Teachable unit design

Teaching should focus on student learning. When planning your teaching there are some key elements to consider. Teachable unit design will guide your planning and help you develop as a teacher. 

Pedagogical content knowledge 

In order to be a good teacher, you need to have a deep understanding of the content you teach, but you must also be able to put this into a pedagogical context so that you can help your students build their own understanding. 

Shulman (1987) introduced the concept of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) in order to call attention to the close integration between subject matter and pedagogical knowledge. According to Shulman, PCK "represents the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction." (p.8). 

Figure showing PCK as a blend of pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge

In order to facilitate learning (Biggs & Tang, 2011), the teacher must be aware of her own PCK. PCK is topic-specific and student-oriented, unique to each teacher, and only gained through teaching practice (Shulman, 1987).  

Teachable Unit framework

Teachable unit design incorporates backward design, putting the scientific teaching principles to work. Below we provide a table you can use to design your teachable unit. It builds on frameworks from Handelsman, Miller and Pfund (2007) and Eames et al. (2011).

Please note that at a teachable unit can contain materials for one class or for a specific topic.   


Key elements to consider in order to build your PCK

Learning Goals and Intended Outcomes:

What will students know, understand, and be able to do?

What performances or behaviors will indicate achievement of the goals?



  • Progression - how will this unit fit into the progression of learning in the course?
  • Threshold concepts - what concepts are crucial for further development in this specific topic?
  • Cognitive overload - what else do you know about this that you do not intend to teach yet (need to know/nice to know)?



How will students and instructors gauge student learning throughout the unit?



  • Multiple representations - how will you use different assessment methods and representations in order to address the diversity of the classroom? 
  • Self-monitoring - how will you teach the students to self-monitor and give them feedback on this process?
  • Student understanding - how will you ascertain student understanding of, or confusion about this topic?


What will students and instructors do to engage a diversity of students in achieving the goals?

Briefly describe the schedule of events.



  • Pre-knowledge and skills - what competence do your students have prior to learning about this content?
  • Novice thinking - what do you know about novice student thinking and how will this influence your teaching?
  • Misconceptions - what are common misconceptions in this topic and how will this influence your teaching?
  • Group dynamics - how can different representations and teaching methods address the diversity in the classroom?

Scientific Teaching

How does each component align with the learning goals?


  • Student learning - how are the learning goals, assessment and activities aligned in order to put student learning in focus?
  • Development as a teacher - how do you monitor your own development as a teacher and make adjustments to ensure student learning?
  • Research based teaching - how do you observe, document and analyze your teaching and how do you implement science education literature? 
  • Community of practice - how do you collaborate with fellow teachers, share experiences and contribute to development of teaching and education in your institution?


Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire, England: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, McGraw-Hill.

Eames, C. W., Williams, P. J., Hume, A. C., & Lockley, J. (2011). CoRe: A way to build pedagogical content knowledge for beginning teachers. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/7399

Handelsman, J., Miller, S., & Pfund, C. (2007). Scientific Teaching: W. H. Freeman.

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-23. doi:10.17763/haer.57.1.j463w79r56455411

By Cathrine W. Tellefsen and Tone F. Gregers
Published Aug. 12, 2021 11:06 AM - Last modified Oct. 19, 2021 9:46 AM