Understanding by Design

Often times throughout my life I have planned backwards. I wanted to make a large purchase so I determined the total cost and counted backwards to determine how much and for how long I would need to save. At school, I have time sensitive paperwork that needs to be completed and mailed to families, so I count backwards from the due date to determine when I need to begin working to complete the paperwork. Working backwards, it seems, is something that I have always naturally practiced in my life. Except for when it comes to teaching. As a learning support/resource room teacher, I am not often teaching whole units of content to my students, so lesson planning or unit planning is not something that I do on a consistent basis. With that said, after viewing and working through both Fink’s Three Column Table and the Understanding by Design models, I believe the practice of thinking backwards has the ability to be used in any context.

Fink’s Three Column Table has been helpful for me while planning the significant learning environment for the implementation of ePortfolios into my classroom. Fink’s design asks questions about the physical learning environment, as well as asking questions about the characteristics of the learners and the teacher, before beginning the design of the learning environment. Both models (3 Column Table and UbD) are designed to have the teacher determine the expected goals and outcomes before creating the rest of the course. The UbD model, however, goes into more detail to help develop those goals. Both models are effective and would be useful to anyone. However, it seems to me that the UbD model would work better for planning a lesson and the 3 Column Table would be better for planning a course.

So what does all of this mean for my learning and implementation? To be honest, I can see myself using both of these design plans when implementing ePortfolios. The UbD model is great for working in a smaller focus (lesson or units) because it helps to plan the multitude of activities and assessments that are needed to reach the goals. This would be beneficial for me when I am planning to teach a specific skill or task with my students. Fink’s model is more appropriate for planning a full course because it focuses on the BHAG and how to accomplish it. For the implementation of ePortfolios in my classroom and because I am not required to teach content specific lessons, my 3 Column Table may prove more beneficial for the majority of my planning purposes. Now, I am not naive to believe that what I just wrote is the be all, end all of my planning implementation. Like I encourage my students to do, I am constantly learning and reflecting on my learning and growth, so while I believe that Fink’s design would work best for me right now, I also believe that I would need to work through and adjust both models a few times in order to reach all of my goals with implementing ePortfolios. 

Stage 1 – Desired Results

Established Goals: What relevant goals (e.g., content standards, course or program objectives, learning outcomes) will this design address?

Through the use of ePortfolios, learners will use technological skills in order to grow and develop their post-secondary plans, while reflecting on their learning throughout, and in order to promote lifelong learning.

  • Learners become accountable for their self-directed learning
  • Learners will evaluate their post-secondary interests and gain insight into developing plans that support their interests
  • PA Standard 13.1 Career Awareness and Preparation
      • 11.D- Evaluate school-based opportunities for career awareness/preparation, such as, but not limited to: career portfolio
      • 11.F – Analyze the relationship between career choices and career opportunities, such as, but not limited to: associate, bachelors, certificate, immediate employment, military training (i.e. post-secondary plans)
      • 11.G – Assess the implementation of the individualized career plan through the ongoing development of the career portfolio.
Essential Questions:

(What provocative questions will foster inquiry, understanding, and transfer of learning? )

    • What is an eportfolio?
    • How can ePortfolios help you learn?
    • How can ePortfolios help you grow?
    • How can you take ownership over your learning?
    • How will you use an ePortfolio?
    • Why is an ePortfolio important for your future?
    • What are your passions/interests?
    • How can you communicate about your learning?

(What are the big ideas? What specific understandings about them are desired? What misunderstandings are predictable?)

Students will understand that…..

    • ePortfolios are an important tool for learning.
    • Reflection is an important part of learning.
    • Evaluating themselves and their learning will help them to grow.
    • Students may not understand the benefits of ePortfolios in the beginning.
Students will know:

(What key knowledge and skills will students acquire as a result of this unit? What should they eventually be able to do as a result of such knowledge and skills?)

