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Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design

Author: Trisha Fyfe

This lesson introduces learners to Understanding by Design, a framework for instructional planning and the development of assessments and instruction that lead students to in-depth understanding.

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Welcome to this tutorial on Understanding by Design. Today we're going to learn about a framework called Understanding by Design, and the questions that we'll answer through this tutorial are what is that framework, Understanding by Design, what does that entail, and also how can we apply this framework to our own teaching and in our own classrooms.

So let's start by defining what is this framework exactly. It's an educational planning tool that uses backward design. So we're going to start from instructional goals and setting these goals for our students, and it's then that we'll move to setting the outcomes and how we're going to assess those and measure those.

Lastly, we're going to plan our learning activities, and this is called backward design. This model is very similar to a model you may be familiar with, called Bloom's Taxonomy, which is a hierarchy of thinking skills starting from remember, and moving through understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create, going from low level to high level order thinking skills.

The Understanding by Design framework is very similar to Bloom's Taxonomy in that it is also a hierarchy of thinking. In this model, we start from explain. And it's here that students should be able to provide facts and data through recall. We then move to interpret, and it's here that students should be able to tell meaningful stories. They should also be able to make subjects personally relevant and provide dimension to different ideas and events.

Moving up the hierarchy, in apply, students should be able to use and adapt what they know in another contexts. Having perspective is next in the hierarchy, and it's true that students should see the points of view other than their own, and they should also see the big picture. They should start to have an overall perspective of the content.

Empathize means that students should be able to find value in the other perspectives. They should be really sensitive to the perspectives of others, based on their own previous experiences. They really start to make connections from their learning to their self, and they empathize.

And it's at the very top, the most high level order thinking skill here, that students have self knowledge. Students here should be able to perceive the habits of mind that influence their own understanding. They should really know what they don't know. They should know what they know, but they should also know the things that they still have to learn about.

These six thinking skills that are here in this model are the six facets of understanding, according to Understanding by Design's framework, and they really relate to the backward planning portion and the three stages that we'll talk about here in just a moment of Understanding by Design. You really need to understand where your students are on this hierarchy in certain content areas, and you as a teacher need to understand where you want your students to be, and which area you need to fall into.

So let's talk about the three stages of Understanding by Design. Stage one of Understanding by Design's framework is to identify the desired results, the second stage is to determine the acceptable evidence, and the last stage is stage three, which is creating the actual learning plan.

Stage one that Understanding by Design is where teachers need to identify their desired results. And it's here we need to ask ourselves, what are our established goals. Let's identify those standards and content knowledge that we want our students to have.

We also want to identify what understandings we want our students to develop throughout these activities. What big picture, what big ideas would we like our students to come away with? We want to look at the essential questions, open ended questions that promote inquiry and understanding throughout our activities, and we also want to identify the key knowledge and skills we'd like our students to come away with. What content will students know and what skills will they acquire? I want to note that these goals should always reflect the facets of understanding that we just talked about.

It's in stage two that we as teachers need to determine what our acceptable evidence will be. How will teachers know that students met those objectives that they created during step number one. As teachers, we need to think about two kinds of assessments in this stage, the first being a main performance assessment, or formative assessment, and this is going to be an authentic product. The students need to develop a product that shows their own understanding of the content they've learned.

As teachers, we also need to identify other types of evidence. We can't just count on one final assessment. We really need to look at learning throughout our entire lesson and activity. This can include things like quizzes, worksheets, observations, journals, and many more evidence types. I want to note that we really need to make sure that we're developing the criteria for evaluation as well during this stage.

It's in stage three that teachers create the actual learning plan, and this is the fun part. We get to plan our learning activities. What are we going to have our students do? What will engage our students throughout this lesson or unit? So let's apply these ideas from Understanding by Design's framework to an actual lesson.

Let's look at a lesson called What is Pollution for grade six, and this lesson is a science lesson or environmental health lesson. Stage one, identifying the desired results. We're going to ask ourselves, what are the objectives we want our students to know. And here we will decide that our objectives will be students will describe pollution and what it looks like, giving specific examples.

We also would like our students to describe ways that we affect the environment. We're going to use some essential learning questions, such as how do humans affect the environment, and why do you think that humans might do things that pollute our environment.

Using stage two, identifying acceptable evidence, we might create a formative assessment. At the very end of this lesson, we would like our students to create a presentation with a group, using audio and visual aids. We want our groups to incorporate ideas and examples that answer the following questions. How do humans affect the environment? What are some examples of pollution and litter in your environment? And why do you think that humans might do things that pollute our environment?

We also want to think about that other evidence, such as observations, maybe during class discussions. Here, we're going to talk about some pollution and ideas that go around pollution. We want our students to give examples and experience, so we're going to document this by observing those.

We're also going to ask our students to journal during a group activity. Students will go outside with a group and document evidence. And here, we'll have them write ideas down. As teachers, we can take a look at those written ideas. Other forms of assessments might be the notes during the other presentations. We want students to write down two new ideas for each presentation that is not their own.

Stage three, the actual learning plan, we're going to have our students do five steps. First, we're going to have a little conversation during class. Some class discussion time asking questions like what is pollution, what kind of human activities create pollution. During this time, we'll also gather some ideas discussing examples of litter or pollution that students have experienced.

We'll bring in those experiences and transfer our learning. We'll talk about all of their environments-- home, school, neighborhood, and community. In step three, we will take groups outside and we will have them document pollution by both writing in their journals and also class digital cameras. When they return to class in step four, we'll talk about our findings, both in small groups and then as maybe a large group.

And it's here that we'll have students talk about examples that they came up with and documented. We will also allow time during this step for research and compiling pictures to create a presentation, that final project or formative assessment. If appropriate, we might bring in some technological tools like PowerPoint, or maybe creating a class blog. It really depends on our students here, and their capabilities.

Our final step will be to present the completed presentations in class. Each group will present their own and, during presentations, other groups will write down ideas. So you can see that we've created a lesson here going through all three stages of the Understanding by Design framework. We sure have learned a great deal of information today during this tutorial. I hope you found it very helpful for your own teaching in your toolbox.

We talked about what is the Understanding by Design framework, and we also talked about how we can apply this framework, and I gave you an example of a lesson and the three stages of Understanding by Design. I hope you enjoyed learning about these tools and framework. They sure are some great ideas for you to use in your own classroom.

So how can we apply these ideas? Let's reflect. Which of the three stages of Understanding by Design might be the most challenging for you to implement? What are the benefits to using backward design?

For more information on how to apply what you've learned in this video, please view the additional resources section that accompanies the video presentation. The additional resources section includes hyperlinks useful for applications of the course material, including a brief description of each resource.

Notes on "Understanding by Design"


(00:00- 00:21) Introduction/Overview

(00:22- 00:43) UbD is Backward Design

(00:44- 01:00) Bloom's Recap

(01:01- 02:49) 6 Facets of Understanding for UbD

(02:50- 04:58) Stages of UbD

(04:59- 08:36) Sample Lesson Using UbD

(08:37- 09:34) Review/Reflection

Additional Resources

Doing Math 

This is a grant funded website that explains the six facets of understanding and connects them to Digital Bloom's.

iTeachU: UAF eLearning Faculty Resources

This is a website connecting outcomes and objectives to Digital Bloom's and the six facets of understanding. The website includes a rubric for the six facets of understanding.