The Big Ideas

Module A. The Big Ideas of UbD

Purpose: To become acquainted with the big ideas of Understanding by Design.
Desired Results: Unit designers will understand that
  • Understanding by Design (UbD) is a curriculum-planning framework, not a prescriptive program.
  • UbD focuses on helping students come to an understanding of important ideas and transfer their learning to new situations.
  • UbD reflects current research on learning.
You should work on Module A if you are new to Understanding by Design.
You might skim or skip Module A if you are familiar with the basic ideas of UbD.

As its title suggests, Understanding by Design (UbD) reflects the convergence of two interdependent ideas: (1) research on learning and cognition that highlights the centrality of teaching and assessing for understanding, and (2) a helpful and time-honored process for curriculum writing (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
UbD is based on eight key tenets:
  1. UbD is a way of thinking purposefully about curricular planning, not a rigid program or prescriptive recipe.
  2. A primary goal of UbD is developing and deepening student understanding—the ability to make meaning of learning via "big ideas" and to transfer learning.
  3. UbD unpacks and transforms content standards and mission-related goals into relevant Stage 1 elements and appropriate assessments in Stage 2.
  4. Understanding is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance. Six facets of understanding—the capacities to explaininterpret,applyshift perspectiveempathize, and self-assess—serve as indicators of understanding.
  5. Effective curriculum is planned "backward" from long-term desired results through a three-stage design process (Desired Results, Evidence, Learning Plan). This process helps to avoid the twin problems of "textbook coverage" and "activity-oriented teaching" in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.
  6. Teachers are coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content or activity. They focus on ensuring learning, not just teaching (and assuming that what was taught was learned); they always aim—and check—for successful meaning-making and transfer by the learner.
  7. Regular reviews of units and curriculum against design standards enhance curricular quality and effectiveness.
  8. UbD reflects a continuous-improvement approach to achievement. The results of our designs—student performance—inform needed adjustments in curriculum as well as instruction; we must stop, analyze, and adjust as needed, on a regular basis.
In this module, we'll explore two of the big ideas of UbD—understanding and design.

Understanding as an Educational Aim

The header for this section may strike readers as unnecessary. Don't all teachers want their students to understand what they teach? Perhaps. But an examination of many classrooms reveals that instruction is often focused on superficial coverage of lots of content as specified by national, state, or provincial standards, or as contained in distended textbooks. Even in nominally successful classrooms we see an overemphasis on short-term content acquisition for simple recall instead of long-term understanding. The teaching and learning process is also influenced in unfortunate ways by the pressure associated with high-stakes accountability tests. In many schools, teachers are expected to engage in "test prep" as a means of raising test scores. At its worst, this practice encourages and results in bad teaching—a low-level and formulaic approach to learning at the expense of exploring ideas in greater depth. Ironically, high-level achievement is actually undercut by such an approach (Wiggins, 2010).
Understanding by Design proposes a sound and commonsense alternative to these prevailing methods. UbD is predicated on the idea that long-term achievement gains are more likely when teachers teach for understanding of transferable concepts and processes while giving learners multiple opportunities to apply their learning in meaningful (i.e., authentic) contexts. The requisite knowledge and skills are learned and long recalled through the process of actively constructing meaning (i.e., coming to an understanding) and in transferring learning to new situations. In short, when we treat content mastery as the means, not the end, students learn more in the long term and can become more engaged in their work.
Support for an understanding-based approach to instruction and classroom assessment comes from research in cognitive psychology and neurology. The book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) provides a readable synthesis of the psychological research. Here are brief summaries of several key findings that provide a conceptual base for UbD's specific instruction and assessment practices:
  • Effective learning requires not an exclusive focus on diligent drill and practice but rather a balanced focus on students' understanding and application of knowledge along with drill—much like what all good coaches do on the field or on the stage. Transfer requires learning strategy and alternate "moves" in all fields.
  • To be widely applicable, learning must be guided by generalized principles. Knowledge learned at the level of rote memory rarely transfers; transfer most likely occurs when the learner understands underlying concepts and principles that can be applied to problems in new contexts. Learning with understanding is far more likely to promote transfer than simply memorizing information from a text or a lecture.
  • Experts first seek to develop an understanding of problems or challenges, and this often involves thinking in terms of core concepts or big ideas (e.g., schemas, themes, models, theories, etc.). Novices' knowledge is much less likely to be organized around big ideas; novices are more likely to approach problems by searching for correct formulas and pat answers that fit their everyday intuitions.
  • Research on expertise suggests that superficial coverage of many topics in the domain is a poor way to help students develop the competencies that will prepare them for future learning and work. Curricula that emphasize breadth of knowledge may prevent effective organization of knowledge because not enough time is provided to learn anything in depth. Curricula that are "a mile wide and an inch deep" risk developing disconnected rather than connected knowledge.
  • Many assessments measure only recently taught knowledge and never ask for authentic performance (conditional knowledge and skill in context)— whether students know whenwhere, and why to use what they have learned in the past. This approach leads to surprisingly poor test results, because students do not recognize prior learning in unfamiliar-looking test questions— especially when the test has no context clues and hints (as occurs when teachers immediately quiz students on recent material.) Given that performance is the goal, local assessments typically do not provide a valid measure of student understanding.
Additional validation of the principles and practices of Understanding by Design comes from the emerging research on the neuroscience of learning (see, e.g., Willingham, 2009). Judy Willis (2006), a licensed neurologist and middle school teacher, notes the following instructional implications of this research:
  • Patterning is the process whereby the brain perceives and generates patterns by relating new with previously learned material or chunking material into patterns it has not used before. Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships, they generate greater brain cell activity (forming new neural connections) and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.
  • Experiential learning that stimulates multiple senses in students, such as hands-on science activities, is not only the most engaging but also the most likely to be stored as long-term memories.
  • The best-remembered information is learned through multiple and varied exposures followed by authentic use of the knowledge.
Research findings such as these provide a conceptual underpinning for Understanding by Design and should guide curriculum and assessment design, as well as instructional practice.

