Tuesday / June 25

Simple Steps for Designing a Unit Plan for Learning Transfer

This blog is the sixth and final part of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see the first post, second post, third post, fourth post, and fifth post.

What if we plan backwards from students’ ability to transfer their learning to real-world, dissimilar contexts? What if the goal of each unit wasn’t solely centered around knowledge acquisition but was for learners to move toward meaningful, real-world action and engagement? This is possible when we keep the Learning Transfer Mental Model, Acquire – Connect – Transfer, at the heart of unit design. This blog will guide you on this new adventure, using the template below, and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll have a unit outline you can’t wait to implement.

Planning with a New End in Mind

Sample completed lesson plan

Source: Stern, Ferraro, Duncan, Aleo (2021) – download at, Chapter 6.

Big Picture

Unit planning determines the big picture or purpose of the unit, the priority or core content of the unit, the assessment evidence, and a high level instructional plan. If you have been following along in the series, we started framing the big picture by discussing disciplinary lenses, modern literacies, and the story of our course. Consider the following questions, seen in the unit planning image, to help frame the big picture for your unit.

  1. What real-world contexts can be incorporated to help students transfer to authentic situations?
  2. What modern literacies – knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking – will your students need that are outside your standards?
  3. What standards or learning outcomes are addressed in this unit?
  4. What disciplinary lenses will students put on to analyze each lesson?
  5. How does this unit contribute to the story of your course?

Take a moment and consider each of these questions and map out the big picture of your unit before we continue on and look at the core content of the unit.

Core of the Unit

Our current curriculum is jam packed and we’re often left wondering, “how will I be able to cover all of this?” The goal in teaching for transfer is to help students create a strong organizational structure in their minds. By anchoring and organizing knowledge around transferable, organizing concepts, students are better equipped to make the kinds of connections that build schema. This shifts priority from memorizing facts and skills to students developing a deep understanding of concepts and the relationships between them. Facts and skills become examples or a means to help students better understand concepts and their connections.

Anchoring Concepts

To map backward from students’ ability to transfer, we must first consider the concepts that are most essential for them to unlock new situations in this unit. We call these anchoring concepts. Anchoring concepts are the focus for a unit of study; they are the essential elements of our content. When looking at the real-world contexts and standards you have identified for the unit, what 3-5 concepts are priority or most essential for students to understand at deep levels?

We realize you might identify more than three to five concepts that are important; however, some concepts must necessarily recede into the background to bring others into sharper focus in the foreground. If we prioritize everything, students will make meaning out of very little.


Subconcepts often specify the meaning of anchoring concepts and are neither too broad nor too specific. Broad concepts are great for allowing students to access many prior experiences, but they often do not help students make sense or understand the nuance of new situations. This is where subconcepts are beneficial. They are usually precise enough to provide students with useful understanding needed to unlock new situations.

Again, we don’t want to create a laundry list of concepts. At the secondary level, we recommend two to three corresponding subconcepts for each anchoring concept and can have even fewer in the elementary years. The following questions might help you identify subconcepts:

  1. What are the more nuanced, specific ideas embedded in the unit?
  2. What smaller concepts will help deepen student understanding of the anchoring concepts?

What about facts and skills?

Facts and skills are still necessary for student understanding, but are not the driver of unit design. Now that you have identified anchoring concepts and subconcepts, we can consider which facts and skills are needed to provide students with examples of the concepts.

For instance, after middle school students have explored the concept of a proportional relationship, they can file away the facts that a graph of a proportional relationship is linear and can be represented by the equation y = kx. They will even be able to solve problems by identifying the constant of proportionality on the graph or using the equation.

Consider what students need to learn with memorization, fluency, or automaticity when determining the most important facts and skills for a unit.

Questioning to Build Schema

In planning for transfer we believe questions have the power to invite students into the learning experience and promote clarity so students understand the purpose of the lesson or unit. We encourage developing two types of questions – conceptual questions and compelling questions. Conceptual questions connect anchoring and sub concepts in relation to each other so that students are able to unearth and discover these conceptual relationships as they move through carefully designed learning experiences. The following sample stems are a simple way to get started on developing conceptual questions. Simply plug in your concepts:

  • What is the relationship between ____ and ____?
  • How does _____ impact _____?
  • What is the role of ____ in _____?
  • What is the difference between _____ and ____?

