What is Understanding by Design (UbD)?1

Tyler L. D'Angelo, Andrew C. Thoron, and J. C. Bunch 2


Educators serve as designers for curriculum by creating learning experiences that meet specific learning objectives for learners. The effectiveness of curricular designs is determined by whether the learners have met the specified learning goals. While the standards of what is taught often depend on whether the instruction is through formal or non-formal education, there should be a clear guide for what the student should understand and be able to do as a result of the instruction. Rather than focusing on what learning activities to offer, instructors should first plan what the learning outcomes are for their students. Using Understanding by Design (UbD) as an approach to designing curriculum allows instructors to focus on the desired learning outcomes and provide structure for student learning (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Using this approach, as opposed to other forms of curriculum planning, makes instructors in teaching and Extension focus primarily on the learning outcomes rather than the learning process.

What is backwards design?

The Backwards Design model focuses on learning goals as a result of instruction before planning learning activities and teaching methods. While it is important to think about what content to teach and how you would like to teach it, the focus should first be on the desired outcomes of the curriculum. Using a backwards design offers a concrete way of communicating learning expectations. Creating a clear set of learning expectations using Understanding by Design often creates higher student achievement because the organized approach outlines what is to be learned at the end of a lesson or unit. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) described Understanding by Design through three stages: a) identify desired results, b) determine acceptable evidence, and c) plan learning experiences and instruction (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. UbD: Stages of Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)
Figure 1.  UbD: Stages of Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results

When identifying desired results, the instructor should examine the content standards to be taught and develop instructional objectives (for more information on how to create instructional objectives, see EDIS WC245/AEC583 Writing Instructional Objectives, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wc245). Additionally, the instructor should review the scope and sequence of what is to be taught. As a result of reviewing the scope and sequence, instructors might find a plethora of content about which they would like to teach. However, it is important to prioritize and condense the content for clarity in an order that flows logically. Finally, it is important to be specific as possible when identifying desired results (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). When determining desired results, some important questions to consider should be:

  • What should learners be able to do, know, and understand at the end of instruction?

  • What content should I be teaching?

  • In what order should I be teaching content?

  • What long-term understandings are desired at the end of instruction?

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

The instructor should begin to think about how he or she will collect evidence of learning during Stage 2. This stage often involves the instructor thinking more about how they will provide evidence of student learning and proficiency before deciding how they will teach the knowledge and skills to be taught. Typically, evidence of student learning is collected in the form of assessments (i.e., quizzes, tests, projects, etc.). The assessments created should align with the desired learning results established. The Six Facets of Understanding, explained below, provides a framework on how to critically measure instructional objectives (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Some important questions to consider should be:

  • How will I know if learners have achieved the desired results?

  • What is acceptable evidence for student achievement?

Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences & Instruction

Once desired results and evidence for understanding have been established, it is appropriate to begin planning instructional activities. Instructional activities should be purposeful in helping to establish clearly defined instructional goals while leading back to assessments created in Stage 2 (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The instructor should consider the learners' prior knowledge and skills when creating instructional objectives in order to challenge learners while providing scaffolding opportunities. The WHERETO elements, described below, serve as a framework for best practices when creating learning experiences and instruction. Figure 1 shows that Stage 3 is the last step because it should take into consideration the desired results and the assessments that will be collected from the learners. Some questions to consider include:

  • What knowledge and skills will learners need to effectively perform and achieve the desired results?

  • How can my learning activities that I have selected help my learners gain the knowledge and skills?

  • How should the skills and knowledge being assessed be coached?

  • What materials and resources are needed to meet my instructional goals?

Six Facets of Understanding

The Six Facets of Understanding offers a comprehensive approach in determining acceptable evidence of key ideas, concepts, and knowledge. The term "understand" is simply too broad of a term to use when measuring student learning. Therefore, the Six Facets of Understanding offers a specific approach in how the instructor would assess student learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).


Explanation is the ability to describe illustrations, theories, events, ideas, or actions. In this facet of understanding, the learner must make an account of how things work, why they work, why certain events occurred, and what they imply. This facet of understanding was first coined by Dewey (1933), who described this facet through explanation of things by noting how things work or operate, how certain things relate to one another, what are the results of those things occurring, and why certain things happen the way they do. An example of this in an Animal Science class may include having learners explain the ruminant digestive system through multiple short-answer responses. The instructor may ask what the functions of certain digestive system organs are, how the organs work together, have learners explain the nutritional components that may be associated with various digestive problems, or have learners explain what causes certain digestive issues to occur.


Interpretation is the ability to make meaning of information through narratives, data, experiences, and translations. Interpretation can be demonstrated through a variety of assessment strategies, such as interpreting significance through events, data, experiences, storytelling, or perception of particular facts. Interpretation assists learners to make sense of why certain concepts matter or how certain learning objectives relate to them (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). An example of this in a horticulture class may be through a photosynthesis lab. In lab, the instructor might ask learners to read a section of the lab report to interpret the background information on light reactions associated with photosynthesis. At the conclusion on the lab, the instructor might ask learners to interpret a series of data collected by the class. In the lab report, the instructor might ask learners what they observed and have learners reflect on how their observations may have led to their results.


Application involves using knowledge in diverse or new situations in a real context. Learners often show proficiency in application through using knowledge and adapting it in situations that require them to synthesize about the task. Application is a skills-based approach. Kolb (1984) was one of the first to describe this facet of understanding through the experiential learning cycle, which is described as four part cycles: a) concrete experience, b) reflective observation, c) abstract conceptualization, and d) active experimentation.

  1. Concrete Experience: the learner encounters a new experience, or something similar to what they have experienced before.