What Is Understanding?

The term understanding is surprisingly tricky, even though it is used widely. It has many different connotations. In fact, you may be aware that Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues (1956) avoided using the term in their taxonomy of the cognitive domain because it was seen as imprecise. Yet the term intuitively stands for something important—and different from content mastery, per se.
Therefore, at the start, we invite you to stop and reflect. What is understanding? What do we mean when we say we want students to understand the content, not just know it? What's the difference between really "getting it" and just regurgitating back what was taught?
If you are like most people, you identified a few clear yet different meanings of the term. Some of the meanings tend to be about ideas and inferences (e.g., making connections, seeing the big picture, grasping core concepts), and some tend to involve effective use of knowledge and skill (e.g., teach others, say it in your own words, apply learning to a real-world setting, defend your views to an audience). At this point, we merely note that the term is multifaceted, that understanding is something different from mere "knowing," and that the goal of understanding therefore involves more sophisticated instruction and assessment than teaching and testing for knowledge and skill alone. If the goal is understanding, by design, we'll need to plan mindful of these meanings.

Good Design = "Backward" Design

Teaching is a means to an end, and planning precedes teaching. The most successful teaching begins, therefore, with clarity about desired learning outcomes and about the evidence that will show that learning has occurred. Understanding by Design supports this view through a three-stage "backward-design" process used to plan curriculum units that include desired understandings and performance tasks that require transfer. Specific lessons are then developed in the context of a more comprehensive unit design.
The concept of planning curriculum backward from desired results is not new. In 1948, Ralph Tyler advocated this approach as an effective process for focusing instruction; Bloom's Taxonomy—and its recent revision by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001)—lays out the different types of educational aims and what they require of assessment; Robert Gagné (1977) and Robert Mager (1988) have long taught people how to analyze different outcomes and what they require of learning; more recently, William Spady (1994) popularized the idea of "designing down" from exit outcomes.
Although not a novel idea, backward design as we frame it results in more clearly defined and wisely blended short-term and long-term goals, more appropriate assessments, and more purposeful teaching than typical planning. This is particularly so if you acknowledge that a primary goal of education is effective transfer of learning. The key to UbD is to understand that, just like the coach or trainer, we must design backward from complex long-term performance where content is used, not from discrete topics or skills where content need only be recalled. Such performance lies at the heart of genuine expertise.
In other words, we want understanding by design as opposed to understanding by good fortune; that is, we don't want to just throw content and activities at the wall and hope something sticks. We need to think of unit design work as the intellectual equivalent of a GPS device in our car: by identifying a specific learning destination first, we are able to see the instructional path most likely to get us there.
This concept initially seems obvious. It turns out, however, to challenge many of our deepest habits as planners and teachers. Why? Because although we can easily say what we think should be taught and how we propose to teach it, the challenge we are proposing is different and more difficult. We don't start with content; we start with what students are expected to be able to do with content. What would real use of the content look like? What should students ultimately be able to say and do with content if they "get it"? And if that's what real learning looks like, what should be taught—and how—to make it most likely that the teaching leads to fluent, flexible, and lasting learning?
We trust you see that these are more difficult questions than initial impressions may have suggested. Note especially that this way of thinking backward from the desired changes in the student requires that we carefully think through what will count as evidence of real learning if we want to ensure that real learning is achieved and not just hoped for. Here, then, is a brief summary of the three stages of backward design used in UbD.
Stage 1—Identify Desired Results
  • What long-term transfer goals are targeted?
  • What meanings should students make to arrive at important understandings?
  • What essential questions will students keep considering?
  • What knowledge and skill will students acquire?
  • What established goals/standards are targeted?
Stage 2—Determine Acceptable Evidence
  • What performances and products will reveal evidence of meaning-making and transfer?
  • By what criteria will performance be assessed, in light of Stage 1 desired results?
  • What additional evidence will be collected for all Stage 1 desired results?
  • Are the assessments aligned to all Stage 1 elements?
Stage 3—Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction Accordingly
  • What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results and success at the assessments?
  • How will the learning plan help students achieve transfer, and meaning and acquisition, with increasing independence?
  • How will progress be monitored?
  • How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?
  • Are the learning events in Stage 3 aligned with Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments?
Figure A.1 is a graphic representation of the logic of backward design.

