Understanding by Design (UbD): Teaching “Backwards”

When I Brexit-ed out of the teaching world, we were still mulling over the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum. I had never heard of “Understanding by Design” until Joel of egghead.io mentioned it (and kept mentioning it).

“So what’s so special about yet another curriculum framework?” I thought. By the time you finish a master’s degree in education, you tend to hear about a lot of frameworks, curriculums, and “THE BEST WAY TO TEACH!” But contrary to my initial skepticism, the more I dived in to Understanding by Design, the more I realized it validates how you learn about topics of interests outside of a traditional school setting.

In the realm of Frontend Development, you first encounter the the “desired result” in the wild. You might see a fancy effect on a website that you’ve never seen before. And then you wonder, “How did they do this?” You begin exploring the source code and the framework being used. Then begin learning about recreating that specific “thing” that fascinated you.

Because you have a concrete goal of “I want to make something like this!” or “I want to know how this is made!” you have intrinsic motivation to continue your research. Without much strain, you end up learning more and applying what you learned to your own work. You have an immediate connection between the topic and its broad applications to your life.

At least, that’s how teaching myself to code has been since I discovered the World Wide Web in early 2000’s!

Banner image of a girl standing in front of a whiteboard filled with mathematical equations with text: Introduction to UbD: Understanding by Design.

What is Understanding by Design (UbD)?

Understanding by Design was an educational framework introduced in 1998 by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The framework guides educators across the K-16 spectrum in designing, assessing, and instructing a curriculum. They explore key concepts like “Backward Design,” “Essential Questions,” and “Transfer Tasks.”

What is Backward Design?

In traditional curriculum development, you tend to have fragmented lessons and courses that teaches a concept. But because of lack of “connections” to the “real world” for the students, there are no applications.

An elementary school teacher might think, “I need to teach a unit on the Civil Rights Movement.” They make a whole unit about the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Jim Crow Laws. However, by failing to anchor these movements to a very recent time in history (“These were going on when your grandparents were kids.“) and without involving the racial violence and inequalities plaguing society today, students may be left with the “knowledge” about the certain people and events, but no real “understanding” of these events and people in history to their life and the current state of affairs.

Backward Design is the concept that for educators should start with the desired results and then plan instruction.

The “Twin Sins” of Traditional Planning

Identifying the desired results first by utilizing Backward Design prevents the “Twin Sins” of Traditional Planning from occurring.

These “Sins” are:

  • Activity-Focused Teaching: Planning isolated activities and lessons for student engagement without any alignments to goals and standards.
  • Coverage-Focus Teaching: Covering large amounts of content without any learner understanding.

The Three Stages of Design

  1. Desired Results: what the students will learn
  2. Assessment Evidence: developing valid assessments
  3. Planning Instruction: planning learning experiences and instruction

The final product should obey the three-step logic, and the design process should unfold in an unpredictable way. This concept is called the “Nonlinear Design Process.”

Stage 1: Desired Results

Because Understanding by Design utilized “Backward Design,” the instructors begin building the curriculum by identifying what they want the students to learn from the unit or curriculum.

They want to identify knowledge and skills that they want the students to acquire throughout the unit to have understanding of the identified goals.

Unpack the Standards

They can begin identifying desired results by “unpacking” the learning standards.

  • Determine the Big Ideas
  • Determine core skills contained within the standard
  • Prioritize goals based on time limitation

Then use the “Big Ideas” identified to create “Essential Questions” to help make meaning for students to foster inquiry, understanding, and transfer of learning.

Guiding Questions

Some guiding questions in this stage are:

  • What long-term goals are targeted?
  • What meanings should students make?
  • What essential questions should students explore?
  • What knowledge and skills will students acquire?

Stage 2: Assessment Evidence

Once the desired results are identified, the instructors need a way to establish valid assessments to determine what evidence is needed to prove that meaningful transfer occurred.

Types of Assessments

  • Performance Tasks
    • Designed using authentic scenarios
    • Determine application of learning to new ideas
  • Other Evidence
    • Quizzes, tests, or observations
    • Should be designed prior to instruction

Guiding Questions

  • What performance and products reveal evidence of meaning making and transfer?
  • What additional evidence will be collected?

Stage 3: Planning Instruction

And finally, instructors plan the learning experiences and instruction. They will be creating lessons and activities directly related to desired outcomes and assessments from Stage 1 and Stage 2.


WHERETO is an acronym that helps to design learning events that support student acquisition, meaning-making, and transfer.

  • W: Where is the unit going? What’s expected? Where students are coming from with prior knowledge and interests.
  • H: Hook the students and hold their interests.
  • E: Equip students. Help them experience the key ideas and explore the issues.
  • R: Rethink and revise their understandings of the work.
  • E: Exhibit and evaluate.
  • T: Tailored to students’ needs, interests, and styles.
  • O: Organize for maximum engagement and effectiveness.

Guiding Questions

  • What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results?
  • How will the learning path help students with acquisition, meaning making, and transfer?
  • How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?

Eight Key Tenets of Understanding by Design

  • UbD is a curricular design plan and not a rigid program or perspective recipe.
  • UbD’s goal is to deepen student understanding and promote transfer of big ideas.
  • Content standards are “unpacked” to promote alignment of goals in Stage 1 and appropriate assessments for understanding in Stage 2.
  • Student understanding may be assessed through authentic performance tasks.
  • Teachers are coaches and facilitators of learning and design instruction, promoting meaning making and transfer.
  • The curriculum is planned backwards, and the alignment of the three stages is essential in order to achieve the long-range goals.
  • Regular reviews of curriculum against design standards enhance curricular quality and effectiveness.
  • UbD reflects a continuous-improvement approach to achievement.

Learning in Public

This post is part of collection of notes on various topics as I take part in Learning in Public. I firmly believe in the concept for both my own understanding of concepts as well as helping others also interested.

You can find more of my posts where I’m Learning in Public HERE.

Hiroko Nishimura
AWS Community Hero. Special Education teacher turned IT Engineer turned Technical Writer. Author "AWS for Non-Engineers" (Manning Publications). Technical Instructor "Introduction to AWS for Non-Engineers" (LinkedIn Learning).

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