Understanding by design 3: Designing Physics Instruction

Mariett L. Bergantin

Understanding by Design Part 1
Understanding by Design Part 2

After deciding on the desired results and identifying the student’s preconceptions through the different types of assessment, the next challenge is to design and implement appropriate instruction modes. This is the third stage of the backward design process and involves planning learning activities and experiences. Traditionally, teachers consider this stage first when designing the course work. The UBD framework however, considers this the last stage after the desired results have been known and acceptable evidence was determined on how well the results have been achieved.

The acronym WHERE suggests guidelines that can be used in planning instruction that would match the desired results (Wiggins and McTighe 1998)

  • W- Where is the unit headed and what is the purpose of day to day work?
  • H- Hook the students through engaging work that makes them more eager to explore key Ideas
  • E- Explore the subject in depth, equip students with required knowledge and skill to perform successfully on final tasks, and help students experience key ideas
  • R- Rethink with students the big ideas; students rehearse and revise their work
  • E- Evaluate results and develop action plans through self- assessment of results

Applying WHERE criteria in physics classroom, the lesson usually starts on posting the essential questions. This will guide students on what they are expected to answer at the end of the lesson. The teacher also focuses on the BIG ideas to which instruction and experiences are based. Physics teachers are then encouraged to move away from the “recipe style” experiment to semi structured lab and interactive demonstration activities. Experiments in traditional physics instruction are done through observation of the prepared set-up and students answer the question. In the new framework, experiments are carried out in a way that students framed the procedures by giving them materials and objectives and identifying the concepts/ideas underlying the experiments. Student then present the lesson at hand. This is discovery learning. Several approaches have been found to have a positive impact on physics instruction. Among these are : ICT integration, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and differentiated instruction. More on these approaches will be discussed in subsequent articles The different learning experiences can increase student’s participation and interest. Providing enrichment activities could help students to explore the subject in depth and thus encourage then to engage in research. This is usually part of their assignment or homework. Ongoing assessment on student’s performance through different modes of assessment could help the teachers differentiate instruction..

The conventional way of teaching is to put across the content of textbooks, make quarterly exams after instruction in accordance to the Learning Competencies of DepEd and come up with a yearly evaluation of the targets/learning outcomes. This is in contrast with the principles suggested by UbD framework. According to Wiggins and McTighe, textbook-based instruction focuses too much on facts accumulation and knowledge taught—sacrificing understanding and learning in the process.

While UBD emphasized the backward design it doesn’t mean that process should always starts from results going to activities. The three stages enumerated in this section can be used interchangeably provided the activities should match the identified learning goals. After all, the whole design of the curriculum is accentuated by a comprehensive and unified plan that emphasized on the Big idea.

The most important part of the backward process is the first stage where one decides on the desired learning outcome. This is the essence of the backward design; to start with the end.

The success of the UBD framework does not lie solely on the teacher’s choice of instruction and assessment but also on the administrators as well. Time and facilitation are some of the major issues encountered in UBD implementation which started two years ago. In 2013, the UBD framework will be implemented in the fourth year level secondary physics courses.

Understanding by Design II: Construction of suitable assessment method

Mariett L. Bergantin

In the first part of this article, we presented the Understanding By Design (UBD) teaching framework. The three steps comprising the framework were enumerated and the first step, dealing with setting learning objectives or outcomes, was discussed.

How does the teacher know if the desired learning outcome in the first step has been met by the students? What are the accepted evidences that these outcomes have indeed been achieved? These questions are addressed in the second part of the UBD backward design process.

The second part of the backward design process is designing the assessment. It is argued that that several types of assessment are essential in proving true understanding [1]. According to learning theories, students learn when they can “apply” their learning to new situation or real life problems. In assessing the performance of students, the teacher has to take this into account as well as the suitability of the chosen assessment to the established learning goal.

There are three methods of assessment associated with the UBD framework: Performance tasks, in which student are given real world challenges or the performance of tasks or activities; criteria referenced assessment such as quizzes, tests and prompts, which provide feedback on how well the material has been assimilated to both teacher and students; and unprompted assessment such as classroom observation and journals.

