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What is UBD?

Understanding By Design, or UBD, is a framework and accompanying backwards design approach for thinking decisively about unit lesson planning for student learning. The concept was developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, and as part of their principles they state that it “…is not a philosophy of education”. It is not designed to tell teachers what or how to teach; it is a system to help them with their curriculum planning, and to help them teach more effectively. In fact, its flexibility is one reason it has gained so much acclaim. The ultimate goal is to think backward, focusing on the big picture of learning goals: at the end of a unit what is the important question your students should be able to answer?

What are the Stages of UBD?

The design process is organized into three stages:

  1. Identify Desired Results
  2. Determine Acceptable Evidence
  3. Create the Learning Plans

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results or Outcome

Parts of Stage 1

  1. Establish Goals
  2. Construct Understandings
  3. Write Essential Questions
  4. Determine: Students will know ______________
  5. Determine: Students will be able to ______________

As an educator, you can begin stage one by asking a few key questions. I like to simplify this and think of it as what you want your students to understand. What relevant learning goals (such as Common Core State Standards and objectives) will this address when looking at student achievement?

Stage 1: How to Write Essential Questions

Your questions are the base of your UBD unit, so it is important that you know what they are. To keep it simple, the questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, and engaging. These are often characterized by a call for higher-order critical thinking skills, which points towards transferable ideas. They are not simple questions; they need support and justification, and often require that the student ask other questions before getting an answer. Most importantly, an essential question recurs over time. Without a strong question, you cannot move forward in your teaching design and implementation. To assist you, see the examples below.

Stage 1 Worksheet

Stage 1 - Identify Desired Results/Outcome


Essential Questions:

Students will know ...

Students will be able to...

Completed Stage 1 Worksheet

Stage 1 - Identify Desired Results/Outcome
Students’ goal is to: read, write, and determine what makes a well-developed essay; with an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs that use transitioning words, and proper spelling and grammar.
  • Writing is a way to express your knowledge of a topic and show your interest in it.
  • Writing allows you to express multiple levels of color, including connotation, mood, and tone.
  • Writing is a process to strengthen ideas and clarify perceptions.
  • Becoming a better writer helps you to become a better reader.
  • Writing is a powerful form of communication where you can express ideas in a systematic fashion.
Essential Questions:
  • Why is writing important?
  • Why are the different types of composition important to learn?
  • How do you become a good writer?
Students will Know ...
  • The components of an essay
  • What transitions are
  • Effective ways to write an introduction and conclusion
  • What a paragraph must include to convey a message
Students will be able to...
  • Construct a multi-paragraph essay on their own, without a graphic organizer
  • Use transition words
  • Introduce and conclude an essay
  • Construct topic sentences
  • Cite evidence to back up their answers

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

Parts of Stage 2

  1. Performance Tasks
  2. Other Evidence

For the second stage, you need to think of how you see Stage One taking place. Simplified again: what your students will DO to understand the concept, and how they will do it. Examples could be tasks where students demonstrate their understanding, or evidence like tests and quizzes, homework, prompts, and reflections.

Stage 2: Important Questions to Answer

  • What performances and products will reveal evidence of meaning-making and transfer?
  • What additional evidence will be collected for other desired results?

Stage 2 Worksheet

Stage 2 - Assessment Evidence
Performance Tasks:

Other Evidence:

Completed Stage 2 Worksheet

Stage 2 - Assessment Evidence
Performance Tasks:
  • Draft writing
  • Open responses
  • Reflections and question on the writing process
  • Self editing
  • Peer editing
Other Evidence:
  • Tests/quizzes on knowledge: parts of an essay
  • Grading rubrics addressing specific target areas of an essay
  • Ability to follow direction
  • Adaptation to constructive criticism and working towards correcting errors

Stage 3: Create the Learning Plans

Parts of Stage 3

  1. Learning Plan (Instruction)
  2. Learning Activities (Experiences)

For the third stage, think about what specific lesson plans and assessments will you need to measure the progress of the process? How will your lessons get students to understand the desired results from stage 1? What learning experiences and instruction will enable students to achieve the goals you set in the previous stages?

Stage 3: Important Questions to Answer

  • What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results and success in the assessments?
  • How will the learning plan help students acquisition, evaluation, and transfer?
  • How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?

Stage 3: W.H.E.R.E.T.O.

WHERETO is an acronym to help execute Stage 3 and is explained below. (Another acronym to help with the process of writing Stage 3 is GRASPS) When considering your unit you must recognize what is expected of your students throughout the process. This table includes how will they be evaluated, judged, and graded:

WWHERE is the unit going and WHAT is expected?
HHOOK all students, and HOLD their interest?
EEQUIP students, help them EXPERIENCE the key ideas and EXPLORE the issue.
RProvide opportunities to RETHINK and REVISE their understandings and work.
EAllow students to EVALUATE their work and its implications.
TTAILOR the unit to the different needs, interests, and abilities of learners.
OORGANIZE to maximize engagement, as well as effective learning.

