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Understanding by Design

Page history last edited by Lonnie Ledger 9 years, 4 months ago

 Understanding by Design

A Conceptual Framework for Instructional Design

Lonnie Ledger


Historical Context of Work

Understanding by Design was written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in 1998.  It was published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  This was one of the first instructional design models that was well suited for the academic community.

Education and Influences

Grant Wiggins received his B.A. from Saint John's College in Annapolis and his Ed.D from Harvard University.  He taught English for 14 years and coached soccer,baseball,and track and field.

Jay McTighe recieved his undergraduate degree from William and Mary. He earned his Master's degree from the University of Maryland and his post-graduate degree from John's Hopkins University. 

Work Life
Grant Wiggins has spent over twenty five years working on some of the most influential educational reform initiatives including Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, the International Baccalaureate Program,state reforms in New Jersey, New York, and Delaware as well as national reforms in China, the Phillipines, and Thailand.


Jay McTighe has served as director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium ( a collaboration of school districts that worked together to create formative performance assessments). He also has worked with the Maryland State Department of Education in the development of performance based assessments. 


In 1998 Wiggins and McTighe collaborated to develop Understanding by Design.It was published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).


Understanding by Design was based on these principles:

  • The main goal of education should be the development and deepening of student understanding of taught concepts
  • There are 6 facets of understanding

                         1. Explanation: Provide justifiable accounts of phenomena,facts, and data.

                         2. Interpretation: Tell meaningful stories, provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models.

                         3. Application: Effectively use and adapt what students know in diverse contexts.

                         4. Perspective: See and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears (see the big picture).

                         5. Empathy: Students find value in what others might find different and perceive sensitivity on the basis of prior indirect experience.

                         6. Self-knowledge: The ability to know one's ignorance and how one's thoughts and actions inform as well as alter understanding. 

  • The backwards design model (three main stages)

                         1. Identify desired outcomes and results.

                         2. Determine what makes up evidence of competency in the outcomes and results.

                         3. Plan instructional strategies and learning experiences that bring students to these levels.  

Impact on Best Practices
Understanding by Design (UbD) impacted Best Practices by focusing on curriculum design.  Rather than covering topics by simply using textbooks and assessing the contents, Wiggins and McTighe employed teachers to focus on designing, teaching, and assessing subjects in a manner that will reflect true understanding of the big ideas and mastery of the core subject-area tasks. UbD focuses on a continual system of reflection and assessment that improves the educational process.  Understanding by Design begins with the desired results of true understanding in mind and works backwards through the teaching(choosing appropriate materials and resources) and assessing process to reach the end product.  UbD represents an idea that specifically targets the goal of long-term internalization of knowledge, skills, and big ideas that students will carry on throughout their educatonal careers and into life.



By knowing what the end results of learning should be, and through proper assessing, the teacher is better able to help the student obtain true knowledge.  Through the Understanding by Design model, students know in the beginning what they are expected to know at the end of the unit.  They are reminded throughout the unit and assessment takes place to observe student progress towards that end result. Throughout the unit, students will better understand the importance of doing things in view of of the learning goals.


Understanding by design has enabled educators to rethink the way educational units are planned.  Learning goals are clearly designed and evidence of true understand is defined prior to beginning the unit.  Beginning with the end in mind facilitates student learning to a greater depth of knowledge. Teachers now must decide on what they want to teach before they decide on how to teach it.

Problems or Failures

Understanding by Design is focused on curricular units.  It is not to be misconstrued as a philosophy of education. There are circumstances where "understanding" isn't feasible or desired and developing a UbD plan isn't appropriate. Much care and concern is needed to develop true UbD units.  Understanding by Design units have to be a "work in progress" and must be continually adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Other Interesting Facts

Understanding by Design has sold over 250,000 copies with over 30,000 handbooks in use by educators today.  Over 150 universary level classes use Understanding by Design as its textbook.

Impact on Others

According to Vanderbilt University "Understanding by Design offers a powerful frameworkfor designing courses through which they call "Backward Design"."

"First, I am thrilled to see someone in formal education talking about looking at more meaningful outcomes, particularly aimed at “clarify learning goals, devise revealing assessments of student understanding, and craft effective and engaging learning activities”.  This is something I’ve been trying to argue for in my work with formal education, e.g. with publishers, schools, and more.  It’s a more enlightened approach to design." Clark Quinn

Many states including California and Texas have used Understanding by Design as the framework for each state's curriculum design.


Wiggins, G, & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 








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