“Understanding by Design”—you may have heard this phrase before. Maybe it was even brought up in your professional development or used by one of your colleagues. But what does it actually mean? And why should it matter to you, as an educator?

According to the ASCD, Understanding by Design (abbreviated as UbD) is a “planning process and structure to guide curriculum, assessment, and instruction” which contains two core concepts:

  1. The idea that all teaching and assessment should be focused on developing students’ deep understanding of course concepts and ability to transfer their knowledge and skills; and
  2. The design of curriculum “backwards” to achieve this goal

Why UbD?

In addition to being a common-sense and modern way of structuring curriculum, UbD has a proven track record in improving students’ understanding and achievement. Here are some highlights from recent research:

  • This study found that using UbD to teach 8th-grade science was more successful than traditional methods and had a meaningful positive impact on students’ performance
  • Another study found that using UbD principles to teach English as a foreign language had a statistically significant positive impact on B students’ achievement
  • Yet another study found that science students taught with a UbD model achieved higher than their non-UbD counterparts and were more engaged in class

Convinced? Want to learn more about how UbD works? Let’s break down its two main components into greater detail…

1. Teaching and Assessing for Understanding

In order to understand the goals of Understanding by Design, it’s important to understand what is meant by understanding.

The ASCD writes that “understanding is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance”—in other words, understanding is demonstrated when students can put course concepts into practice without having to be prompted or otherwise supported by their instructor. This understanding, the ASCD suggests, can be measured in six main ways: in students’ “capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess.”

In this model, teachers are more than vehicles of content for students to memorize—they are “coaches of understanding” who seek to develop students’ intuitive mastery of course material. Rather than focusing on students’ ability to pass key benchmarks, such as tests or assignments, they work to develop transferable, lifelong skills. UbD teachers know that writing a book report or taking a math test might demonstrate a student’s skill set on a particular day, but the true test of their abilities are the critical reading or logical reasoning skills they will take with them into the rest of their life.

2. Designing Curriculum ‘Backwards’

What differentiates UbD from other teaching models is the idea of working ‘backwards’ from your goals. For instance, when designing curriculum, you begin with the standards you want instructors to teach, the skills you want students to acquire, and so on. From this point, teachers can structure their units and lessons around these end goals. Essentially, you start with the final destination and build the roadmap to get there.

Putting UbD into Practice

That’s all well and good in theory, but what does UbD look like in practice?

Our guide goes into much greater detail, but here are the basics of lesson planning with UbD:

Begin with standards

What standards will you be teaching? If you’re in the United States, you can input Common Core Standards for your grade level.

Decide on your desired results

What (transferable) skills do you want students to gain? What should they be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson

Determine your assessment options

How will students demonstrate their learning? Try to think of a few different exercises.

Create a learning plan

Here’s where you’ll outline all your instruction and assessment activities. They will convey course content to your students for this particular unit or lesson.

Differentiation options

Think of ways that you’ll adapt course material to different learning styles and individual needs

Additional resources

List any additional resources you’ll provide your students to enhance their learning.

Final Thoughts

We hope that this blog post has provided a helpful introduction to the theory and practice of Understanding by Design. Ready to try out UbD for yourself? Check out our free guide to get started!

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