Content and Student Objectives: Balancing Depth and Breadth

Written by Megan Davenport, Atlas Team | Updated by Kelly McCurdy, Atlas Team

When writing curriculum using a backward design framework, designers start by selecting which standards will be the focus of a given unit. From here, they synthesize the information contained in the standards into Big Ideas and Essential Questions that frame the purpose of the unit and guide inquiry. But now what? We have a list of standards containing a wealth of information and Big Ideas and Essential Questions providing a high-level focus, but how do we translate this into what we will actually teach? We identify and articulate the Content and Student Objectives within a unit plan.

The content and student objectives are the concrete items that students need to know, understand and do.

The process of identifying and articulating the content and student objectives is often referred to as “unpacking” the standards. When curriculum designers and teachers have the opportunity to unpack these components in a focused and thoughtful way, they are empowered to more deeply leverage the standards in order to develop units and full curriculum maps that truly reflect understanding, and to design learning activities that will best prepare students for success.

When identifying the content, the teacher should review the standards to see what content-information is included. For example, some standards may include vocabulary words, key concepts and ideas. The content can provide an opportunity to pull out all of this information into a focused list of everything students need to know. One concrete strategy to identify these is to highlight or circle the key nouns in the standards.

reading literature

Content: What students should know– the subject matter, key concepts, facts, and events

  • Is it noun-driven?
  • Is it clear & concise?
  • Is it specific enough for an outsider to understand?
  • Does it connect to the Standards, EUs, EQs, etc.?

When identifying the student objectives, the teacher should review the standards to understand what students are expected to do to demonstrate proficiency. For example, do students need to simply recall the meaning of academic terms, or do they need to critique information to show a deep understanding? To identify the skills highlight or circle the key verbs within the standard.

reading literature

Student Objectives: What students should be able to do (mental, physical, etc.)

  • Is it verb-driven?
  • Does it reflect the appropriate level of thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy/Webb DOK)?
  • Does it align back to Standards, EUs, EQs, etc.?

One of the challenges of writing content and student objectives is finding the balance of depth versus breadth. There will never be enough time for everything, so prioritization and balance are key. The more focused and specific your list is, the more focused and specific your teaching will be. Ready to get started? Check out our examples and resources below.


Social Studies, Grade 1
  • Communities, Neighborhoods, & Cities
  • Neighborhood Helpers
  • Cooperation and conflict
  • Distinguish  between near & far
  • Identify people and places often found around the neighborhood
  • Describe ways that each community member can work together to make it a nice place to live
English, Grade 10
  • Close reading and textual evidence
  • Historical context: Jim Crow laws, Plessy v. Ferguson, etc.
  • Literary Terms: Foreshadowing, Figurative language, Symbolism, Theme, Character, Point of View
  • Interpret and generalize based on textual evidence after close reading
  • Identify and understand major themes in a novel
  • Analyze the development of a character in a novel
  • Utilize literary terms to explain author’s craft

Tips for using your Content & Student Objectives in Daily Practice

When creating daily learning activities, refer back to the Content and Student Objectives as a reference:

  • Are your daily learning targets referencing either a piece of Content or a Student Objective articulated in the unit plan?
  • At the conclusion of the unit, after all of your learning activities, will students have been taught all of the Content and practiced all of the Student Objectives?
  • Are knowledge of all of the content and ability to demonstrate all of the student objectives being assessed multiple times throughout the unit?

Additional Resources


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