A Crash Course into UbD

When we teachers design curriculum, we want it to be effective. We want our students to achieve their results and goals in both the short and long term. We want our students to understand and gain something from what we teach them, and to have a lasting effect on their education and maybe even lives.

This is, unsurprisingly, tricky to do. It can be easy to get overwhelmed and throw a worksheet or activity at our students that’s disconnected from our long-term goals and begs the question about what exactly is gained from doing them.

Now that I’ve presented this strawman argument, let’s crack into what this article is really about: understanding by .

Understanding by design framework (UbD), as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, is a way of writing curriculum that helps ensure that students actually understand what’s being taught, rather than simply gaining knowledge about the content material they might forget in time. It wants students to have knowledge, rather than being able to simply memorize something in order to pass a quiz, and for this knowledge to be lasting, meaningful, and appropriate to their everyday life.

Sounds great, right?

Let’s look at how to actually do it.


Backwards Design

In “traditional” curriculum planning, teachers usually look at the textbook first. We see its content, and from there, develop goals for our students and chart out our lessons.

When working in the UbD framework, we need to work backward. It goes like this:

  • Identify your goals
  • Figure out what you need to get to those goals (tools, assessments, etc)
  • Plan how you’re actually going to teach it

So, imagine that you want to teach your students about plant biology, specifically the parts of a plant

Now, in the traditional method of designing curriculum, you’d probably give students a short lecture on the subject. Maybe you’d have them read the textbook or some other materials. You might have them do a short assignment or two, and then eventually have them do a test or quiz.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with planning curriculum like this, necessarily, but, pop quiz: can you, the person reading this article, recall words such as “petiole,” “node,” “anther,” or “style”? I can almost guarantee you, at some point, had to memorize these words or even take a quiz on them, but as an adult, these words have not stuck with me. I do remember, however, thinking how pointless this all was the time and just wanting to hang out with my friends instead.

Now let’s look at how you could plan a similar lesson using UbD framework.

The teacher might choose several types of plants – moss, ferns, azaleas, grass, tomato plants, or even algae. The teacher then divides students into small groups and asks them several questions. What parts can they see of the plants? What do the plants have in common? How can these plants be classified? After coming up with these answers, students can then label plants in their own ways in their groups. After each group has come up with their answer, they can then compare their responses with the other groups. Did they all come up with the same answers? It is very likely that they did not, and students will argue with each other about why their categorizations are correct. They can listen to each other and even change their original answers as they discuss their ideas. Then, students can discuss why it might be beneficial to have official ways to talk about plant parts and categorizations.

Only then would the teacher open the book and have students read about plant parts and categorizations.

Crafting True Student Understanding

Understanding has six aspects:

  • Explaining
  • Interpreting
  • Application
  • Perspective
  • Empathy
  • Self-knowledge

Let’s see how they apply to our plant biology class. First, plant classification is discussed (explanation) and students talk about their own ideas about how it can be done (interpretation). Next, students apply this to label their plants in their groups (application) to decide plant classifications. Afterwards, students discuss the classifications they came up with in their other groups (perspective) and are asked to listen to or even change their original classifications (empathy). Finally, the students can crack open their textbooks to learn about actual plant classifications (self-knowledge).

In order for the teacher to determine that understanding has been achieved, the teacher can assess using something as simple as a test or quiz, but they could also do an alternative assessment, such as having students label or categorize the plants in the “correct” way.

Big Ideas and Core Tasks

As I’ve already mentioned, backwards design begins by determining what students should know by the end of the program or unit. In UbD, this is also called the “big idea.” When developing UbD curriculum, the teacher should develop content around the “big idea” and connect all course content to it. Big ideas and core tasks are the ideas that anchor the curriculum and represent the true heart of the topic. Big ideas have no “right” answer and are meant to be argued. For example, in a biology class the big idea might be something like “species adapt to survive.” Over the course of the year, there exist a myriad of core tasks the teacher could develop in order to discuss this idea.

Essential Questions

Essential questions are questions that help frame your content goals. Like big ideas, these questions shouldn’t have simple answers, but should spark ideas and discussion in the classroom. For example, in our biology class, our essential questions might be something like:

  • What are the basic structures of a plant?
  • What does a plant need to survive?
  • How have different plants adapted to different environments?

Overall, when writing your essential questions for a unit, think about ones that will foster inquiry and meaning to your students.

Closing Thoughts

As a curriculum designer, I love working with UbD framework. I think it’s helpful to look at things from a broader, student-centered perspective to create engaging curriculum. There are tons of resources and further reading you can do on UbD framework (to start, I’d recommend the book written by the original creators of UbD). I hope this short crash course can get you started on your own UbD journey.

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