Figure A.1. The Logic of Backward Design

Purpose: To illustrate and practice backward-design planning and thinking.
Directions: Sketch out a unit idea in the three stages of backward design. Use the driving example as a model. You might find it helpful to start with a simple nonacademic goal—for example, successfully "plan a trip" or "cook a meal."
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
If the desired end result is for learners to . . .
then you need evidence of the learners' ability to . . .
then the learning events need to . . .
Drive in heavy traffic with aggressive and inattentive drivers without accident or anger.
Handle real as well as simulated driving conditions in which defensive driving is required by traffic and behavior of other drivers.
Help novices become skilled in handling the automobile; help them learn and practice defensive driving in a variety of situations; help them learn to defuse anger using humor and different thought patterns, etc.

Avoiding the Twin Sins of Typical Unit Planning

We have found that when teachers follow this three-stage planning process— regardless of how much they use the full template described later in this Guide to Creating High-Quality Units—they are more likely to avoid the all-too-common "twin sins" of planning and teaching. The first sin occurs more widely at the elementary and middle school levels and may be labeled activity-oriented teaching. Here, teachers plan and conduct various activities, worrying only about whether they are engaging and kid-friendly. Unfortunately, this approach often confuses hands-on work with minds-on work. Too often, in other words, a collection of activities does not add up to coherent, focused, and generative learning. Haven't we all seen examples of classroom activities that don't meet these criteria? Such activities are like cotton candy—pleasant enough in the moment, but lacking long-term substance.
The second sin, more prevalent at the secondary and collegiate levels, goes by the name of content coverage. In this case, teaching consists of marching through a resource, be it a textbook or literature. With all due respect to the content-related challenges of secondary and college teaching, a teacher's job is not to simply mention everything in a book or on a topic; our job is to prioritize, make interesting and useful, and "uncover" the content, not merely "cover" it. The textbook should serve as a resource, not the syllabus, in a focused and effective learning plan. We have found that backward design is key to helping teachers in upper-level grades better understand their priorities, how to meet them, and how to use the textbook more judiciously to achieve worthy goals.

