Unit Studies – But are they real curriculum?

If you were looking for “How to Use Unit Studies with High School Students,” go HERE instead!

“But… is a unit study actually curriculum?  … or is it JUST a unit study?”

A unit study is a broad term that can often mean many things (just like “school book” is a broad term).  In our definition, a unit study is a cross-curricular and/or interdisciplinary approach to education.  This means multiple academic disciplines are combined into one, or there is instruction that intentionally applies academic disciplines simultaneously.  The unit topic is often interesting, to invoke passion-led learning or simultaneously teach a life-preparation skill.  This approach leads to increased comprehension and memory retention while providing the added benefit of stated life skills or job prep, as well.  In this scenario multiple school subjects are being taught and utilized together, as opposed to segmented as you’d see in many public primary schools or traditional year-long textbooks. 

“Our faculty and researchers collaborate across school and departmental boundaries, and we encourage the same interdisciplinary focus among our graduate students….” – Yale University


  • On one counter, you have a bowl with flour, a bowl with eggs, a bowl with sugar, and a bowl with baking power.
  • On another counter, you have a cake—made from all the ingredients mixed together.

Or, you know… to make this healthier let’s go with separate lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes on one table vs. a full salad on the other. HAHA.

The interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research is prevalent throughout the University, mixing scientists and humanists, engineers and social scientists in a variety of ways to enhance discovery and better serve humanity…” –Princeton University

The former (separate items) is textbook curriculum and public school setup… each subject separate and segmented.  In our opinion, it’s unnatural and kind of “gross,” but others may disagree.  A lot of people carry this kind of segmented teaching into their homeschool, as well, which is also personal preference.  However, the interesting part is that because “segmentation” has become so much the “norm,” people now view interdisciplinary studies or cross curricular concepts as “not a real curriculum.”  It’s baffling!

Imagine using a particular time period (like the Middle Ages) to teach both history AND language arts… that’s the general idea.  That’s the “full cake” scenario.  It all connects and becomes more meaningful.  On the contrary, when looking at textbook-styled schooling, the student usually opens the history textbook and learns about the Middle Ages.  Then, they close the text and open up their language arts coursebook… which is discussing something entirely different and is not connected in any way. 

Most universities strive for interdisciplinary collaboration…” – Harvard University


As you have been seeing in quotes throughout, Ivy League universities even see the benefit of our same approach.

Over the years, studies have continued to prove the benefit of such an approach, and the best colleges and universities are making sure to follow!  They have all been implementing changes over the past many decades to incorporate more interdisciplinary fields and cross curricular teaching opportunities.  Obviously, this setup is much more difficult in a public school setting, but it is actively being desired and praised!  Thankfully, homeschoolers can much more easily do this, given our flexibility.

Standard public schools are usually the ones who say the opposite (that all subjects should be segmented, with their own textbook that doesn’t cross disciplines). Homeschool curriculum kind of followed right along, just like they did with their “worksheet” approach (which is also not found in colleges or universities, and has no evidenced-based support for memory retention).


Not all unit studies are created equal.  Not all textbooks are created equal.  All cakes are not created equal, either (just compare the one from your local bakery to the one from your standard grocery store).

Unit studies (depending on company) and textbooks (depending on company) have the same number of teaching material and concepts covered; they’re just presented differently.  To believe there is a different amount of information covered just because of the term “unit study” or “textbook” is used is to believe a lie.

Now certainly, there are good quality unit studies and bad ones.  There are also good textbooks and bad.  There are good teachers and not-so-good teachers.  It’s not the umbrella term that defines whether it includes great educational content.  It’s the item and product itself.