As an example, let us briefly examine projectile motion in the context of performance tasks. Projectile Motion is commonly demonstrated using an object thrown on a moving carrier or an object projected at an angle with respect to the horizontal. As a basis for understanding, students are expected to solve, for example, the time of flight, horizontal distance, the vertical and horizontal component of the projection velocity. Learning can be extended by using these quantities in describing or explaining real life problems.

Scientific learning in projectile motion is done usually using interactive simulation from Phet [2] or a laboratory experiment. After about a week, an assessment, usually comprised of quizzes long test, is performed. UBD stresses that these are not sufficient for students to achieve the required target. Instead, student centered activities are encouraged rather than teacher initiated activities such as demonstrations. Modifications can be made from the old laboratory experiments to make assessment more successful. An example would be to ask students to assemble a golf ball launcher that will produce maximum range. Aside from the student effort, the teacher can gauge if students have prior knowledge on the project rather than giving them the needed materials and measuring the time of flight and distance traveled by the ball. Knowing something is different from understanding the context. This is the essence of the assessment.

To conclude this second part of the UBD framework, we note that a practical advantage of UBD is that tasks are authentic and transparent. In constructing performance tasks scenarios, the GRASPS acronym [3] (goal, role, audience, situation, product or performance, standards for success) can be used in order to maximize the authenticity of assigned tasks. The success of performance tasks is rated through rubrics. Effective rubrics provide criteria that discriminate the different degrees of based on the outcomes differentiating from novice to expert. The big challenge in UBD is the creation of performance tasks that are parallel to the learning objectives. Finally, observations from the application of UBD to Secondary School classes reveal that UBD requires more time compared to traditional chalk-and-talk.

In the next part of this article, we will cover the third part of the UBD framework.

1. J. Mctighe, R. Thomas, Backward design for forward action. Educational Leadership. 50 (5), (2003).
2. http://phet.colorado.edu/ accessed 19 August 2011.
3. “Performance Tasks,” http://xnet.rrc.mb.ca/glenh/CourseImplementation/grasps.htm accessed 19 August 2011.

Mariett L. Bergantin obtained a Masters degree in Physics Education from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010. Her research interests are geared towards curriculum and instruction. She is currently affiliated with the Basic Education Department, Colegio de San Juan de Letran.

Understanding by Design: Teaching framework

Mariett L. Bergantin

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” (Covey, 1994)

Effective and engaging pedagogy coupled with meaningful assessment of student performance amounts to effective learning. This paradigm is espoused by Understanding By Design (UBD). Understanding by design is not a teaching method teaching framework, which is not a teaching method or pedagogy, rather it is a framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe which aims to improve student’s learning performance.

Traditionally, teaching starts from setting learning goals and ends in assessment which is according to the content of textbooks and Learning Competencies (PSSLC) specified by Department of Education following the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. With the new framework, Ubd focuses on the “backward design process” of presenting material and assessment. The idea of planning “backward” is emphasized by starting from results or outcomes and then proceeds to goals/objectives. The process focuses on how the student will have deeper understanding by identifying what the student know already and what the student need to know. The teacher’s role then is two-fold: as a designer and as a coach/facilitator. As a designer, the teacher design or plan student learning and teaching methods at the same time facilitates the learning process in classroom. The new framework forces the teacher to be creative thinkers and designers in what she wanted for her students to learn/know and what she expect her student to do/perform on the said lesson. This minimizes the problem of “textbook coverage” and rote memorization.

Wiggins and McTighe provide a useful process for establishing curricular priorities. They suggest you ask yourself three questions as you progressively focus in on the most valuable content:

  1. What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter?   This knowledge is “worth being familiar with.”
  2. What knowledge and skills should participants master?  Sharpen your choices by considering what is “important to know and do” for your students.  What facts, concepts and principles should they know?  What processes, strategies and methods should they learn to use?
  3. What are big ideas and important understandings participants should retain?  These choices are the “enduring understandings” that you want students to remember after they’ve forgotten the details of the course.

The second part of the backward design process deals with the construction of suitable assessment methods. This will be covered in the second part of this article.


Wiggins, G. and McTighe J.. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.p 242.

Mariett L. Bergantin obtained a Masters degree in Physics Education from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010. Her research interests are geared towards curriculum and instruction. She is currently affiliated with the Basic Education Department, Colegio de San Juan de Letran.


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