A Reflection on the Best Learning Designs

To further consider the qualities of good curriculum design and its effect on learning, we suggest that you reflect upon a few of the best-designed learning experiences you were ever involved in, and generalize from them. (If you are using this text in a class or study group, we suggest that participants reflect on, share and generalize from their experience in small groups, then as a whole group, using Figure A.5, available at What was the best-designed learning you ever experienced? What is in general true of good design, regardless of the course content or the style of the teacher? The answers we've heard most are captured in the list that follows. How does your list match up with these ideas? We bet there are quite a few matches, since effective designs for learning have common characteristics. We ask you to keep these qualities in mind as you begin your own unit design, and we'll remind you of them as you read and work.
Expectations. The best learning designs
  • Provide clear learning goals and transparent expectations.
  • Cast learning goals in terms of specific and meaningful performance.
  • Frame the work around genuine issues/questions/problems.
  • Show models or exemplars of expected performance and thinking.
Instruction. In the best learning designs
  • The teacher serves as a facilitator/coach to support and guide learner inquiry.
  • Targeted instruction and relevant resources are provided to equip students for expected performance.
  • The textbook serves as one resource among many (i.e., text is resource, not syllabus).
  • The teacher uncovers important ideas and processes by exploring essential questions and genuine applications of knowledge and skills.
Learning Activities. In the best learning designs
  • Individual differences (e.g., learning styles, skill levels, interests) are accommodated through a variety of activities and methods.
  • There is variety in work and methods; and students have some choice (e.g., opportunities for both group and individual work).
  • Learning is active/experiential to help students make sense of complex content.
  • Cycles of model-try-feedback-refine anchor the learning.
Assessment. In the best learning designs
  • There is no mystery as to performance goals or standards.
  • Diagnostic assessments check for prior knowledge, skill level, and misconceptions.
  • Students demonstrate their understanding through real-world applications (i.e., genuine use of knowledge and skills, tangible product, target audience).
  • Assessment methods are matched to achievement targets.
  • Ongoing, timely, and descriptive feedback is provided.
  • Learners have opportunities for trial and error, reflection, and revision.
  • Self-assessment is expected and encouraged.
Sequence and Coherence. The best learning designs
  • Start with a hook and immerse the learner in a genuine problem/issue/challenge.
  • Move back and forth from whole to part, with increasing complexity.
  • Scaffold learning in doable increments.
  • Teach as needed; don't overteach all of the "basics" first.
  • Revisit ideas—have learners rethink and revise earlier ideas or work.
  • Are flexible (e.g., respond to student needs; are revised to achieve goals).
Note that such qualities are often missing from traditional activity-focused and coverage-focused teaching.

Design Standards

As responses to the exercise reveal, at the heart of the most effective learning are certain common conditions. Thus, curriculum and instructional designs should reflect and honor these conditions—that is, the conditions serve as guiding criteria for building our units. By using these general criteria (and others more specific to UbD, to be provided later), we can more purposefully review and improve our unit designs, our teaching, and student achievement.
In UbD we refer to such criteria as design standards. The standards reflect not only what we know from common sense but also what we know from the research about learning and best practice. It is thus wise to regularly engage in formal self-assessment and peer review of unit plans and overall curriculum designs. Such critical reviews of curricula are a centerpiece of UbD. By actively evaluating our work against established criteria, we make it far more likely that learners engage, learn, and achieve at high levels—that they understand by design, not by good luck.
Design standards specify the qualities that we strive for in our unit plans. Just as a writing rubric can inform students' compositions and guide them as they self-assess their drafts, the UbD standards function similarly for teachers. In fact, they have a dual purpose: (1) to guide self-assessment and peer reviews to identify design strengths and needed improvements; and (2) to provide a mechanism for quality control, a means of validating curricular designs. Because effective assessment should be ongoing, not simply an event at the end of a unit, you will see self-assessment questions related to these standards included in most of the modules of this Guide. (The UbD standards can be found in Module B.)

* * *

As you work through the Guide to Creating High-Quality Units, you may find it helpful to keep a running record or journal of your thoughts about the big ideas of UbD—understanding, transfer, effective design, teaching for understanding, backward design, and design standards. If you are using the guide in a study group or course, these questions and ideas will make for great discussions.
Go to www.ascd.og/downloads to see Figure A.2 UbD in a Nutshell, which shows an overview of the key ideas of UbD and backward design as described in this module. You'll also find Figure A.3 What Is "Understanding"?, Figure A.4 What Is "Understanding" of Specific Topics?, Figure A.5 The Best Designs for Learning, and Figure A.6 Thinking About "Understanding."

Further Information on the Ideas and Issues in This Module

Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The introduction provides an overview of Understanding by Design. Chapter 13 presents a more detailed summary of relevant research and addresses commonly voiced concerns.
Schooling by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). Chapter 1 discusses the mission of schooling, including a focus on understanding and transfer as fundamental educational goals. Chapter 4 presents a set of related learning principles that might guide professional actions and decisions.
"You Can Teach for Meaning" (McTighe, Seif, & Wiggins, 2004). This article provides a brief summary of research and the rationale for teaching understanding.
Copyright © 2011 by Grant Wiggins,Jay McTighe. All rights reserved. No part of this publication—including the drawings, graphs, illustrations, or chapters, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles—may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system .

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