Understanding by Design

A Review of Research
Stage 1. Identify Desired Results

Jesse, Davis, & Pokorny (2004) specify that the curriculum should be focused on measurable, articulated goals. The curriculum in all schools begins with standards. Standards outline what should be learned. Most state’s standards adoptions are quite extensive. Reeves (2007) advocates that districts and schools “add value to state standards through a process of prioritization” (p. 240). In this process, Reeves (2007) advocates the identification of power standards that “represent the most important elements of the curriculum (p. 240). Further, these power standards should represent standards that meet that provide the greatest benefit to students, have application across multiple subjects, and provide the highest degree of readiness for the next level of learning (Reeves, 2007).

Students are more likely to engage in curricula that are relevant, authentic, and meaningful to their individual experiences (Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009).

Stage 2. Determine what constitutes acceptable evidence of competency in the outcomes and results (assessment).
Reeves (2001) encourages educational leaders to focus on the classroom as the “primary location for effective assessment” (p. 5). An effective assessment program must be both formative and summative and must be based upon what is actually being taught in the classroom (Reeves, 2001). Formative assessments should be ongoing through a unit of instruction to both monitor classroom instruction as well as gauge students’ progress in mastering standards while summative assessment are administered at the end of instruction and tend to be more cumulative and high-stakes (Ward & Murray-Ward, 1999). Both formative and summative assessments should be authentic and representative of not only what is being taught in the classroom but also designed at the level of rigor outlined in the academic standards.

Reeves (2001) identifies four features that can be identified when students’ mastery of academic standards are truly the focus of classroom assessment. These features include: Comparing student performance to standards rather than norms; requiring students to demonstrate proficiency; clear expectations for learning and transparency in assessment; and that the focus of assessment is the improvement of students’ learning (Reeves, 2001).


Stage 3. Plan Learning Experience and Instruction

If the curriculum defines what is to be taught, instruction outlines how it will be taught (Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009). Cook-Sather (2002) endorse an instructional environment in which teachers engage students in critical pedagogy through the use of authentic and relevant educational experiences. These practices forces students to challenge the curriculum, reflect on its relevance to their lives, and develop deep meaning (Cook-Sather, 2002).


Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational Researcher, 31(4), 3-14.
Jesse, D., Davis, A., & Pokorny, N. (2004). High-achieving middle schools for Latino students in poverty. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 9(1), 23-45.
Reeves, D.B. (2007). Power standards: How leaders add value to state and national standards. In, The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership (pp. 239-247). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publisher.
Reigeluth, C. & Carr-Chellman, A. (2009). Instructional-design theories and models, volume III: Building a common knowledge base. New York: Routledge.
Reeves, D. B. (2001). Standards make a difference: The influence of standards on classroom assessment. NASSP Bulletin, 85(621), 5-12.