What is Understanding by Design?

Understanding by Design (UbD) is a planning framework for instruction, assessment and outlining curriculum. The fundamental tenet of this framework is to start planning from the very end – the understanding that students should be left with. Typically, instructors and curriculum creators approach the teaching-learning dynamic in a “forward” fashion, designing learning activities and assessment materials while trying to extract goals for the overall lesson as a last step. In contrast, UbD starts from the overall goals of the lesson and places importance on defining learning transfer – the achievement of application of learning in different contexts.

UbD in a tech-based product

Research shows that the UbD framework is effective in elevating performance and understanding. A study conducted on grade 8 science students reveals that there is a significant difference in student achievement (measured through a test) after they had received instruction guided by the principles of UbD.

This framework changes the role of the teacher from an agent who conveys scientific concepts to a person who promotes the development of scientific understanding and temper in students. This change is not only propounded by the UbD framework but increasingly in the educational models around the world. We are moving from a traditional classroom setup with a teacher as the primary “knowledge-giver” to a tech-based learning system where the teacher is a “facilitator”. By using a series of questions, experimental setups, digital interactive content, students embark on an inductive journey that leads them to construct their own mental models of scientific concepts and theories.  Considering the growing pace at which the country is moving towards the use of technology in education, this framework sets the precedent for constructivism as an alternate mode of learning in schools.

So how to make use of UbD?

Step 1: Identifying desired results

The different ingredients of understanding form the core of the various products at EI.  “Understanding” redefines the meaning of education – acquisition of factual knowledge of concepts and skills is not the goal. It is to be able to use this learning in meaningful contexts. Therefore, the first step of the UbD framework is to identify the desired results.

For any learning program and specifically a computer-based one in the science domain, the following questions should be taken into account:

1) Why is this topic important to know in the realm of science?

2) What transfer of learning can students achieve at the end of this lesson? In other words, which are the areas and ways in which students can apply this learning in a meaningful way?

3) What is the scientific understanding that students must retain in the long term (enduring understanding)?

4) What are the common misconceptions that students at this age have about these concepts?

Landmark work in the construction of concept maps undertaken by the likes of Rosalind Driver, Page Keeley along with curriculum standards like Next Generation Science Standards, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, etc. can be used as guides to establish this first step. At this stage, care should be taken that the enduring understanding contains both concept goals as well as transfer goals. That is, besides instruction being means to build knowledge in a student, it should also be able to equip them to apply learning in meaningful scenarios.

Let us take a look at an example to illustrate the application of the framework. Suppose a learning module on respiration in plants, at a grade 7 level is being created. For this particular topic, the enduring understanding that students should be left with at the end of the learning module includes:

  • Plants require energy to perform life functions just like all other living organisms.
  • Energy is released from the breakdown of food through a series of chemical reactions. These reactions are part of respiration.

Based on these points, key concepts that need to be covered are put down. Here are some examples:

  • Plants are living organisms, hence they also respire.
  • Glucose is the food for the plant which in most plants is created by themselves.
  • Glucose is broken down in the presence of oxygen to release energy.
  • Plants do not have a separate mechanism for breathing. They have stomata that help with the exchange of gases.

At this stage, common misconceptions around the topic should be mapped to specific key ideas. The article covers the methods of addressing misconceptions through a computer-based science learning program that we are creating.

Step 2: Designing assessment items

Once the long-term goals of the lesson have been established, effective assessment tools that provide true evidence of understanding need to be developed. For every goal listed in step 1 as well as the main ideas covered in the lesson, reliable indicators of understanding are created.

Some questions that must be used as guidelines are given here:

1) By answering this assessment item, do we get a clear evidence that the concept has been understood? Do the assessment items validate the target that needs to be achieved?

2) What can we accept as evidence for understanding, application, interpretation and perspective (being able to display several viewpoints)?

3) How can we assess understanding in a consistent manner? Is the assessment foolproof and reliable?

For the key ideas mentioned above, some of the assessment items may be:

Q. Respiration is a process where glucose is broken down to release energy required for all the life processes and carbon dioxide is given out. Do plants respire?

