UbD+NGSS+5E Unit Planning

Have you struggled to find the right process for designing an NGSS Unit? It can feel overwhelming, especially if you are new to NGSS! There are new factors to consider when shifting to three-dimensional instruction and assessment.

Having worked as a science instructional coach this year (first time coach AND in a newly-created role), I have been primarily helping collaborative teams deepen their understanding of the NGSS performance expectations. Another focus has been how to implement the practices and what they look like at MS and HS. (I had some great discussions with teachers about the similarities and differences between constructing explanations and arguing from evidence. If you are interested in this, check out this Stanford Graduate School video & STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 1.) We have also had many discussions about how to incorporate crosscutting concepts into instruction and assessment.

Recently, several of my MS and HS science collaborative teams are naturally in a place where they are looking to design or refine NGSS units. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop on Understanding by Design (UbD) at my school earlier this year. This was the perfect refresher for me (and so nice to have it run by Jay McTighe himself!) Ever since that weekend, I have been trying to make sense of how to effectively articulate UbD to teachers who may be only vaguely familiar with the idea, while simultaneously ensuring that important aspects of NGSS are not forgotten. I was fortunate to also attend the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta, where I participated in several sessions related to NGSS unit design. While all of the sessions I attended were great, I knew that I needed to keep the NGSS unit planning process simple and manageable. Ultimately, I tried to take away what all of the processes had in common.

I’ve shared my take-aways about the crucial steps in designing units recently with most of the collaborative teams I work with. The process seems to bring clarity and focus to what needs to be considered when refining or designing NGSS units. The steps below are based upon elements from the following: Translating the NGSS for Classroom Instruction, Seeing Students Learn Science: Integrating Assessment and Instruction in the Classroom, the 5E Model for NGSS, Paul Andersen’s ‘unit planning protocol’, Quest-LC and, of course, Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. I have also connect the stages of Unit Design with the 4 questions of PLC at Work, since collaborative teams have been a focus at our school for several years now.

In the steps below, note that DCI = disciplinary core idea (content), SEP = science & engineering practice and CCC = crosscutting concept. Each performance expectation (PE) is essentially a standard made up of a DCI + SEP + CCC. Also, keep in mind that prior to designing or refining a unit, there should be at least a tentative year-long sequence mapped out for the course. It is also helpful if there have already been discussions about how the PEs will be bundled into units.

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results  [“unpacking”; What do we want students to learn?]

  • What do students need to KNOW? (DCIs)
  • Create an ANCHOR CHART of main concepts (DCIs).
    • You might be tempted to skip this step, but don’t! Just as the NGSS emphasizes the importance of modeling, you and your colleagues will also benefit from making your thinking visible and building a clear and shared understanding of what concepts should be included in the unit. The anchor chart suggested by @paulandersen will also help determine what order the concepts could be taught in, and perhaps which concepts are most important. For examples of anchor charts, go to The Wonder of Science site. Click on Teaching, select a topic and then click on a specific performance expectation to see anchor charts that other teachers have made.
  • Create a conceptual storyline using the DCIs.
    • A conceptual storyline means that the concepts are taught in an order or flow that makes sense to students. It allows the teacher or collaborative team to later create a coherent sequence of lessons.
  • What do students need to be able to DO? (SEPs)
    • If you have bundled PEs together, is there one practice that will be focused on more than the others? Will some practices be taught but not assessed?
    • For this step and the next, it helps to have printable practice and concept cards from Paul Andersen’s site. I suggest the ‘4 per page file’ so that the cards are small, manageable and easy to take to meetings!
  • How will students THINK about the concepts? (CCCs)
    • At this point, if you have not already naturally incorporated CCCs into your anchor chart, you may choose to do so now.
  • What ANCHOR PHENOMENON could drive the unit?

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence [formative and summative assessment; How will we know if students learned it?]

  • What ‘END PRODUCT’ will students produce to demonstrate competency in the primary SEP?
    • It is crucial that one or more PRACTICES drive the assessment.
  • What MAJOR CONCEPT(s) from the “conceptual storyline” will be included in the ‘end product’?
  • What CCC(s) from the “conceptual storyline” will be included in the ‘end product’?
  • Is the assessment ‘three dimensional’ enough?

Stage 3: Learning Plan [“learning performances”; How will we design learning experiences for ALL learners?]

  • What 3D ‘learning performances’ will provide the required evidence of student learning?
    • Focus not on what the teacher is doing, but what the STUDENTS are doing.

Stage 4: Reflection (& Revision?)

This is not an official UbD stage, but I think it is crucial to make time to reflect on the unit. It can be helpful to jot down notes throughout the unit of things that worked well, as well as things you would like to change. At the end of the unit, a reflection with your collaborative team is very helpful. This could also be a time when revisions to the unit and/or assessments are made so that they are ready for the next year. This ensures that revisions are not forgotten.


NGSS UbD 5Es Template

The template below is adapted from Jay McTighe’s UbD template to incorporate some elements of NGSS and the 5E model.

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How do YOU plan NGSS units? Is your process different? Feel free to post a comment below or connect with me on twitter @foley_amy 🙂


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