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Chris Biscardi

Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience


We must think of our students as our clients

Students are often criticized for not paying attention, but we now know that failure to focus on a teacher's instruction does not mean the student's brain is inattentive.

in a state of actual or perceived stress, new information does not freely pass through to the amygdala's filter to gain access to the prefrontal cortex.

It is now evident that low intelligence, lack of initiative, or laziness may not be the most likely reasons students don't always remain fully attentive.

The brain's expenditure of voluntary effort is linked to the expectation of positive outcomes.

fixed mindset vs growth mindset

patterns and pleasure drive the brain's memory, effort, and actions.

Academic effort can be stimulated by tapping into the brain's programming to focus attention and apply effort when pleasure is the anticipated expectation.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's continuous capacity to generate new neural networks in response to stimuli.

neurons that fire together, wire together

Memory is stored in separate hemispheres of the brain, based on the sensory modality (e.g., vision or hearing) in which it is experienced.

the brain accesses prior knowledge to enable it to make connections to new information and situations.

To ensure that there is related existing memory in the hippocampus to link with the new input, it is essential to help students become aware of their prior knowledge.

Less neuroplastic growth occurs if circuits are activated only by multiple repetitions of the same information in the same format -- for example, writing a word 10 times or solving 30 equations using the same formula. Rote memorization produces isolated and somewhat feeble circuits unlinked to other networks. Such shallow memories only allow learners to "give back" what was taught, mirroring the way it was taught. This limits their ability to transfer -- that is, to apply their learning to new situations beyond the original context in which is was learned.

The video game model:

  1. establishing a desirable goal
  2. offering an achievable challenge
  3. providing constant assessment with specific feedback
  4. acknowledging progress and achievement en route to a final goal

zone of proximal development: balance point between "not challenging at all" and "too hard"

Note that video games do not require mastery of all tasks at all levels; instead they highlight incremental progress

An Overview of Understanding by Design

UbD is predicated on the idea that long-term achievement gains are more likely when teachers teach for understanding of transferable concepts and processes while giving learners multiple opportunities to apply their learning in meaningful and authentic contexts.

schools should develop know-how as well as knowing

Teaching is a means to an end, and curriculum planning precedes instruction.

Evidence of understanding is obtained through performance tasks... to apply -- to transfer -- their learning to new situations.

We recommend that the performance assessments be set in a meaningful and authentic context whenever possible.

authentic performances of transfer, not from long lists of discrete topics or skills

a teacher's job is to uncover the content in ways that develop and deepen students' understanding of important ideas and equip them to transfer their learning in meaningful ways.

Goals: The Drivers of everything

Learners are more likely to focus their efforts when the learning goal is clear and they see it as worthwhile.

Brain-Friendly Assessment Practices

In general, we can distinguish two broad purposes for educational assessments: evaluation and feedback.


  1. a real-world Goal
  2. a meaningful Role for the student
  3. an authentic (or simulated) Audience
  4. a contextualized Situation that involves real-world application
  5. student-generated culminating Products and Performances
  6. the Success criteria by which student products and performances will be judged

However, when you want to provide detailed feedback on the important traits of a performance, analytic rubrics are needed.

Teaching Towards AMT


  • A: Acquisition
  • M: Meaning making
  • T: Transfer

Virtually every new unit contains both declarative and procedural knowledge

Thus the likelihood of information being maintained in memory increases when students' brains are prepared in advance to "catch" the new input

a fundamental contention of UbD is that a teacher's job is not to simply cover content and hope that it sticks; it is to enable learners to construct meaning about important ideas and processes so that they will be able to effectively transfer their learning to new situations.

Brain-Sensitive Teaching Using the WHERETO Model

  • W: where the unit is headed, why the new learning will be important and useful, and what is expected of the learners
  • H: Hook students to capture their attention in the beginning and hold their interest throughout the unit
  • E: Determine what learning experiences will equip students with the necessary knowledge, skills, and understandings so that they will be prepared to meet performance goals
  • R: Provider students with opportunities to rethink big ideas and revise their work
  • E: Build in opportunities for students to monitor and evaluate their progress along the way.
  • T: Tailor the unit to differentiate and personalize the learning plan so that each student works towards an appropriate and achievable challenge
  • O: Organize and sequence the unit's lessons to maximize student engagement and effectiveness

Can you make your learning goals as clear to students as those of a video game?

Creating a Brain-Friendly Classroom Climate

There's really no such thing as a thought that doesn't have an emotion attached to it or that doesn't have an emotion that follows it

Accordingly, students' sense of whether a teacher believes they are capable of successful learning may have an impact on their willingness to put forth effort on subject-matter learning.