  2. Reflective Observation: the learner reflects on the experience and understanding of important concepts.

  3. Abstract Conceptualization: the learner uses reflections to conceptualize new ideas.

  4. Active Experimentation: the learner applies a new idea to the world around them to see results.

Application is often measured through performance-based learning (Kolb, 1984; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). An example of this in a Food Science course may be though a class field trip to a local dairy packaging facility. Many of the learners have never been to a dairy packaging facility in the past. At the conclusion of the field trip, the instructor asks the learners to reflect on some of the safety and handling practices initiated at the facility. Learners then use their reflections from their experience to create their own dairy food safety HACCP plan for a local start-up dairy packaging facility.


Perspective is the ability to critically think through contexts using various points of view to help answer a complex question or issue. Using perspective often helps build critical- thinking skills in learners by examining conclusions, implications, traditions, or assumptions created. An example of this in an Agricultural Foundations course may include hosting a debate in class on views of animal welfare versus animal rights. The instructor may ask learners to think about their viewpoint as to which they most agree with. Once the instructor has collected learner viewpoints, the instructor would divide learners into groups based on viewpoints. Learners must use critical thinking skills to argue why their point of view differs from the other group, why tradition leads society to believe one or the other, create conclusions based on facts, and discuss implications with associations from one viewpoint to the other. It is important that the instructor have the least amount of bias when utilizing this facet of understanding in instruction.


Empathy involves having learners go inside another person's feelings or worldview. Being able to feel for others offers an emotional perspective for learners. Empathy differs from perspective in that it does not allow us to detach the learner in an objective manner. Empathy allows the learner to go beyond his or her own opinion to making emotional meaning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). In an Agricultural Foundations course, empathy may be used when discussing world hunger. Because of the nature of the topic, the instructor is easily able to set emotional contexts for learners. The instructor may discuss some of the factors that are involved when discussing food security challenges, ask learners to describe what life might be like in a different cultural context, and ask learners to create solutions to these issues using other facets of understanding.


Self-knowledge is the ability to understand the limitations of one's knowledge in understanding an idea or concept. To reach self-knowledge, learners must be familiar with their limitation to understanding, as well as understand what each piece of information may mean to them. While it is impossible to remove bias, it is important to limit the amount of bias given in instruction. This involves not over-generalizing assumptions that are made in learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). An example of this could be in an Agricultural Mechanics course. The instructor may have learners test the effectiveness of different size welding rods. While each weld will be different because of human error, the learner can make assumptions as to which size may be more effective.

The WHERETO Elements

wHERETO is an acronym used to highlight key considerations of instructional design. The WHERETO elements can serve as a recipe that assesses the planned learning experiences and instruction in Stage 3. WHERETO highlights include (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005):

W—Ensure that learners understand WHERE and the unit is headed and WHY. This can be done by posting essential questions on the board, beginning the unit of instruction with the learning objectives, or ending the lesson with something to think about for the next lesson or for an upcoming lesson.

H—You can HOOK learners in the beginning, and HOLD their attention throughout. This can be done as an interest approach through questioning key ideas from the lesson before, asking learners to watch a short clip that ties into the lesson, or having something at the front of the classroom that is unusual or different. There are many other activities that may hook the learners into the lesson.

E—EQUIP learners with the necessary experiences, tools, knowledge, and expertise to meet performance goals. Learners should feel able to do specific tasks associated with the learning objective. This can be done through scaffolding from prior lessons to the current lesson.

R—Provide learners with numerous opportunities to RETHINK big ideas, REFLECT on progress, and REVISE their work. Instructors may be able to do so by allowing learners to reflect on assessments for partial credit, allowing for critiques on papers from instructor feedback, or allowing time for peer review on a project.

E—Build in opportunities for learners to EVALUATE progress and self-assess. Learners should be allowed to evaluate the work that they have given to the instructor through self-assessment given via a rubric.

T—Be TAILORED to reflect individual talents, interests, styles, and needs. This aspect requires knowing what your learners prefer. If the majority of your learners prefer creative tasks rather than writing tasks, the instructor should try to focus the instructional activities more around what interests them. Tailoring student learning can occur in other ways, such as providing learners the option to do pick an assignment of their choice.

O—Be ORGANIZED to optimize deep understanding as opposed to superficial coverage. The instructor should think of the key idea or concept as the main piece of instruction in a logical flow. Oftentimes, there needs to be a summative piece to a lesson that briefly identifies what you want the lesson to take away from the lesson of the day.

UbD Template

A backwards design outline often includes each of the three stages, as well as the WHERETO elements. Below is a common UbD template used for instructors that includes key design questions (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Figure 2. UbD Template with Design Questions for Instructors (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 22)
Figure 2.  UbD Template with Design Questions for Instructors (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 22)

Figure 3. UbD Example for Formal Education
Figure 3.  UbD Example for Formal Education

Figure 4. UbD Example for Non-Formal Education
Figure 4.  UbD Example for Non-Formal Education


Backward design is a purposeful way to design instruction, as it outlines specific results before planning instruction. Unlike other forms of lesson planning, it serves as a guide for identifying desired results, how learning will be assessed, and then adding in the instructional strategies to reach the desired results. It creates an organized system to designing instruction and provides a clear expectation of student learning. This structure promotes a well-thoughtout lesson from the instructor, thus promoting student achievement and mastery of understanding.


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: Henry Holt.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


1. This document is AEC659, one of a series of the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date January 2019. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication.
2. Tyler L. D'Angelo, graduate assistant; Andrew C. Thoron, associate professor; and J. C. Bunch, assistant professor; Department of Agricultural Education and Communication; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.