A unit study is simply a study of one topic or theme and the integration of all subject areas (language arts, math, science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and Bible) as you study the topic. The unit should be full of interesting and interactive activities that encourage thinking at higher levels and build your child’s excitement about learning.

What is a Unit Study Approach to Learning?

With a unit study approach, children will learn basic skills, but learning is not just memorization. By integrating the skills and subject areas, a unit study shows the whole picture and gives the skills purpose and meaning. When concepts are related and applied to their lives, children have a greater understanding and tend to have long-term retention of the skills.

For example, math facts and procedures should be memorized and must be followed precisely because accuracy is important. Using fractions and converting them to decimals and percentages is a precise skill and process that many times is tedious and confusing to students. If these math skills are put into a sports context of computing a batting average or field goal percentage, the skills now have purpose and meaning. In sports, it’s important to correctly and accurately compute averages so that the statistics can be applied in a game situation. 

A unit study should include activities that accommodate all learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

  • Visual learning uses visual objects such as graphs, charts, pictures, and written information. Color-coding and flashcards are effective visual-learning tools.
  • Auditory learning occurs through hearing and speaking. Oral instructions and then summarizing the main points aloud can help with memorization and understanding.
  • Kinesthetic learning takes place when the child carries out physical activities rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations.

Most children have a dominant learning style; but when activities that involve all three learning styles are included, the children’s understanding and retention of the concepts increases dramatically. So when planning your own unit study, make sure you are including activities that address each learning style.

One of the features of a good unit study is hands-on learning or learning by doing. It is engaging in investigations with objects and ideas and drawing meaning and understanding from those experiences. Learning should be fun and should develop curiosity in the child. It involves the child in a total learning experience which enables the child to become a critical thinker. He will be able to apply what he has learned, and the process of learning, to life situations. Hands-on activities encourage a lifelong love of learning and motivate students to explore and discover new things.

A unit study encourages your family to learn together and makes planning for multiple ages easier. You can provide various levels of difficulty for the activities within your unit study. For example, if you are working on color patterns, choose a simple ABAB pattern like red, blue, red, blue for your younger child. But challenge the older child or children with a more complex ABBC pattern like brown, pink, pink, green. Have them take turns and complete their color patterns. This exposes the younger children to more difficult skills, and they may surprise you by learning when you’re not expecting it. 

Another benefit of unit studies is the ability to be flexible. There is no perfect schedule for unit studies. As you go through the unit, your child may have ideas of his own. One goal of unit studies is to encourage curiosity and discover new things, so allow your child to explore a concept more in-depth. Have fun, and enjoy learning together.

Planning a unit study is time-consuming. As you research and combine resources, stay focused on the learning goals and choose activities with a purpose. There are books and resources that can help you plan a unit study. 

There are many good unit study programs available for purchase. One advantage is that all the planning is done and the appropriate grade-level skills are covered. You can add your own ideas to those within a curriculum, but the burden of researching is not on you.

Unit studies are not just a concept for preschool or early elementary. Hands-on teaching at all ages is an extremely effective strategy for increasing a student’s depth of knowledge. Well-designed, hands-on activities focus learners on the world around them, spark their curiosity, and guide them through engaging experiences while developing communication, creativity, and critical-thinking skills.

It’s really a lifelong habit of applying our learning to our daily lives.

Debra Arbuthnot is the author of the Homeschool Complete All-Inclusive Curriculum, a unit study approach to learning. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and a Secondary Mathematics Endorsement. She has 25 years of teaching experience at the Elementary, Junior High, and High School levels in both public and private schools. She and her husband have three adult children who were homeschooled using a unit-study-curriculum format. Visit Homeschool Complete