What makes a lesson effective? What can you do to make sure your students actually learn? A good lesson includes four essential strategies, says Wilmer. Follow him as he walks through EATS, a template for planning effective teaching. Discover the effectiveness of the methods you’re already using, and consider how you can strengthen each lesson you teach.
What facilitates effective instruction in the classroom? What ensures student learning will happen? I’d like to share with you a lesson plan template that I’ve used some, which I feel is an excellent way to focus lesson planning for ensuring and helping our students to be successful in learning and to achieving the objectives that we have for them.
The template follows an acronym and it’s the word EATS, E-A-T-S. The word EATS stands for an essential question, an activating strategy, a teaching strategy, and finally a summary of the lesson. Each of those four things is probably in every teacher’s lesson, but if we think about them intentionally and we design our lessons based on that, I believe that we can have even more success as a teacher and ensure our students success in learning as well.
Starting with the first letter, the E in EATS stands for essential question. And the essential question takes all of the content, the information, what you want the student to learn and summarizes it into one question. “How do I find the unknown length of one of the sides of a right triangle if I already know the other two?” Or another example might be, “How do I greet someone in Spanish?” Another one from my field of mathematics: “How do I graph a linear inequality in two variables?” Essentially the question is what the students should be able to answer when the lesson is finished and the test to find out if you were successful is to have them answer that question when you’re done.
The essential question of our lesson today is, how can I use this idea to determine an unknown length of a triangle? So if I know two of the sides of the triangle, can I use that idea to find the unknown third line? And the answer is yes. So that’s the objective, how do I find the third side of the triangle? We are going to entertain a second question just a little bit later.
So the essential question focuses the entire plan, focuses the entire lesson and says, “What do I want my student to be able to do when they’re done?” I don’t think the essential question entirely replaces a list of learning objectives. An essential question summarizes what the student should know, be able to answer when they’re done, but there’s probably a number of secondary objectives that should also be achieved by the students. When listing off objectives for my lessons, I like to say: “What do I want the student to be able to do when they’re finished?” Well, an essential question is a nice single question that the students should be able to answer. It may not cover all of the prior information and skills that the student needs to be able to do already in order to be successful, and those kind of items would be listed as objectives as well at the beginning of your lesson or they should be in your mind as you’re teaching. “The student needs to be able to do this in order to be successful in this lesson.”
For example, again, in working with a right triangle, a previous skill may be that the student needs to be able to solve an equation algebraically or a student needs to be able to find the square root of a number using their calculator. Those are skills that they perhaps already should know, but identifying them before you teach a lesson helps you to make sure that some prerequisite skill is not missed in the process. So we have an essential question and this focuses the entire goal of our lesson.
The second letter, A in the word EATS, represents an activating strategy. An activating strategy is a nice place in the class period, in the lesson, to get the students doing things that are out of the ordinary; an activity that may involve a partner or a group of people; an activity that helps them to review information that they should know, but will need in the in the coming lesson; or it may be a discovery type activity that will prepare them for something that they’re going to be receiving in the lesson.
First thing I’m going to have you do is talk to your seat partner about any words or ideas that relate to the right triangle. Anything you know that relates to the right triangle, you’re going to tell each other and then I’m going to call a couple of you to list those. Okay?
This activating strategy draws the student in. It builds interest within the student. It primes the pump. You may call it a hook, whatever you call it, it’s something that is to draw the student into the content and prepare them to receive what you have for them. An activating strategy could be as short as a single question or it may be a 5- or 10-minute activity that the students work at. Having students brainstorm about the information is a good way to get them thinking about what is coming, what they already know.
And then we have a cutting out activity and a puzzle putting together activity. What I need is for the two of you to decide who is the better cutter and who is the better puzzle putter together. Putter together, all right? So one person will cut pieces out, one person will be the piece manipulator and try to put the puzzle together with your partner’s help of course. I will tell you more about that in just a little bit. The first activity again is for you and your partner to discuss the words, phrases, ideas related to a right triangle. Nothing is too simple for that list. So go ahead and slide your desks over with them. Talk quickly. I’m going to give you about one minute. Go ahead.
