A Step-by-Step Guide to Compacting a Unit

We have all come across those students who seem to know all of the content for a unit.  Maybe it’s because the student is particularly obsessed with the subject or maybe it’s because s/he is repeating the class or grade level and so mastered some units last year.  For these students and also the ones who consistently catch on quickly, ‘compacting’ a unit can be a great strategy.

The basic idea is that you give a pretest at the beginning of the unit.  Students who master the pretest complete an independent project while the rest of the class participates in your regularly-planned unit.  If you’ve never done anything like this before, post-state assessments is the perfect time to try it.  Here’s a guide to get you started:

Step One: Choose a unit
Ideally, you want to choose a unit you’ve taught before (or one that you’re provided with materials for) so that you have materials to draw from in order to keep the planning manageable.  You also want to choose a unit that you can easily think of some independent study or project ideas for.

Step Two: Create the pretest
If you’ve taught the unit before and you already have a final assessment, start with that.  Using this assessment as the foundation, create another ‘final assessment’ that covers the same content/skills and reaches the same level of rigor as the original – not drastically different, but not just name changes, either.  Once you have both, one will serve as the pretest and one will be the final unit assessment.

Step Three: Create an independent project
The students who master the pretest will complete this project independently, so there are several things to keep in mind.  First off, they need to be able to do the research and work during class, so it needs to require resources you have readily available with little to no inconvenience.  The project also needs to be substantial enough that it will take them as long as the unit lasts in order to complete it. 

Since they will have already proven their mastery on the pretest, you have some flexibility with the exact skills and objectives the project covers.  Ideally, it should push them to deepen their knowledge of the current unit material and offer them some level of choice to keep their motivation up. 

Step Four: Gather preview materials
You want all students to have an equal chance to master the pretest.  With that in mind, you want to gather unit resources you can share with students several days before the pretest.  This gives them a chance to study and master the material on their own.  You might bring together power points from the unit, chapters from the textbook (if you have one you like), websites that align with the unit, or any other materials that could help them prepare for the pretest.  If you have an Edmodo account or other social media-type group you use with your students, you can post the materials there once you introduce the unit.

Step Five: Introduce the unit
Several days before the unit begins, you would spend 5-10 minutes introducing the upcoming unit.  You’d let them know the general content & skills in the unit, tell them where to find the resources, the date of the pretest, and what kind of project they’ll participate in if they master the pretest.
Since you’re giving everyone the resources to master the pretest, it alleviates some of the possible tension that can arise from a few students getting to work independently.  It also raises the probability that a wider variety of students can master the pretest and not just the same 2-3 students each time.

Step Six: Give & Grade the Pretest
Although few students will master the pretest, have all your students take it.  By taking the pretest, everyone gets a clear idea of the scope of the unit and how they’ll be expected to demonstrate mastery at the end.  The other benefit is that it gives you helpful diagnostic information.  If everyone seemed to already know one unit objective, you know you won’t need to spend much time on it, for example.  If you don’t have the time or desire to carefully grade their pretests, though, do it the short way.  If you determine 90% to be mastery, just grade each test until you know they’ve earned below 90% and then move on to the next one so that you quickly know who mastered and who didn’t. 

Step Seven: Execute the unit
Once you start the unit, the students who mastered the pretest work on the independent project.  You’ll want to meet with them as they begin to make sure they understand the project and your behavioral expectations of them.  If there are certain lessons you want them to participate in, like labs or discussions, you simply have them rejoin the class on those days.  When the class takes quizzes or assessments during the unit, the independent project students don’t take them, they continue working on their project.  Since they showed mastery of the unit as a whole, you can simply input their pretest grade for each assignment.  You may need to get administrator approval for this, depending on how your school’s grading policies work.

At the end of the unit, allow the independent project students to present their projects to the class so that everyone can benefit from the extension work they’ve done.  Depending on the project, you may even choose to have them present before the final assessment as a way to help review and deepen everyone’s understanding. 

Have you compacted a unit before?  If so, add your tips and tricks in the comments!

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