Teachers everywhere manage a constant tension between unrealistically high curriculum expectations and a desire to slow things down and make class fun. Figuring out how to cover an entire textbook, keep students from falling behind, and make class enjoyable may be questions for the ages. However, there is an approach to middle school and high school courses that few teachers take advantage of, primarily because they don’t feel empowered to do so.

Let’s face it, the textbook is a two-edged sword. While it gives teachers a roadmap for the year, the book also takes away a lot of autonomy. For a rookie teacher, this is a nice arrangement because it simplifies a hectic undertaking. But for the journeyman or veteran teacher, the textbook can become a real thorn in the flesh, especially in this reformist age of bigger books, lengthier standards, and assessment-driven decision making.  No matter where we find ourselves on the experience spectrum, we all wonder at some point, “How much of this stuff do the kids really need to know?” That’s a valuable question we should be asking, and it’s a decision you are smart enough to make!

Matching up the curriculum with learning standards is called curriculum alignment. These standards are issued by state and national departments of education as well as testing services such as ACT, SAT, OLSAT, Iowa, and Stanford.  This process is very time-consuming, so we trust our publishers to do this work for us as they write the books. When a textbook comes to us, it has already taken into account what a student needs to learn in your course. That’s a huge help! Textbook developers are a God-send. I for one am glad that someone behind the scenes is doing the research on what students should be learning in a year’s worth of Algebra, Biology, or US History. Let’s not blame those fine people in the trenches for the stress we feel when making lesson plans and setting curriculum goals. When that textbook hits the market, you can bet that people a lot smarter than we are have spent mental sweat deciding what students in courses need to know about the subject. Looking at things through that lens makes us feel even more pressure…Can we really afford to leave anything out?

The point is this: A reasonable teacher ought to have a healthy fear of robbing his or her students of a great education. On one extreme, we could slow things down so much that everyone get’s A’s, yet if we’ve only covered two chapters, we’ve actually damaged students for the long-run.  On the other extreme, if we set a break-neck pace and cover every page of the book, we’ve probably made our students take a drink from a fire hydrant. There’s lots of water involved but not much being absorbed. The Survey Plan I propose below takes into account my desire to help all students succeed but also my planning ahead to make sure their minds are exposed to a wide swath of knowledge for their future as a life-long learner. After all, isn’t that our ultimate goal in education?

We must always bear in mind the lofty goal of increasing student learning, even at the expense of making life more difficult for us teachers! In big-picture ideas, this survey approach is the nuts-and-bolts of the philosophy of a liberal arts education, and your students will be better off in the long-run when you make plans to establish a wide base for them now. Our job as educators is to be the filter of the textbook and decide what to leave on the cutting room floor.  However, the objective still must be exposing students to the breadth of the curriculum.  A survey approach focuses on the fundamental concepts of each chapter even if we are not able to go as in-depth as we would like.  This approach may mean that you only take time to cover 75% of every chapter, but this is actually better for the student than only covering 75% of the book.  Remember, there are lots of important lessons in the book, but there are relatively few concepts that are really important. Chapters introduce fresh concepts, and it’s to our students’ benefit to know about as many of them as possible.

In comparison to the survey approach is the mastery approach in which we make a linear attempt to cover 100% of each chapter before moving on to the next.  This approach seems to be beneficial to the student but actually robs him or her of a broader understanding on which to build.  Students will have opportunities to master concepts in college and graduate school, but if they are unaware of the broadness of a subject, they are limited in what they can master later.

Planning and carrying out a survey approach takes discipline on your part as it may require you to “move on” even if a chapter is not completely finished. However, always keep in mind the goal: To increase student learning by broadening their base of what the universe holds. Think of it like a pyramid: Your job is to make that prism as wide as possible at the bottom.

Here are some steps for making a survey plan:

  1. Establish a timeframe:  school year, semester, trimester, etc…
  2. Spread the chapters of your textbook across the timetable.
  3. Set goals for stopping chapters by certain dates and stick to your plan. Remember, you can always go back later if you have time, and there’s no rule that you have to finish a chapter before giving a test (really, there’s not!).
  4. Modify and adjust your chapter content to accommodate your overall goal of being broad. Select the topics you want to dive deep into, but leave the others for future diving.
  5. Stop making excuses. Everyone can come up with a reason for why “this won’t work for my subject”, but if you want it to work badly enough, it will. That excuse usually means the teacher just doesn’t want to think that they need to change anything, and in the end that’s bad for everybody.

Below is an example of a Survey Plan created for an Algebra I class. You’ll notice that I have intentionally planned to NOT cover all sections of some of the chapters. I can always go back later if there’s time, yet I’d rather keep moving and at least expose the students to every concept in the book. That’s only going to happen if I plan for it to.





Total Sections Sections I’ll Cover Finish Date Class Periods
1: Integers 10 10 Sept. 7 8
2: Real Numbers 7 7 Sept. 28 7
3: Variables 9 9 Oct. 12 8
4: Solving Equations 10 10 Nov. 2 12
5: Inequalities 8 1-7 Nov. 20 8
6: Relations 10 1-9 Dec. 14 12
7: Systems 10 1-9 Jan. 18 12
8: Polynomials 9 1-8 Feb. 1 8
9. Factoring 7 1-6 Feb. 22 8
10: Radicals 10 1-6, 8, 9 Mar. 15 12
11: Quadratics 8 8 Apr. 5 10
12: Rationals 7 1-5 Apr. 19 8
13: Rational Equations 6 1, 2, 3, 4 May 3 7
14: Quad Equations 5 1, 2, 4 May 17 5