Planning Tools for Course Design

Understanding by Design (UbD) vs. L. Dee Fink’s 3 Column Table

Most teachers don’t start from scratch when teaching.  A textbook or curriculum map, or scope and sequence directs the teacher in knowing the learning goals and how to help students reach them. This doesn’t mean all teachers perform well, or that the course was well planned. Fortunately, every teacher can redesign the learning environment to improve student learning outcomes.understanding by design

I have never had the luxury to walk into class and simply teach. My courses are designed from the bottom up which has been a wonderful experience for me and my students. We’ve learned what works and doesn’t. Using templates for course planning like Fink’s 3 column table and the One Page Model of Understanding by Design (UbD), have helped me define my thoughts for the course and form them into actionable lessons, including assessments. The learning part is still up to the students.
FInk Book Cover

These models offer different advantages in planning. Fink’s model begins with a “higher goal”, also called a BHAG, big, hairy, audacious goal, in some environments – a learning objective that transcends the course content. The UbD provides a series of prompts that force deep consideration to why the learning objective exists at all. Either can be used alone, in whole or part, and in conjunction. I have chosen to use both models separately while developing the German Blended Learning Course for middle school.

Differences Between Models

The 3 column model begins with the end in mind – a BHAG –  an overarching learning objective. In the case of this course, the end goal is reached while achieving 12 state standards. (For details about the 3 column table model developed for this course, visit Creating a New Foreign language Course.)

Six categorical goals are created that represent the ultimate learning objective – the BHAG. For the German course, the state standards are stepping stones to achieve the larger objective. The model is merely a framework to define the greater objective (as goals) and uses the standards to develop activities and assessments that achieve the goals.

The UbD model seems better suited for finite objectives (for this course, the same 12 standards) which serve as the primary objectives or goals. There is no larger goal within this model, but if both models were used they would create a very complete foundation for most courses. The UbD model asks thought provoking questions to design activities that can meet which ever goals are used as objectives. The questions lead the designer to think in greater detail about how exactly each goal will be accomplished and measured.

Choosing Goals for the Model

Any of the six categorical goals from the 3 column model could have been used as a single goal in the UbD. Doing so would create far more planning than is necessary for a course of this type.  In my state, the 12 standards must be met to complete the course regardless of how the course is being planned.  I chose to summarize the 12 standards into four groups and used only one group to demonstrate how I could apply this model to this course. Although there is a great deal more work in using the UbD; work that may not yield significantly better outcomes than other planning models, the UbD serves as a clearing house for ideas that might be too loose and unstructured for middle school students to learn from. That is one advantage for choosing it over others.

How Standards can be Simplified for use in the UbD Model

The list below states the group in bold, followed by each associated state standard for the German Blended Learning Course.

Create presentations about the target culture for various audiences

  • Use formal and informal expressions to communicate #1
  • Identify critical sound distinctions of the target language and of English that must be mastered to communicate meaning #10
  • Create presentations in and about the target language for various audiences #4, #12

Identify and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication

  • Interpret target language gestures, intonation, and visual clues #2
  • Compare verbal and nonverbal behavior of the target culture to the culture of the United States #11

Compare and contrast languages

  • Identify the main idea of nonfiction texts, including target language newspaper and magazine advertisements #3
  • Relate vocabulary of the target language to vocabulary of other subject areas #8

History and culture of target language

  • Identify trends found in various aspects of a target language culture #6
  • Identify major historic, scientific, and artistic target culture contributions or events #7
  • Explain cultural practices of a target culture #5

Below is a look at the framework of the UbD applied to the German Blended Learning Course for middle school.

UbD One Page Template

Stage 1: Desired Results


Create presentations about the target culture for various audiences.

Note: This goal combines 4 of the state standards, #1, #4, #10, #12


Learners recognize they can teach others through their own creations “presentations”, which includes what they say and a visual representation of what they mean. By demonstrating something in which they already have knowledge – a topic of their choice – learners realize it is easier to speak about what you know.

Essential Questions:

Learners will ask themselves:

  • How can I learn the basic sounds and meaning of the German language, and as its culture?
  • What topic am I curious about that might also occur in Germany?
  • How will I find information about this topic from the German perspective?
  • How will I decipher words and sounds in German?
  • How will I know if my understanding of the German vocabulary is correct?

