What is UBD (Understanding By Design)?

By Rebecca Ray

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Understanding By Design is a framework and accompanying design process for thinking decisively about unit lesson planning. The concept was developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, and as part of their principles they state that UBD “…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 teach more effectively. In fact, its flexibility is one reason it has gained so much acclaim. With UBD, the ultimate goal is to think backward, focusing on the big picture: at the end of a unit what is the essential question your students should be able to answer?

What are the Stages of UBD?

The UBD 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 goals (such as Common Core State Standards, objectives, and learning outcomes) will this address?

Stage 1 UBD Template
Stage 1 UBD Template


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Stage 1: How to Write Essential Questions

Your essential questions are the base of your UBD unit, so it is important that you know what essential questions are. To keep it simple, the questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, and engaging. These are often characterized by a call for higher-order thinking 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 essential question, you cannot move forward in your 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 performance tasks, where students demonstrate their understanding, or evidence like tests and quizzes, homework, prompts, and reflections.

Stage 2: Performance Tasks vs. Other Evidence
Stage 2: Performance Tasks vs. Other Evidence


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Stage 2: Important Questions to Answer

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 UBD Learning Plan and Action Plan
Stage 3 UBD Learning Plan and Action Plan


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Stage 3: Important Questions to Answer

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

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