    • What an ePortfolio is.
    • How to create an ePortfolio.
    • Why an ePortfolio is an important learning tool.
    • How to appropriately and effectively collaborate with their peers.
Students will be able to:
    • Design an ePortfolio.
    • Reflect on their learning.
    • Evaluate their learning and growth over time.
    • Research, identify, and connect personal passions/interests to post-secondary plans.
    • Collaborate with their peers and provide meaningful feedback.
    • Be accountable for their learning.

Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Performance Tasks:Through what authentic performance tasks will students demonstrate the desired understandings? By what criteria will performances of understanding be judged? Other Evidence: Through what other evidence (e.g., quizzes, tests, academic prompts, observations, homework, journals) will students demonstrate achievement of the desired results? How will students reflect upon and self-assess their learning?
    • Create an ePortfolio using a blog site.
    • Write blog posts.
    • Review and comment on peer’s blog sites.
    • Revise blog posts based on teacher and peer feedback.
    • Self-assessment and review of learning through checklists and reflection.
    • Assessment will be based on teacher check points, sharing of post-secondary plans, and completion of posts.
    • Write reflection blog posts.
    • Conferences with the teacher.
    • Completion of checklists.
    • Observe and review peer’s blog sites.

Step 3 – Learning Plan

What learning experiences and instruction will enable students to achieve the desired results? How will the design:

W = Help the students know Where the unit is going and What is expected? Help the teacher know Where the students are coming from (prior knowledge, interests)?

    • The teacher will know where the students are coming from by having them complete a survey to determine their knowledge of ePortfolios.
    • The students will know where the unit is going and what is expected of them by viewing and exploring model ePortfolios, and then journaling about what they viewed as successful and unsuccessful.

H = Hook all students and Hold their interest?

    • Students will participate in a class discussion about the types of learning – traditional and nontraditional – and the benefits and importance of each type.
    • Students’ interest will be held and hooked because they will realize they have a voice in their learning, and will become self-directors of their learning.

E = Equip students, help them Experience the key ideas and Explore the issues?

    • Students will be equipped with their Chromebooks and blog platforms to choose from.
    • Students will experience the key parts of ePortfolios (documenting interests, connecting content, reflection, self-directed learning, growth) through:
        • designing their ePortfolios;
        • collaboration with peers;
        • online discussions;
        • review/reflection of their blog posts;
        • identify and research their post-secondary plans.
  • Students will explore the different uses of ePortfolios throughout the year:
      • to connect their interests with post-secondary goals/plans;
      • to connect with peers or staff members who have similar interests;
      • to document their learning growth;
      • to interact with peers and teachers in order to receive and provide meaningful feedback.

R = Provide opportunities to Rethink and Revise their understandings and work?

  • Students will rethink and revise their ePortfolios and blog posts upon receiving peer reviews and teacher feedback, and then make adjustments to their work.

E = Allow students to Evaluate their work and its implications?

    • Students will evaluate their ePortfolios monthly to determine if their current platform is working to their benefit and fullest potential.
    • Students will conference with the teacher to evaluate what they have completed/posted and the connection it has to their post-secondary plans.
    • Students will evaluate their blog posts and write reflection posts on their learning.

T = Be Tailored (personalized) to the different needs, interests, and abilities of learners?

  • Each students’ ePortfolio will be tailored to the individual students’ interests and abilities:
      • learners will choose their ePortfolio platform;
      • learners will establish a post-secondary goal;
      • learners will create a post-secondary plan in order to reach their goal;
      • learners will determine how to share their goal.

O = Be Organized to maximize initial and sustained engagement as well as effective learning?

  • Students will receive organized classroom time to devote to their ePortfolios in order to maintain interest and promote lifelong learning:
      • time to review each other’s ePortfolios;
      • reviewing and discussing model ePortfolios;
      • time to review and revise their individual ePortfolios;
      • discussions about the value of ePortfolios.



Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. Retrieved from: http://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2011/06/selfdirected1.pdf

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.