanding. I noticed that most students were stuck, so I decided to stop the Think-Pair-Share routine and go ahead and direct teach. After teaching the problem and answering student questions, I released the kids to try the last problem in the notes with their groups.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: 10th problem in Notes
  • Duration: 5 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Think-Pair-Share / Numbered Heads

Chunk 8: 11th Problem in Notes

This is the problem that students were released to work on at the end of the previous chunk. The goal was for students to apply what they learned in the 10th problem and work together to help everyone in the group understand. Therefore, students were allowed to go straight to groupwork for this chunk. I knew many students would need support, so I wanted to make sure they had full access to their teammates.

After students worked for about 3 minutes, we debriefed the problem as a whole class. I called a number 1 to share what his group did, and I answered remaining student questions.

Chunk Recap:

  • What: 11th problem in Notes
  • Duration: 5 minutes
  • Learning strategy: Groupwork / Numbered Heads

Chunk 9: Practice / Spiraling Handout

For the final chunk of the day, students were given time to work on a handout with practice problems to reinforce the days learning and spiraling problems to stay fresh with other concepts. As students worked either individually or in groups, I walked around the room to provide support when needed and redirect any students that may get off task. Depending on the class period, students had about 10 to 15 minutes to work on the handout. 


6 thoughts on “Chunking The Lesson

  1. Thanks for this post! I liked being able to think about recent lessons where I’ve done this well and others that could have been chunked a bit better.

    It was also really helpful to see how you implement the notes you share so generously. I’ve borrowed many Geometry lessons from you this year, and this gives me a better idea of how you structure the note-taking in your class.

    I’ve really appreciated your blog this year, and I’m very grateful to you for the materials you share.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Rebecca! I really appreciate it and am glad the post/site has been useful. Chunking the lesson has really helped me get the most out of notes while also making them more engaging. Definitely a game changer!

      Feel free to send questions or feedback for improvement anytime. Thanks again!

  2. Thank you, Dane! I’ve been using bits and pieces of your curriculum for a few years now, but I’m finally taking a deeper dive into your pedagogy. I’m wondering if you assign remaining problems for homework. I guess I’m also wondering what your philosophy is regarding homework. Thank you for all of you hard work and your willingness to share to the masses!

    1. Thank you, Nicole! I actually didn’t give homework. If I knew we were getting short on time during a class, I’d make sure to prioritize problems that I knew were really important for students to see during class. Maybe it was a difficult problem about something we were learning or an important concept that needed to be spiraled in for more practice.

      In general, my thought process was that I wanted to get the most out of students during the 50 minutes I had each day. I felt like it was enough without them needing to do homework as well. This was made easier because I saw my students every day. So I tried to design the lessons so that there was room to adjust and keep working on stuff if students were struggling and also provide space to analyze common mistakes.

      Finally, a lot of my reasoning was related to the social component. I wanted to make sure students still had time to participate in extra-curriculars or just hang out with friends. My wife’s story played into this. She was one of the top students in her class, but later in life she said she regretted missing out on a lot of social opportunities because she had so much homework. Therefore, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t adding to my students’ load.

      Overall, again, I felt like I was able to get enough out of students during class to where they didn’t need the extra reinforcement at home.

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