Activating strategies also help the student to bridge from what they know to what they’re going to learn. I think that connection is one of the keys to successful learning when the student can connect the new information to something that they already understand or already have a scheme for fitting into their knowledge base. When they’re able to plug it in, when they’re able to connect it, then they can use that information. I think that’s a good indication of learning taking place.
During that activating strategy, a teacher may want to apprise the students that at the end of the lesson there is going to be some type of assessment activity to motivate the students to pay attention. That could be any number of different things, but knowing that they’re going to be held accountable for what is coming will help them to stay engaged.
Leave your desk right where they are. If I call your name, please list one item that you and your partner talked about or added to your list. We’re going to start with Nicholas.
Nicholas: It has the right angle.
All right. The definition of a right triangle is it’s a triangle with a right angle. The second one, Trent.
Trent: The two other angles have to be acute.
Great. Good. So the two other of the three angles, both must be acute or less than 90 degrees. Diana, third one.
So we have an essential question which summarizes the goal of a lesson. We have an activating strategy to draw the student into the meat of the lesson and what they’re supposed to learn, what they’re supposed to be able to do. And then we have actually what most of our lessons—what takes most of the time, that’s our actual teaching strategies. So the letter T in EATS stands for the teaching strategy.
The teaching strategy is the set of activities that you plan to actually teach the material to help the student to be able to connect this information and understand it.
There is a right triangle. The ladder is 20 feet long. So we’re going to label the diagram 20 right there. That will be the hypotenuse of a right triangle. It says that we’re going to place it so the base of the ladder is 5 feet from the base of the wall.
Good questions are an important part of I think any teaching strategy to get immediate feedback from your students.
So now the question is how far up the wall will the ladder reach? Once again, using the squares, I’m going to draw a square down here. Class, this square has area say 25, all right? Square units. The square on the hypotenuse has what area? The square on the hypotenuse, John, has?
Very good. So now the question is, what is the area of this square? This one’s a little different, isn’t it? So what is it?
Wayne: So you have to replace … Like you still have to find the these. You have to do 400 minus 25.
Stop right there. All right. He said take the area of the largest square and subtract the area of the other square that we know. On our cutting out activity, we took two of the squares and put them together. But if you know the larger one and one of the smaller ones, does it make sense that you can take the area of the larger one, subtract the area of the smaller one to find the area of the other smaller one? Does that make sense?
All right, so this area here has to be the large square area minus the one that we know. 400 minus 25 or 375 square units. Remember, the objective here is not to find the area of this square, it’s just to show you how it connects to finding the unknown length, which is what we want to know. That’s the distance of the wall. So what else do we need to do yet, Wayne?
Wayne: You have to square root 375.
There it is. And could I have a volunteer, someone with an approximate decimal value? Javon already has it.
To one decimal place. The squiggly equals sign. 19.4 means it was approximated.
These learning activities, your teaching strategy, is going to be determined by the kind of content that you have to present and also by the students that you’re teaching. You aren’t going to prepare the same learning strategy or the same teaching strategy for every situation, but knowing your audience and knowing the type of content helps you to determine what can be an effective or a meaningful teaching strategy.
Lectures, demonstrations, discovery activities, group activities, a video, a reading, any number of things can be used as teaching strategies. And I think a good teacher plans several of them and varied strategies within a single lesson so that we can reach as many students as we can.
The strategies should be engaging. They should be made as exciting as we can and varied in style as you move through the lesson. Having students do things with their hands, have students talking verbally to one another or to you as the teacher are different ways of changing the learning activity to keep the student interested throughout the presentation of the lesson. The teaching strategy needs to take the new information and place it into a context.
Again, the areas of the small square and the next larger square together fit right inside that one, as you saw in your little activity. So that area must be 296. Now, we didn’t talk about how you can go the other way.
For the students to learn that they have to be able to connect at some way. And so keeping that in mind will help your students to be successful.
Questions are a really important part of the teaching strategy for the teacher to be able to assess, “Are the students connecting with me? Are they understanding what we’re doing? Are they with me, following me here?”
So what is the length of the dimension of the square if 296 is the area? I’d like you to take your calculator and if you know how to do it, do it for me.
A teacher may not want to embarrass a student or put them on the spot and shame them if they aren’t able to answer the question. And so a way to maybe avoid that is to ask the question, then say, “Now, tell your seat partner what you think the answer is and share what you think the answer is.” And tell them that once you’re finished, in 30 seconds, I’m going to call on several of you to answer. That allows the student who maybe didn’t connect it to hear it from another student, maybe hear it in a slightly different way. Even if they don’t understand, they at least hopefully know what to say if they’re asked the question.
