What is Understanding by Design and why should I use it?

Understanding by Design (UBD) provides a flexible framework for the pragmatic development of online courses. Of all the material we have reviewed, we believe this method best serves our purposes for the thoughtful design of curriculum.  Using a “reverse engineering” approach, we will explore the desired outcomes for your course, and then work backward to create a rich learning experience for your students. Along the way, we’ll talk about “understanding” – what it really means and how you’ll recognize when your students achieve it.

Results, Evidence, Experience

The Understanding by Design framework is a model for developing curriculum “backward” from outcomes to activities (with a few stops along the way). In broad terms, UBD is a three-stage process:

  • Identify desired results. This stage is guided by your experience, expertise, and focus, plus any pre-defined outcomes, objectives, and curricular alignment.
  • Determine acceptable evidence. This stage is guided by the Six Facets of Understanding, which helps make sense of what is “acceptable” evidence of learning.
  • Plan learning experiences and instruction. This is the stage that educators are most familiar with, and includes activities.

Big Ideas

Curriculum design beings with “Big Ideas,” from which we will derive everything else.

As Grant Wiggins puts it in the book Understanding by Design, a big idea “offers a conceptual framework allowing the learner to explore answers to the essential questions involving a unit of study.” Big ideas inform the whole (or significant pieces) of your course. Big ideas:

  • Provide a “conceptual lens” for prioritizing content
  • Serve as organizers for connecting important facts, skills, and actions
  • Transfer to other contexts
  • Manifest themselves in various ways within disciplines
  • Require “uncoverage” due to their abstraction

Some examples of big ideas:

  • Accounting is the language of business
  • In security, risk is a key factor (HSEM)
  • Fictions distill greater truths with minor lies
  • Statistical relationships do not imply causation
  • Science: we still don’t know anything.
  • Risk Management is a process with application at all levels (HSEM)
  • Grammars are social material practices (embedded misunderstanding: Grammar is a skill/is editing).
  • Nonfiction texts always depict truth
  • History is written by the victors
  • The scientific method is a process of inquiry?
  • Drafting is a form of visual language
  • Crime results from systemic social failings
  • The essence of photography is capturing light
  • Science evolves via crowd sourced selection?
  • Effective strategies are based in concrete analysis (HSEM)
  • Form follows function
  • Information is meaningless outside of its original context
  • You are what you eat
  • We study wildlife to understand ourselves?

Check your big ideas by asking yourself:

  • Does it have many layers not obvious to the inexperienced learner?
  • Does one have to dig deep to truly understand its meaning or implications?
  • Is it prone to disagreement?
  • Might you change your mind about it over time?
  • Does it reflect the core ideas as judged by experts?

Essential Questions

Big ideas lead to “essential questions,” which Grant Wiggins characterizes as “well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter – the essence of the issue.” Essential questions are important because they are the point of inquiry from which you create actual instructional material and experiences for your students.

A question is essential when it:

  • Causes genuine INQUIRY into the big ideas and core content
  • ARGUABLE: provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • Requires students to CONSIDER alternatives, WEIGH evidence, SUPPORT their ideas, and JUSTIFY their answers
  • Stimulates vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas and assumptions
  • Sparks meaningful CONNECTIONS with prior learning and personal experiences

As a big idea will unpack into multiple essential questions (usually), so an essential question will itself unpack into multiple smaller questions. The smaller questions are not unimportant, but it is crucial to understand how the smaller questions relate to the Big Idea. For instance:

  • Essential Question: What traits and characteristics are collectively used to determine a classification?
  • Non-Essential Question: How many legs does a spider have?

It may well be the case that non-essential questions can be used to bring about understanding of the essential questions, but they are not the essential thing. Consider another pair:

  • Essential questions: How do history and context determine the definition of “art?”
  • Non-Essential Question: Is Duchamps “Fountain” art or not?

The “UBD Tree”

The “UBD Tree” lays out the Understanding by Design curriculum development process as a form in the shape of a tree with a space to capture notes about each specific stage of the process as a sequence. We’ve seen the first two:

  1. Big ideas
  2. Essential questions

From this point on we are getting into the things that students will most obviously see and interact with (though you don’t want to hide your big ideas; in fact, you want to do quite the opposite):

  1. Unit questions
  2. Evidence
  3. Assessments
  4. Activities

It’s important to understand that this process does not usually produce precisely linear results: one big idea will likely lead to many questions which can lead to more or fewer unit questions, you might have one assessment that covers many questions just as you might have many activities all oriented to helping students understand a single concept.

Nor do you have to work on the tree from left-to-right… you may intuitively put the pieces together in another way: the tree is just a tool for you to organize your ideas and check your own understanding.

UBD Tree Resources

Considerations: The “UBD Egg”

As you work out your curriculum, you must constantly keep priorities in mind. If students come to an understanding of the big idea and essential questions, they will more nimbly address the smaller questions, where the reverse is not usually true. To help prioritize your proposed content, UBD asks you to consider how your content fits in this egg-shaped model. At the heart of your model are your Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings, from which you can determine what it is Important to Know and Do, and finally things that it is Worth Being Familiar With. Obviously you want the bulk of your time, the focus of your assessments, and the activities on the part of your students to focus most on the center and next parts of the egg, from which students derive (with your help) those things on the outside.

UBD Egg rev

Further Questions

  1. What do students want to know when they come to your class?
  2. What do they need to know?
  3. What do students always get stuck on?
  4. What is one thing that students need to understand before they go on to the next level (i.e., the next course in the discipline)?


About the Author:

Jennifer is an instructional designer at UAF eLearning with over 20 years experience working with faculty. She is interested in emergent technologies such as augmented reality, interactive media, and wearable devices and how these trends fit into successful educational experiences. She also enjoys painting, photography, travel and exploring wilderness areas off the grid. Connect with Jennifer at jmossdesign.com

This page was last updated on : Dec 16, 2014