Stage 3 Worksheet

Stage 3 - Learning Plan
Learning Activities and Planned Lesson Instruction:

Stage 3 Completed Worksheet

Stage 3 - Learning Plan
Learning Activities and Planned Lesson Instruction:

Each of the Following Lessons Contains

  • Sources
  • Front Loading
  • Activities - Worksheets and Handouts


  • Lesson 1 - What is an Essay?
  • Lesson 2 - What are Different Styles of Essays?
  • Lesson 3 - Taking a Peek at an Essay
  • Lesson 4 - The Bing, Bang, Bongo Method: 5 Paragraph Essay
  • Lesson 5 - Check Out My Body…Type
  • Lesson 6 - MCAS/PARCC
  • Lesson 7 - Audience Importance
  • Lesson 8 - Introducing the Introduction
  • Lesson 9 - "Girl, Look at the Body…I Work Out": Writing SEXI Body Paragraphs
  • Lesson 10 - Conclusion Confusion
  • Lesson 11 - IYOW (Write Your Own)
  • Lesson 12 - Self Editing
  • Lesson 13 - Peer Editing
  • Lesson 14 - Final Draft
  • Lesson 15 - Reflection
  • Works Cited

    • Ray, Rebecca L. CURRICULUM UNIT Composition Writing 10th Grade English Language Arts. 14 July 2012. Lesson Plan. Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
    • Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011. Print

    Buy Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe on Amazon

    How to Use Essential Questions in UBD


    Understand the Purpose

    Familiarize yourself with the purpose and significance of essential questions and important concepts in UBD. Recognize that they are thought-provoking, open-ended inquiries that engage students in critical thinking, promote deeper understanding, and connect learning goals to real-world contexts.


    Identify the Desired Learning Outcomes

    Determine the desired learning outcomes and performance goals for your unit or lesson. Reflect on what students learn, understand, and be able to do by the end of the unit.


    Craft Engaging and Challenging Questions

    Develop questions that stimulate curiosity and encourage inquiry. Ensure that the questions are open-ended, complex, and aligned with the desired learning outcomes. Consider questions that prompt students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information, as well as questions that connect the content to students' lives and the world around them.


    Incorporate Throughout the Unit

    Integrate the essential questions strategically throughout your unit or lesson. Use the questions to guide instruction, discussions, and activities. Make sure the questions are revisited and reflected upon during different stages of the learning process.


    Promote Student Engagement and Inquiry

    Facilitate meaningful discussions and inquiry-based activities that encourage students to explore and respond to the questions. Provide opportunities for students to share their perspectives, support their opinions with evidence, and engage in collaborative problem-solving.


    Reflect and Assess Student Understanding

    Regularly reflect on the effectiveness of the questions in promoting student engagement and understanding. Use formative assessments, such as class discussions, presentations, or written reflections, to gauge students' depth of understanding and their ability to address the essential questions. Adjust instruction and provide feedback based on students' responses to the questions.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Understanding by Design

    What is understanding by design?

    It is an educational framework for designing curriculum that focuses on planning learning experiences with a strong emphasis on student understanding. It consists of three stages: identifying desired learning outcomes, determining assessment methods, and planning instructional activities.

    What are the benefits of using Understanding by Design in the classroom?

    Using this framework can help teachers create instructional strategies and new ideas that are focused on the most important knowledge and skills acquisition. This backwards design approach can also help to make instruction more engaging and meaningful for students, as it encourages teachers to plan activities and assessments that are authentic and relevant to students' lives.

    How can teachers ensure that their Understanding by Design lessons are rigorous and challenging for all students?

    Teachers can ensure that their lessons are rigorous and challenging by setting high expectations for all students, providing opportunities for students to apply their learning in authentic and meaningful ways, and offering appropriate scaffolds and support for struggling learners. They can also use formative assessment to monitor students' progress and adjust instruction as needed.

    Can Understanding by Design be used in all subject areas?

    Yes, the framework can be used in all subject areas, as it is focused on designing instruction that leads to deep understanding and transfer of learning, rather than on specific content or skills.

    What role do worksheets play in Understanding by Design?

    Worksheets can be a useful tool if they are designed to support the desired learning outcomes and understanding. However, they should not be the primary focus of instruction, and should be used in conjunction with other types of learning activities and assessments.

    What is the difference between UDL and UBD?

    UDL (Universal Design for Learning) focuses on creating inclusive learning environments, accommodating diverse student needs. UBD (Understanding by Design) centers on curriculum and instruction design, emphasizing learning outcomes, assessments, and alignment. UDL addresses how education is delivered, while UBD addresses what is taught and how it's assessed. Both can be used together to enhance teaching and learning.

    What are the 3 stages of UBD?

    The three stages of UBD are: identify desired results (objectives and essential questions), determine acceptable evidence (assessment), and plan learning experiences and instruction (teaching).

    What is a UBD lesson plan?

    A UBD (Understanding by Design) lesson plan is an instructional design framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. It is a widely used approach in education for creating effective lesson plans and curriculum development. The UBD framework focuses on designing lessons with the end goal in mind, emphasizing student understanding and long-term retention of knowledge, rather than just covering content.

    What does UBD mean in education?

    In education, "UBD" stands for Understanding by Design, which is an educational framework and approach to curriculum development. It is a backward design process, which means that it starts with the end goal in mind and works backward to create a curriculum and instructional plan.

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