How to Design an Experience First, Formalize Later Lesson

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

We have explained how we teach using the Experience First, Formalize Later lesson design and also why this model is best for students. Here we will explain the ideas that we consider when designing these lessons.

Balance Engaging Context with Academic Rigor

Lindsey and Luke lesson planning - Scenario 1

Lindsey: “Hey Luke, I found this really awesome activity we should use. The context is super engaging and the students would have so much fun!”

Luke: “Yes but how does it align with the learning targets for the day?”

Lindsey: ☹

Lindsey and Luke lesson planning - Scenario 2

Luke: “Check out this activity. It has perfect alignment with the learning targets”

Lindsey: “Boring! Students don’t care about the Gettysburg Address? We need a more engaging context”


Clearly we need to find a balance between engaging context and academic rigor. We want students to be curious and engaged in their learning, but we also want to focus them on what they need to know (especially when preparing for a standardized AP Exam!). For every new lesson we create, we think carefully about this balance.

Low Floor, High Ceiling

The "experience" part of the lesson is always designed for students to be able to complete without the assistance of the teacher. First, this means the activity should not require significant prior knowledge, which allows all learners to access the thinking (low floor). This is why we start all the activities with a very general question, such as “Can Joy Smell Parkinson’s” or “Does Caffeine Increase Pulse Rate?” Second, we want to be able to push and challenge our students to think at the next level (high ceiling). This might mean that there is a challenging question at the end of an activity that some students will answer incorrectly or will need to refine their ideas during the debrief.

Sequencing and Scaffolding

The questions on an activity must be sequenced in such a way that students are building up a new concept. Each move from one question to the next should be a small step forward. If one step is too far, students might become frustrated and lose focus. We must develop a sequence of questions that will allow all students to be successful. There are times when students must be provided with additional new information that is needed for them to be successful on subsequent thinking. Here we will provide scaffolding that is worded in such a way that it is accessible to all learners.


Time is always the enemy of activity-based learning. We cannot spend three days on a super fun activity or project that only covers one small learning target. For this reason, there are activities that we have taken out of our curriculum or have refined in order to better focus. In teaching statistics, we often ask students to collect data as part of an activity. Usually, the data collection process is not the valuable part of the lesson (the data analysis is!). Therefore, we figure out how to collect the data most efficiently, so we can focus our time on thinking and reasoning about the analysis. For more discussion on this topic, read about the Grecian Urn Project from Cult of Pedagogy.

How Do I Do This in Algebra?

In our statistics classes, it is easy to find engaging real-world contexts to get students engaged. In Algebra and Pre-Calculus....not so much. To make this model work in our math classes, we have had to rethink what counts as the "experience". While real world contexts can be excellent for getting students engaged, they are not necessary. It is most important that the "experience" is interesting, accessible, and scaffolded. Stay tuned in the future for non-stats lessons developed using this model (Calc Medic? Math Medic

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