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Understanding by Design (from now on, UbD), also known as Backwards Design, is a framework for the design of a lesson plan - or of an entire course syllabus - based on the idea that, when defining learning objectives, it is of paramount importance to also immediately define assessment and feedback methods and tools. Only then is it appropriate to design the learning content, based on the choices already made with respect to assessment and feedback. In other words, teachers must determine what evidence they want to use before they plan what they teach and how (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). This requires structuring the instructional design process into three stages, namely desired results, required evidence and a learning plan (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011).

Stage 1 - Setting the desired results

Desired results - Big ideas that I want my students to learn in this class/unit/course

In the first stage of UbD, the focus is on big ideas, on the overall learning objectives and on the competences, skills and knowledge that a teacher wants a learner to acquire. A key question in Higher Education could sound like: 

What do I want my students to learn in this class/unit/course? What will they keep with them after the class/unit/course is finished?

This is perhaps the most intuitive part of UdB: we are all very easily convinced that good learning design is based on a clear focus on the learning objectives, so this point probably does not strike us as innovative. But it is also quite understandable that the focus on objectives could decrease and be less visible in a long and rich curriculum. So this stage is particularly relevant to attempting a consistent design and approach.

Also, knowing something could mean different things: as an example, we could use the Structured Observation of Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy to distinguish between non-structured, structured and abstract, transferable knowledge.

Stage 2 - Defining the needed evidence

Needed evidence - Proof of learning gathered through performance tasks

The second UbD stage is focused on identifying what evidence can be used to prove that learning has indeed taken place as hypothesised in the previous stage. Since this evidence must then be gathered, the role of the teacher is now to prepare performance tasks for the learners to make the learning visible and to communicate to the learner the degree of appropriation achieved. These tasks “require students to transfer (i.e. to apply) their learning to a new and authentic situation as a means of assessing their understanding. Other evidence, such as traditional quizzes, tests, observations, and work samples [...] help round out the picture of what students know and can do” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006, p. 29).

At this stage, rubrics can also be designed in order to provide students with accurate descriptors of their performance. Students should also be able to define their own learning goals.

Stage 3 - Designing the learning plan

Learning plan - What, how and in what order to teach, aligned with learning goals

At the third and last stage teachers must determine what to teach, how and in what order. At this point, not only are objectives clear, but also the way learning will be assessed, and tight alignment between learning activities and unit goals is needed. The main advantage of adopting this “backwards design” approach is that it makes it easier to be more efficient in the way learning content is designed, planned and presented. 

Each learning activity will actually be connected to the ongoing assessment needed to monitor progress and provide students with feedback. At this stage it is also possible to integrate external resources, like Open Educational Resources (OER) into the learning plan, to present wider opportunities by keeping learning content design a bit more sustainable.

In this module we have learned:

  • The basics of Understanding by Design (UbD), a framework that adopts a “backwards design” approach for learning activities and courses. 
  • The three stages of this process are:
    • the clear definition of learning goals. 
    • the selection of proper assessment tools.
    • the final design of learning content, with the aim of ensuring meaningful learning.


  • McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (1998). The Understanding by Design Handbook. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
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