Unit Plans vs. Lesson Plans

Unit plans and lesson plans are distinctly different documents. There is no chicken and egg question here; a unit plan MUST come before the lesson plan. A unit plan starts life as a brain dump on a sheet of paper or white board and will evolve into a concise overview of a multi-day or multi-week topic. It will write your lesson plans for you.

A unit plan is an overview of one topic in your curriculum. It encompasses key components of content to be covered and student learning outcomes. A lesson plan is a step-by-step road map for teaching one lesson. Generally you will have a different lesson plan for each day of teaching, though sometimes it makes sense to create one for a multi-day, continuous lesson. Unit plans are the macro and lesson plans are the micro.

After reading this article you should clearly understand the differences in both plans, identify the components of each and — if you want to — download the samples I’ve provided.

Unit Plan Components

Let me start by saying that a unit plan can be a simple one-page outline, a treatise or anything in between. How detailed and analytical you get depends upon 2 things:

  1. What is helpful and useful to you
  2. what your administration demands

There are several key elements that every complete, formal unit plan should include. It looks VERY different from my unit plan in progress looks like, which are a bunch of circles and arrows connecting ideas, content, performance tasks, etc.


This is your “heading” so to speak. Include your name, which class and unit title it covers and the total teaching time. This clarifying information is important when sharing with administration as well as to remind you in coming years what you’re looking at.


You can list the state standards, the common core standards or both. Each and every standard that will be addressed throughout the unit should be listed.


What skills will your students be learning or improving upon during this unit? It is a good idea to include the depth of knowledge (DOK) level as well. This will help to ensure that you have included higher level learning along with the level one.

Here are some examples:

  • Compare various historical time periods and identify common causes and effects.
  • Research materials from various sources to develop a Document-based analysis project.
  • Establish  precise claims on an enduring issue and a point of view


These are the “big” questions that students will ponder during the unit. Many years ago a colleague described these as: What do you want students to remember 10 or 20 years from now? I like that and still use it as a litmus test when developing my essential questions. Here are some examples:

  • When is overthrowing a government justifiable?
  • Who decides what is fair and just?
  • Why is it so important to evaluate people and actions through their historical context?


These are the main components that are be addressed in the unit. This can be accomplished in several ways. Your can list some of the main learning targets from the unit. If your district uses aims, same thing, pick the main aim questions. Here’s a simple sequence for a World War I unit (did I mention that I teach history?!)

  • Long-term causes of World War I
  • Immediate cause of the war
  • Technology of the war
  • Why the U.S. entered the war
  • End of World War 1
  • Treaty of Versailles


So this is obvious and straight-forward. What texts, documents, audio/video materials will you use during the unit? You don’t need to list them all, a few key resources is fine.


What are the main formative (think classwork, discussion, exit tickets) and summative (exams, performance tasks) assessments you will use to evaluate student understanding and mastery? Will you assign a performance task? Include that as well.

As you can see, there are many parts to a unit plan. Some teachers use some of these components, other use all of them and more. Each aspect can delineate a broad-stroke overview or go into depth. It depends, again, upon your needs and your administration’s demands.

Lesson Plan Components

There is some overlap of information in unit and lesson plans. Both often contain standards and objectives or learning targets.


Throughout my years the mandated point of the lesson has gone from an aim to an objective and is now a learning target. Each time there was a change it was made clear that this would vastly improve your lesson and student outcomes. Yeah, right. So depending upon what you use…

AIM: Must be formulated as a question to be answered by the end of the lesson.

  • Example: What were the causes of World War I?

OBJECTIVE: Must be stated as what students will learn during the lesson

  • Example: Students will be able to analyze the causes of World War I.

LEARNING TARGET: Should be in the first-person for the student, list what they will accomplish and how.

  • Example: I will be able to analyze the causes of World War I through reading and discussion.


If I only check one part of my lesson plan this is it. Include everything you need, not just a particular text of document. Do you need markers, colored pencils, large chart paper, rubber bands, post-it notes? Is there a PowerPoint, video link, student handout? A glance at this in the morning will ensure you’re ready for the day.


This is your warm-up, do now, bell-ringer, etc. It should get students quickly into their seats, pens out and thinking. Some teachers like to assess understanding of yesterday’s lessons, others introduce the new material though the first activity. Both are useful.


Students are exposed to new content at this time. It is often a short lecture accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation and/or a short video.


Now it’s time for students to interact with the new material. Are they going to analyze a primary source, engage in a simulation, work in pairs, groups, individually? That is the kind of information to document in this portion of the lesson plan.


It’s exit ticket time. A good conclusion will ask a probing question that assesses student understanding of the content covered. It can also be a self-reflective time for students to consider what they learned and what they are still unclear of.


This are is kept blank until after the lesson is over. It’s a good idea to include space for this as a reminder to jot down a few notes. Next year you will be very glad you did.

I have been very happy many times that I did this and really regret when I didn’t. Perhaps the lesson was too short or too long. Or sometimes the document I used was too difficult. Or the whole lesson stunk. Whatever. This section is solely for me. I jot down in my short-hand and using my style of communication when talking to myself (yes, I do that a lot!) what was good or bad.

If you want to find out how to write a lesson plan, step-by-step check out this article.


So there you have it: the difference and various components of unit plans and lesson plans. If you are lucky enough to work for administration that does not dictate a particular form YOU ARE LUCKY! Do exactly what works for you.

If your administration “mandates” a prescribed formula, and changes it every year (grrr!) like me you have some constraints to work within. I put mandate in quotes because in New York City we are members of a union with a contract that states lesson plans are for teachers and can take any form.

The reality is if you’re untenured you should not fight that fight. And if you’re tenured choose your battles. If it’s really important, go for it. You must remember, they have many forms of retribution, so it must be something you feel strongly about.

I personally try to go along with the flavor-of-the-month plan, but find hacks to minimize the soulless, time-suck paperwork that is sometimes necessary.

Feel free to download the plans I have attached; hope they help. And remember to teach AND thrive!


Daily Lesson Plan

Unit Plan – Simple Version

Unit Plan – Long Version

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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