  1. Yes, plants respire and it is called photosynthesis.
  2. No, plants do not respire for they give out oxygen.
  3. Yes, plants respire all the time because they need energy.
  4. Yes, plants respire but only during the night, not during the day.

Q. We know that during respiration food is broken down into simpler substances so that energy can be made available. Which two of these substances are the reactants in the process of respiration in plants?

  1. glucose and oxygen,
  2. glucose and water,
  3. carbon dioxide and water
  4. carbon dioxide and oxygen]

Q. Identify X in the following analogy.

nose:humans :: gills:fish :: X:plants

  1. stomata
  2. leaves
  3. chloroplasts
  4. roots

 Step 3: Designing instructional materials

After developing assessment tools, the modes of delivery of instruction are finally put down. The ways in which the required support can be delivered to students so that they achieve the desired results is the crux of this step. In a traditional classroom environment, this includes the development of lesson plans, worksheets, in-class activities, projects, homework, etc.

At this stage, these questions may be helpful to answer:

1) What scientific concepts and skills should students be equipped with to to be ready to receive/learn new content?

2) What kind of support do students require so that they can transfer their learning to different contexts?

3) Are we preparing them to be assessed by giving them all necessary content knowledge?

Here, the learning module should be created, keeping in mind two things: a) content and skills that need to be covered, b) the appropriate method to deliver them on an online platform. This includes whether to deliver information through direct instruction as opposed to self-construction of the concept. It must also involve decisions revolving around using text/diagrammatic/data-based/interactive/gamified representations.

The first step can be revising key points covered in previous lessons – testing prerequisite knowledge through simple questions and activities. For this particular topic, the knowledge that students come with include:

  • Photosynthesis is the process by which most plants produce food.
  • Respiration is a process that releases energy.

Using these ideas as points of departure, appropriate questions can be framed, to provide students with necessary information leading up to the assessment questions. In some cases, when a new concept is being introduced, it is presented through direct instruction – the information is given upfront and students can be made to answer learning questions based on it. The thought process that guides this exercise is that one question leads to another, while students are simultaneously learning as well as being assessed at every stage.

Misconceptions

Research in science learning shows that students harbour misconceptions that are developed due to misinterpretation of ideas/phenomena, gaps in the curriculum or ineffective instruction, prior incorrect notions built based on observations in the surroundings, oversimplification of concepts, etc.

The desired goal of the science learning program would be to use the cleared misconception in a new setting. Are they able to apply the newly learned idea to a different context successfully? Assessment items should include questions that check whether the misconception has been cleared. These can take the forms of checking for the capacity to explain and apply. Finally, the instructional material should be created to break down the mental formation of a concept into simple steps to ensure that the misconception is not formed. These nuances contribute to the technical soundness of a good technological intervention in science education as well as its thoroughness in producing effective results.

For the above topic, one of the questions that are used to check whether the misconception has been cleared is as follows:

When do plants breathe?

i) only at night

ii) only during the day

iii) throughout the day and night

iv) depends on the type of plant

Conclusion

The UbD framework is a handy tool for educators in various contexts and is built on the principle of redefining what “understanding” means; similar to what we do at EI. As far as science education is concerned, using the framework to build a learning programme has not been seen before in the country. With months of research and conceptualization, EI’s computer-based science learning program has been christened Mindspark Science and is set to launch in 2021. Currently the product is being piloted in 127 schools.

Although UbD is a planning framework, Mindspark Science uses it simultaneously as a planning as well as creation framework. Since the learning product is built on the idea that students learn better by answering questions, at every point students are being taught as well as assessed.  The framework not only serves as a guide for content creation, but also forms an integral part of its objective – to ensure the development of scientific understanding in all students.

References and further reading

https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/

https://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf

https://www.eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/view/8853/8513

https://www.chalk.com/resources/what-understanding-by-design-administrators-care/

https://www.netlanguages.com/blog/index.php/2017/06/28/what-is-inductive-learning/

Priyanka Vasudevan

Priyanka Vasudevan

Educational specialist at Educational Initiatives
Priyanka is an educational specialist working in the science content team.
Priyanka Vasudevan