A skills lesson: If you are teaching a skill, I think a nice little outline for the teaching strategy is “I do it, and then we do it together, and then you do it to show me that you understand or to demonstrate that you’re able to.” So I do it, we do it, and then you do it.
Formative assessments are little activities which may be as short as a question or maybe a written activity or maybe a oral or verbal activity between students or a group of students. A formative assessment activity is a short activity that allows the teacher to judge if he’s been successful, if the students have been able to put together the information. And so I think a good teaching strategy has formative assessments built into it for sure at the end, but maybe even at steps along the way so that you can gauge how the students are doing. Those activities help to build learning in the student. They may not know it, but then when they find out what it is or they find out what they should have known or they find out what they should have done, then they’ll remember it better.
What is the area of the blue square, which is now the a medium-sized square? And Wayne, I would maybe be more interested in how you got this than actually what you’ve got, but tell us both, go ahead.
Wayne: So you have to do A plus X equals C because X—or the B—you don’t know.
It gives them the chance to try it and and to see how they’ll do.
Those are parts of what I think make up a good teaching strategy. The meat of the presentation, bringing the new information to the student, assessing, making sure that you’re connecting with them, they’re understanding what they’re supposed to learn, what they’re supposed to know, what they’re supposed to be able to do when they’re finished.
So we have the question, we have the activating strategy, we have the teaching strategy, and finally the S in EATS stands for a summary or a summarizing activity. Bring the lesson back together again.
A good thing for a summarizing activity, I think, is just to go directly back to the essential question and find out, can the students answer the essential question? It might be simply asking them and getting them to respond. It might be asking them to do something to see if they’re able to answer that essential question in their response.
So the question was, “If I know two of the sides of a right triangle, how do I find the length of the third side?” I need you to talk to your seat partner, decide how to answer that question, and then I’m going to call several of you to give answers in about one minute. Go ahead.
The summary reviews the most important information in the presentation. You won’t be able to review every detail, it’s just a summary, a couple of minutes at the end of the lesson to tie it all together.
So here’s the test, how do I find the third side of the right triangle if I know two of them? Go ahead, Trent.
Trent: It depends which two sides you know.
So what’s the difference? Case one, case two, what are the two cases?
Trent: If you have one side and the hypotenuse, you have to subtract instead of that.
Okay and both explanations gave this case, one, where we know the two legs, the two other sides and then we add the squares of those together to find the third square and take the square root. So watch out for case two where you know the hypotenuse instead of one of the other legs and that you need to subtract those areas before you take the square root.
In the summary, you can assess the objectives for your lesson, find out, can the students answer that essential question? Are they able to do what you wanted them to do?
Questions, short activities that provide you feedback are very important. If a student wasn’t able to understand, those activities can help a teacher to find that out and know which students they need to go to individually to maybe give some special instruction. Formative assessment activities, again, are really good to use in that summary time to reinforce what has been presented.
A summary may also be a place where you can bridge into the next lesson and say, this is what we learned today. Tomorrow, we’re going to extend this or add to this or connect another concept to prepare the students for what is coming.
EATS in Summary
The EATS template for a lesson plan design is number one, have an essential question that summarizes the overarching goal of the lesson. Number two, to have a exciting activating strategy of some kind to draw the student into the lesson and prepare them for what’s coming. The teaching strategy is the main set of activities designed well to try to help as many students be as successful as possible in being able to understand and acquire the necessary skills or acquire the necessary information, what you wanted them to learn to be able to do through the lesson. And then finally to summarize for them again, what is it that they were supposed to be able to do after this lesson was over. What is it that we went over in a short summary at the end.
Intentionally designed lessons are probably the best way to ensure student learning and to help students to be the most successful. And having a plan for how to design a lesson makes the job easier I think. Whether it’s EATS or whether it’s some other way, I encourage all teachers to think of the lesson as a whole, beginning to end. Have a plan, intentionally plan the activities toward the end that you want to achieve. And hopefully at the end, your students will be able to answer that essential question.
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CONTRIBUTOR: Wilmer Gehman