All About Understanding by Design

Jessica Shaffer
Jessica Shaffer
K-6 Math Instructional Coach and the Summer Enrichment Academy Coordinator; M.A. in Administration, Leadership, Georgian Court University, NJ
A science teacher sits at her desk, making a lesson plan.

Many districts now use the “understanding by design” process to create curricula. Curriculum design creates an overall blueprint for a class which generally includes a pacing guide and learning plan, the learning standards, objectives, and assessments. Curricula have always existed, but like many other parts of education, they have evolved through the years.

What is Understanding by Design?

Understanding by design (UbD) is an education planning approach. It is a framework and design process developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins that focuses on unit planning. Past practice had teachers determining what they would teach and then trying to make connections to the goals.

UbD takes an opposite approach by working backward, looking at the goal first and then determining how to get there. It is an example of backward design.

There are three stages in the UbD process:

  1. Identify the Desired Results or Outcome
  2. Determine Acceptable Evidence
  3. Create the Learning Plans

Identify the Desired Results or Outcome

In the first stage, the learning goals are considered. These goals are what the teacher wishes the students to know upon completion of the unit. Essential questions are used to identify the desired results, and students should be able to answer these when the unit is finished. The three ideas that should be considered in this planning stage are the enduring understanding, what is important to know and do, and what is worth being familiar with.

Determine Acceptable Evidence

The second stage is where you decide what acceptable evidence of attaining the learning goals is. This can include:

It is essential to ensure the assessments match the learning goals. These assessments can be formal or informal but must align with the big idea.

Create the Learning Plans

The third stage is where you design the lesson. You can find an understanding by design template for free available online if your district does not have a subscription to a host for your curricula online. On the same link, if you click on “Design Template with Descriptions,” it walks you through how to fill out the template appropriately. This is where the learning plan is determined with lesson objectives, activities, accommodations/modifications, etc.

UbD helps instructors aim to assist students achieve a deeper level of understanding. It promotes students not just to memorize information but to think critically and apply skills learned to various practical situations.

To obtain a deeper understanding, students must learn to embrace challenges and learn from mistakes. Deep understanding gives students many valuable skills for life beyond the classroom.

Benefits of Understanding by Design

When teachers have tunnel vision and plan the lessons based on the activities and instruction, there is no focus on the output, or simply stated, the takeaway from the lesson. This can create the thought that teachers focus more on teaching than learning.

UbD establishes a purpose for learning and helps instructors to determine what they want the students to learn and then create the path to get there. Aligning the assessments to the learning goals greatly benefits the students, as it eliminates the “fluff.” There is a purpose to each task in class; more importantly, the purpose is understood by the students.

This approach can also be beneficial for instructors as they can determine the necessary materials to achieve learning goals. Developing assessments before the learning plan can give a better scope of what information and skills need to be addressed and how to do that. It helps teachers to use their instructional time more effectively and efficiently.

Putting Understanding by Design into Practice

This can be put into practice in any subject area. Let’s take math, for example. In stage one, I am planning for the desired outcomes.

Big Idea

For instance, if I am teaching a Place Value Unit in fifth grade math, my big idea would be: The base ten numeration system is a scheme for recording numbers using the digits zero to nine, groups of ten, and place value.

Essential Question

My essential question would be: How are whole numbers and decimals written, compared, and ordered? This is what the students should be able to answer when the unit is completed. There may be other components included in this first stage, but most importantly, you want to plan the learning goals for your students.

Assessments

In stage two, I will pinpoint the assessments that will be used to determine whether the learning goals were met. For example, you might use a unit test, quiz, projects, etc. I always used a Unit Test for this unit and a project that encouraged creativity while demonstrating the knowledge of writing, comparing, and ordering whole numbers and decimals. It is also important to include other informal assessments such as skills checks to determine how to target individual student needs as you move through the learning plan.

Learning Plan

In stage three, the learning plan is created. This is where you determine the objectives, materials/resources, accommodations/modifications, and the skills/knowledge that will be acquired. This is also where you will plan your daily lessons to help your students reach their learning goals.

Many districts require daily lesson planning and the learning plan would be reflected in those. Each backward design lesson plan should support the learning goal. When an instructor is determining activities and the activity does not support the learning goal, it should be eliminated from the plan.

Understanding by design forces teachers to have a deeper understanding of the unit goals and big picture which in turn enhances the students’ learning experiences. With the evolution of education and newer, more rigorous standards, a teacher’s instruction must match the student’s needs. Learning goals must first be set to determine instruction.

A Japanese proverb states, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Teachers need to find the happy medium and plan with intent and purpose with student learning goals at the forefront.

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