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How to Deal When Your Lesson Plan Falls Flat

Updated on March 8, 2013

You know the feeling: you had a brilliant idea for a lesson for your students. It combines a fun activity with several points you want to teach and sets them up perfectly for the next big project you’re planning. You devote hours to gathering class materials, writing up your lesson plan, and drafting follow-up homework assignments. When Sunday night rolls around, you’re fully prepared and are excited to get started.

But come Monday morning, for whatever reason, things don’t go as planned. Your students don’t jump in as readily as you had hoped, or perhaps they finish much earlier than you expected. Either way, you’re left with a large chunk of class time that needs to be filled, and you’d like to fill it with something other than “Okay, you can work on homework.” What to do?

Luckily, there are a few ways to deal with this stumbling block that can help you minimize—or completely avoid—the damage. Here are a few tips to keep things moving when it feels like your class might stall out:

1. Take a pre-emptive strike

Changing gears in the middle of a lesson is much easier if you have a back-up plan. When you’re putting together the outline of your next class, add in a few activities to fall back on in case things don’t go as well as you expect. For example, you might want your students to work on an in-class writing activity for thirty minutes. But what if the majority of them finish in fifteen? Most students work at different speeds and it’s unfair to leave faster workers sitting bored in the classroom while the slower workers finish up. Plan a follow-up activity for those who finish early, or in case everyone finishes early. Maybe they can swap papers and critique each other. Maybe they can do another written assignment, like writing a counter-argument to their own argument. Depending on what you’ve planned, the options vary, but it helps to have a few fillers in case things don’t go as well as you’d hoped.

2. Don’t take no for an answer

When I first started teaching, a lot of my lesson plans didn’t work out so well. I would come prepared with a fun activity that was meant to take up an hour of class time, but my students would finish each step in a few short minutes and then stare at me in disinterest. At first, I thought it had to be my lesson plans. Perhaps they were too easy or too boring. But then I started looking more closely at what my students had actually accomplished when they claimed to have finished. Sure, they’d completed the assignment, but they hadn’t been as thorough and imaginative as they could have been. This was especially a problem in my writing classes, where students would often jot down a few brief sentences without delving too deeply into their subject. So, instead of accepting it immediately when a student said, “I’m finished” I would look more carefully at what they’d done. Had they truly made their best effort? If not, I would point out areas where they could improve and ask them to try again. Eventually, they learned they couldn’t get away with skimming through the assignment and started putting more effort into class work.

3. Skip ahead

One way to fill extra time (and still stay on topic) is to pull ideas from your next lesson to supplement your current one. Presumably, each of your classes acts as a preparation of some kind for the next, so if you find yourself in search of a filler try moving on to an activity you were saving for your following class. If you don’t have the materials you need for what you have planned, just use the time as a way to introduce next week and to further prepare your class.

4. Improvise

There are no easy rules to follow when it comes to this particular technique, but it’s something that all teachers need to learn to do eventually. If you’re good at thinking on your feet, you’re less likely to get tripped up when your perfectly arranged Power Point doesn’t work or when your students aren’t as fascinated by iambic pentameter as you are. Try having your students share what they’ve just done with the rest of the class or holding a group discussion about the activity and what they learned from it. Another option (better suited to older students) is to pause and ask your students to talk about your class as a whole. Overall, what have they learned and which concepts do they still struggle with? What do they want to review again and which activities have they found the most helpful? Some may sneer at the idea of students responding to such questions seriously, but many teachers underestimate their pupils and what they can contribute to the classroom. Even if all you get are a few whiny complaints, it will be a form of feedback you might be able to use later on.

5. Quiz it

Maybe you’re trying to fill extra time, or maybe you suspect your students aren’t taking your class as seriously as they should. Either way, one good option is to conduct an informal, on-the-spot quiz in order to gauge how effective your lesson plan was and what your students have learned so far during the semester. Try splitting your class into a few teams to compete for extra credit points or some other prize. You’ll learn which concepts you may need to go over again and how effective your teaching methods for this class have been, and your students may learn that they need to pay a bit more attention in class.

So if things don’t go as planned, don’t despair! There are still plenty of ways to make your class successful, and if nothing else you’ll be prepared for the worst the next time around.

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    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Having practice activities are always a good idea to build into the lesson. They help insure that understanding has taken place. Walking around while kids do the activity gives you insight into their grasp of the situation.

      Having a plan is wise.

      Thanks for sharing this.

      Sending Angels to you this evening. :) ps

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