These conceptual relationship questions are what help guide students to see and make connections between concepts throughout the unit. Some teachers create a couple while others have close to ten. This is completely up to you. We’ve noticed that usually one or two questions emerge as overarching for the unit while the rest tend to guide thinking and learning in smaller sections throughout the unit.

Now that we have brainstormed the majority of the core content of the unit, we can take time to think about how we will invite students into the unit of study. We recommend posing a compelling question or debatable statement such as ‘will we ever be able to prevent another pandemic?’ or ‘We should bring dinosaurs back to life in the next 100 years. Stand where your level of agreement is on a scale of 1 (no!) to 10 (absolutely!).’ These compelling questions can be debatable, ethical, and cross-disciplinary. The following criteria help us determine if a question would be compelling or not:

  • It is understandable: Students can develop initial hypotheses without needing much instruction or new knowledge from the teacher.
  • It is open: There is more than one way to reason through the answer, and it requires deep conceptual organization.
  • It is authentic: It’s a question that even experts are grappling with, rather than one that is already settled and is rooted in a situation outside of the classroom.
  • It is important: Answering this question has implications for real-world action.

Assessing for Transfer

Finally we are ready to map out how we will assess for transfer throughout our unit. The key idea for unit planning is to ensure that transfer tasks are an ongoing part of our students’ journey. If our summative assessment is the first time students have the opportunity to transfer, they will surely struggle. Based on our standards and our conceptual relationship questions and their respective concepts, we should have a pretty good idea of what students should understand and be able to do at the end of the unit. Use these to guide the creation of a performance task that will require students to transfer their conceptual understanding to a dissimilar, real-world context.

While writing, Learning That Transfers, we developed the unit storyboard which acts as high-level overview or outline for units. We find it helps us envision how students will move through each phase of the ACT model over the course of a unit and ensures we plan opportunities to assess students’ conceptual understanding and ability to transfer before reaching the end of the unit. The storyboard with thinking prompts is located below and hundreds of examples can be found in our storyboard database! Each of these was created by one of our Learning That Transfers Endorsed Educators in our online course.

Find resources to support each phase of the storyboard at, chapter 8.

To summarize this post and for those who are given a curriculum and don’t feel they have much flexibility, consider the following:

  • Identify the most important concepts of the unit
  • Create conceptual questions that will help students see the relationship between these concepts.
  • Craft a compelling question that excites students about what they’re about to learn.
  • Pose your conceptual questions with their corresponding lessons throughout the unit and provide students with time to answer the questions using evidence from the lesson.
  • Use the provided assessment and pair it with a real-world task that allows students to unlock a new situation and demonstrate their ability to apply their conceptual understanding.

Link to purchase Learning That Transfers book.

Written by

Julie Stern is the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, Visible Learning for Social Studies, and Learning That Transfers. She is the thought leader behind the global workshop series Making Sense of Learning Transfer, and is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years in Washington, DC and her native Louisiana. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two young sons. Her website is   Krista Ferraro is a history teacher and department head at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts. Her passions include civic education, social justice, and preparing students for effective global citizenship. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation at Chavez Schools in Washington, DC, where she also taught history and public policy courses. Her published works include the bestselling Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. Krista holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Spanish from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University. She is also an alumna of Teach for America.   Kayla Duncan is a personalized instruction coach for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Her passion centers around empowering student voice through meaningful, authentic experiences and increased ownership. Kayla currently supports personalized learning schools in creating their new vision for education through the design thinking process. She believes the voices of students and the community should drive what happens in the school building. Before her coaching role, Kayla taught elementary physical education and middle grades mathematics. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University, and an Educational Specialist in Learning, Design, and Technology from the University of Georgia. Kayla is pursuing a Doctor of Education in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia and hopes to use this new knowledge to propel schools toward innovative visions for education. Kayla resides in Georgia with her husband, a fellow educator, and their fourteen-year-old dog Georgie   Trevor Aleo is a middle school English teacher in Wilton, Connecticut where he designs meaningful learning experiences while reading and writing alongside his students. Prior to his current position, he taught high school and was a grade level lead in Prince William County, Virginia. In addition to leading teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virginia Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and national conferences. He believes education should help people become better sense makers and story tellers and is a passionate believer in pedagogies that align with those values. Growing up in a house of teachers, he developed a love of learning that continues to serve as the driving force behind all his work. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Learning Design and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Trevor currently resides in Fairfield, Connecticut with his amazing wife Lindsey and will be welcoming a son into the world somewhere around the release of this book.

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