Thoughts and Tools

UbD vs. 3-Column Design

I recently finished thinking through a design of an 11th grade Bible course with two different models.  One, by Fink (2003), was facilitated by a series of worksheets and questionnaires aimed at clarifying the scope and constraints of the course.  The final design step was a 3-column table.  The other, by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) is from their book Understanding by Design (UbD, for short).  It uses a one-page form to guide curriculum designers through the design process.


I think the 3-column format is much better at generating focus on the larger picture desired.  The simplicity of the design format leaves you working on the most important questions: what is the clearest, most well-defined overarching purposes in the course?  There are other worksheets and forms to fill out before doing the design table.  But the table leaves things clear when done well and does not require much cross-referencing to see how things are aligned. It causes the designer to use a backward-design process without cluttering that process with unneeded verbiage, lingo, or hard-to-remember acronyms.


By contrast, the existence of so many levels in the UbD table made it harder to form each portion correctly and also obfuscated how all the pieces connect.  There are just too many cross-correlations to keep track of in the UbD design.  I also find the WHERETO acronym** too cumbersome to be helpful.  While still aimed at helping a designer to use a backwards design approach, it is much more granular than the 3-column format. 


Of course, the weakness of the UbD format (its multiple levels, high granularity, and extensive cross-questioning) has is benefits as well.  It would be very helpful in prompting more specific ideas and ensuring that absolutely every aspect of a curriculum was purposefully designed.  If one was having trouble turning their overall goals into practical classroom activities, the UbD process provides a high degree of support and suggestion for how and what to do. 


For my current state in my teaching career, I find the 3-column table more accessible, clarifying and empowering.  The UbD process, on the other hand, feels too heavy-handed to be helpful.  It’s not that I don’t plan details. It is rather that I don’t want to have to put those details into the format required for the UbD templates.  What do you think?  Is the granularity and specificity of the UbD design better becasue it forces details?  Or is the 3-column design better because it hones in on the big picture?



Where are we going?

Hook and hold!

Equip, experience and explore

Rethink and revise understanding

Evaluate work and implications

Tailor the work to different needs, interests and abilities

Organize to maintain efficiency and learning


…am I the only one that finds that acronym too clever to be useful?


Fink, L.D. (2003). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved from Designing Significant Learning Experiences: Materials in Print website:


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

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cwhite - December 1, 2017
Thanks for your thoughtful comment and compliment. Unfortunately, I HAVE thought about trying to make things 'pop'...but find that I need to be okay with 'good enough' instead. Life has many competing priorities, and I have to choose. Glad you're finding the content helpful! -Curtis
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cwhite - January 10, 2018
I'm glad you found it helpful. Godspeed, Curtis
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Curtis White, M.S., M.C.E.
High School Faculty
Math, Science, Bible & Computers
Abundant Life Christian School
A Madison Christian School