Usually, the unit study (interdisciplinary and cross curricular approach) feels more “natural” and “fun,” just like the cake is more delicious than raw eggs and the salad is more appetizing than plain lettuce. HAHA! Of course, this immediately lends to the feel of, “This must not be real school… because we are having so much fun!” Truth is, learning IS more fun when you can understand WHY a part of history also impacted the part of science you are learning about. It IS more fun when you can find those “aha!” moments or use language arts for real-world application as if in a real career. But to discredit something because it actually makes learning “joyful” or “desired” and “better retained….” WHAT A TRAGEDY!

Sometimes textbooks focus more on one area of teaching, where unit studies focus on another.  Sometimes textbooks focus on using three extra pages of gobbledygook where unit studies eliminate that and focus on real-world application along with the important information.  Sometimes it’s the other way around!  Sometimes families like an entire year-long approach to a particular topic (textbook), where others prefer variety (different unit studies).  It’s like saying the SAT focuses on one area of testing, where the ACT focuses on another.  Neither one is necessarily superior; it’s just a different approach.


Our Zoologist unit (one of many examples) matches the scope and sequence of common textbooks in zoology. But it also teaches African history… and language arts.  AND it includes concepts that are taught in the actual career (that many textbooks skip).  Is the scope and sequence different between the unit study and a “science textbook with a zoology focus”? No. Is it teaching less African history than the history textbook did?  No.  Is the amount covered any different? Nope. And in many cases, Campfire covered even more than the standard text book did because we also brought in other aspects of multiple careers within the field of zoology, as well as particular focuses found in colleges and universities.  It merely approaches teaching in a different way and it emphasizes cross-curricular and interdisciplinary studies, while removing unnecessary “filler.”


Plain lettuce or full salad?  Raw eggs and plain flour or cake? Textbooks or unit studies?  You take your pick.  There is honestly no “better.”  Well, we personally think there is from our own perspective, but we are not you.  We are not your family.  We cannot tell you which is better any more than we can tell you which cake should be your favorite… or if you should even like cake, at all.

Some people use unit studies to fill in gaps.  Some people use unit studies as their full and regular curriculum.  Some people use only parts and portions of unit studies to bring in a “fun” element to their school or show their child how different subjects connect.  Some do them intentionally just to learn a life skill (only with our curriculum, as we have never seen others that offer this).  Unit studies are fantastic and flexible, but their flexibility does not make them “less,” in terms of a full curriculum.

***So why does this question get asked at all when the answer seems so obvious?***

Well, because honestly it can get confusing for a couple reasons:

1. The length of the unit

– A textbook takes you 3 months, 4.5 months, 6 months, or 9 months (depending on which text you’re using).
– A unit study is usually a month or less.

That can be confusing to some.  Keep in mind, though, that if you have a textbook, it is going to first lead you through science chapter #1 (perhaps about the ocean), then science chapter #2 (perhaps about the air), then science chapter #3 (maybe about some rocks or volcanoes)….

You have to keep going through the chapters. That is common sense. Well, in unit studies, you have to keep going through the units. If you’re using it as your core, you don’t just stop at one and call it good for the year any more than you can stop half way through a textbook and think you’re finished.

2. Unit studies with single subject focus

A lot of times people sell curriculum and market it as a “unit study” meaning it just refers to one subject. Even though that is not our particular setup with our newer units and Core Connections, of course, you still have to ask yourself: would you ever walk up to a science book and say, “Oh this isn’t real curriculum because it covers only one subject—just science; nothing more. So it’s not real.”? No one would say that.  That logic is flawed.  You would obviously join the science textbook together with a history textbook, and a math textbook.  Likewise, you need to join one unit study together with another (or do one after the other).  It’s no different.

At the end of the day, use unit studies and textbooks however they work for you. Some people like textbooks and others do not. Some like unit studies, and others do not. Some like a mixture. Some like unit studies from one company but not another, or history textbooks from one curriculum but not another.  That is ALL okay! We can’t tell you what is the right answer for YOUR family.  However, we can at least help explain to those who don’t properly understand what a unit study actually is and help spread the word, so people do not inaccurately believe it means something it doesn’t.


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