Home > Educational Neuroscience > Three Steps to Layering the Curriculum

Three Steps to Layering the Curriculum

Layering the curriculum is a simple way to differentiate instruction, encourage higher-level thinking, prepare students for adult-world decision making and hold them accountable for learning. Any lesson plan can be converted into a layered unit with three easy steps (Nunley, 2004, 2006).

Step One: Add some choice. Choice transforms a classroom instantly. Choice suddenly turns unmotivated students into motivated ones, ensures student attention, and gives students the perception of control. Choice is the centerpiece to student-centered, differentiated classrooms. Traditionally, mathematics teachers have seen their subject as one that is so regimented and sequential that it has little room for student choice. But within even the tightest structured curriculum, some student choice is possible.

  • Take your teaching objectives and offer two or three assignment choices as to how students can learn those objectives. Not all objectives need to be taught through choices, but offer as many as you can. These can include teacher lecture, small-group peer instruction, hands-on tactile projects, or independent study.
  • For example, if your objective is that students can determine the area of a triangle, you may offer a quick chalkboard lesson on that topic. Then allow the students to do some practice problems themselves, work in small groups, play a computer game that practices that concept, or complete a task using manipulatives.
  • One suggestion worth considering is to make your lectures optional and award points for them. Tell the students that they can either listen to your lecture (direct instruction) or work on another assignment from the unit instead. What you will discover is that all students will probably listen to the lecture. But the fact that it is now their decision, rather than the teacher’s mandate, changes the whole perception of the task and increases attention.

Step Two: Hold students accountable for learning. One of the unfortunate developments in our traditional grading system is the wide variation in how grading points are awarded in our classrooms. Some teachers award points simply for practicing a skill, some for just doing assignments, and of course some points are eventually awarded for demonstrating mastery in the test. Because grading schemes are nearly as numerous and varied as the number of teachers, a heavy weight is frequently put on the points awarded for doing assignments. This means that students can earn enough points to pass a course without actually learning much at all. In fact, so many points have been awarded for doing class work and homework that many students never understand that the purpose of doing an assignment is to actually learn something from it. They say, “I did it; doesn’t that count?”

  • A key to layering the curriculum is to award grade points for the actual learning of the objective rather than the assignment that was chosen for the learning.For example, if our objective is that students learn how to determine the area of a triangle, then points are awarded for the assignment based on whether or not the student can do that. Whether they chose to do the book work, a manipulative exercise, or a computer game is immaterial. What is important is that they learned the objective. This can be done through oral defense, small-group discussions, or unannounced quizzes. Have sample problems on index cards that you or their classmates can pull at random. Two or three sample problems can easily check for the skill. Award points for acquiring the skill rather than for the journey chosen to get there.

Step Three: Encourage higher-level thinking. One of the main components of braincompatible learning is helping students make complex connections with new information. Finding relationships, hooking new learning to previous knowledge, and cross-connecting between memory networks. These are the keys to real learning. Layering the curriculum encourages more complex learning by dividing the instructional unit into three layers: (1) basic rote information, (2) application and manipulation of that information, and (3) critical analysis of a real-world issue. Rather than just calling them layer 1, layer 2 and layer 3, the complexity of the learning is tied into the actual grade a student will earn, so the layers are called C layer, B layer and A layer.

  • The C layer consists of all the objectives that have to do with the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. This layer consists of rote learning and concrete facts. All students begin in this layer. Even the highest-ability students can add to their current bank of knowledge, so the entire class starts here.
  • After students complete this C layer, they move to the B layer, which asks them to connect the new information gained in the C layer to prior knowledge. This layer includes assignments that require problem solving, application, demonstration of mastery, or unique creations. The purpose of this layer is to attach new knowledge to prior knowledge to make a more complex picture or network in the student’s brain. Interdisciplinary assignments work beautifully in this layer. A student who satisfactorily completes the C and B layer would then earn the grade of a B on this unit.
  • Finally, the A layer asks students to mix the facts and basic information they have learned with more sophisticated brain concepts such as values, morality, and personal reflection, in order to form an opinion on an adult-world issue or current event. This layer asks for critical thinking and prepares students for their role as voters and decision makers in the real world. Many educators may refer to this area as the essential question. A student who successfully completes this layer will earn the grade of an A on this unit.

All students are expected to complete the three layers. Many students may not be able to show sufficient mastery of a skill or handle an Alayer issue with the sophistication needed to gain enough points for a letter grade of A or B. Nonetheless, they all must still tackle the three layers. We are preparing these students for an adult world that will ask them to gather and manipulate information and to make community decisions based on that information. Thus all students need to practice these types of thinking. At the outset, teachers help students walk through all the layers so they experience success and understand the process. As the year progresses, units may be left more open in their structure so that students are free to move among the layers as they are ready.


Nunley, K. (2004). Layered curriculum: The practical solution for teachers with more than one student in their classroom (2nd ed.). Amherst, NH: Brains.org.

  1. Ken O'Connor
    September 24, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Choice is good for the brain but the problem with Nunley’s Layered Curriculum is that it is focussed on grades and this gives the wrong message to students – that school is about grades not learning. Unfortunately this message has been given to students for so long that we often passively accept the “does this count” syndrome. The other problem with Nunley’s approach is that many of the B and C level activities are learning activities and so any assessment of these should be formative, which should be ‘no mark comment only’ and which have NO place in grades.

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