Students will know:

  • How to articulate an idea in English and express it through German vocabulary
  • How to find information about other cultures and languages
  • Where to test the language for accuracy

Students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of factors that make up language and culture
  2. Research information and express the information to others
  3. Create an online webpage about a topic
  4. Articulate basic words and their meaning in German

Stage 2: Assessment Evidence

Performance Tasks: Learners will –

  • Create a webpage with information in English and German expressing their knowledge and use of the German culture and language.
  • Communicate in German in class and online through a recording Application
  • Explain understanding of words written in German text
  • Use pictures to represent meaning of German vocabulary in the webpage

Other Evidence:

  • Learners will show progression through the online language instruction program, including practice and assessment build into the program.
  • Learners will review the responses to the online posts to the website and the audio app and make adjustments

Stage 3: Learning Plan

Learning Activities:

Where are we going and What is expected

  • listen and read instructions in the online course and project information provided in class

Hook and Hold interest

  • Create a project based on personal interests and personal experiences

Equip – Experience – Explore

  • Investigate speaking through trial and error, and listening and repeating
  • Use German vocabulary found through resources provided and those discovered
  • Respond to others through prompts online and in writing

Rethink and Revise

  • Continuously edit web page and recordings
  • Adapt original goal to remain achievable or to expand it
  • Rely on the collection of information on shared web docs and web pages as reference


  • Review the work of others to use as models for conveying knowledge on a webpage
  • Re – record audio after correction articulation


  • Work on topic of interest in all areas of learning outside the online program of instruction
  • Present vocabulary and findings when comfortable with the skill and understanding


  • Progress in order of instruction and continuously add information to the web documents
  • Review prior instructions and course goals to maintain learning timeline
  • Make use of shared docs for gathering information as a group

Evaluation of the UbD and 3 Column Table Models

 UbD: In this model, every point of new information must be well thought out and have a corresponding activity that is measurable. The high degree of analysis; albeit important, can’t be generalized for this type of course; a course designed to meet individual learning outcomes. The model does not comfortably meld with concepts like free thinking and personalized evidence of learning, which are important components of this course. The UbD model also requires far more work in planning than is necessary to accomplish the learning outcomes of this particular course. However, for courses that build upon themselves, require a high degree of detail in understanding, and are critical to the foundation of greater understanding – like Chemistry –  the UbD model is a great choice. The model helps the course designer or teacher identify ideas that may not lead to student understanding or are too difficult to administer in a course.

3 Column Table: Fink’s model uses a three column structure and broad parameters. The model is loose and offers higher level questions geared toward much bigger learning objectives – some that will never be measured at all. It functions as a path to completing activities that lead to understanding as well as to a greater, transcending goal, usually unrelated to the expectations set in schools.It may not be a good choice for a course which requires explicit skills as evidence of learning, although a seasoned instructor could find a way to make it work.

Both models require analysis and inquiry which help make clear the learning process and outcomes, however the UbD model lacks a “big picture” feel because it focuses on questions that lead to the day-to-day class engagement, and the table lacks the details that make it easy to implement in lesson plan form.

Final Thoughts

Although it’s necessary to think deeply about questions that lead to activities in the course, I prefer to shoot for larger, theoretical goals, like “learning to learn” , which  fit more neatly in the table model. The table lends itself to the free thinking that will be necessary to encourage students to explore their own ideas in unique ways. It doesn’t force an activity or an outcome but still requires some sort of evidence of learning. For this reason, in this course, my preference is the 3 column table. After testing both models for the German Blended Learning Course, I’ve discovered I may need to find additional methods for ensuring students understand the learning objectives and how to accomplish them.

I believe the UbD is an excellent resource for a course outside education where no learning standards are applied. In the case of this German course, where a degree of freedom and fearlessness are build into the learning process, the 3 column table is a better fit for planning.

Image Sources: Google Images, unlicensed


Fink, L. D. (2003) A Self Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design: Expanded 2nd Edition. [Kindle eBook] Retrieved from