Clearer than MUD – a Mashup of Merrill’s First Principles and Understanding by Design


When I first started reading about different instructional design models, I was instantly attracted to Understanding by Design. The “begin with the end in mind” philosophy makes a lot sense. If you have a strong sense of what you want your students to know at the end of the course, it is a lot easier to figure out what you need to teach them in order to make sure that they know it. I also found Merrill’s First Principles to be very helpful in figuring out the best way to get students to learn regardless of what is being taught. Combining these two approaches to instructional design has the potential to make an even stronger and more effective way of planning courses that will teach and engage students.

Below is a piktochart I created that illustrates what a blend of these to ID models would look like:


What and Why?

As you can see, the first step in the process is to figure out what you want the students to learn and help them to understand how it relates – to the rest of the course and to life in general, if possible. Students learn better if they can connect what they are learning to “real life” and can see how it is relevant. Giving them ownership of the big picture, not just the pieces of the puzzle can be very motivating. If the instructional designer has a list of what the students should know and what they should be able to do as the starting point for their planning, they are much more likely to design a course that is engaging and successful.

 How Will We Know?

Once you have figured out the “what and why,” the next step is to figure how to know if the students have learned what they were supposed. Having a solid grasp of how you will determine if understanding happened can help you to figure out how to teach the material. It is important that the students be able to apply what they have learned to solve problems – not just regurgitate facts.  You want them to be able to take what they learn to the next level. Some of the ways that you can do this is to ensure that the problems that you give for practice and assessment match the desired outcome. If you are wanting students to be able to recall specific material, then you should make sure that the assignments include practicing recall. This is true regardless of what you want the outcome to be. In addition to recall, it could be locating parts, identifying examples, or solving problems. Another way that you can know that your students are progressing is that they should require less coaching from you. When you first introduce a new problem, the students may need a lot of help to solve the problems that you give them, as they begin to grasp the material, they will be able to solve more complex problems with less input. Finally, students should be able to transfer the knowledge so that they can solve different kinds of problems using the material that they learn. This is the difference between “knowing” and “understanding” that Understanding by Design strives to achieve.

How Will We Get There?

Finally, when you know what you want the students to learn, and how you will know if they have learned it, it is time to start figuring out the best way to help the students learn. Combining the concepts of UbD and Merrill’s can lead to an effective and efficient way of planning lessons.  Here is a list of things that can help the students learn:

  1. Give them an understanding the big picture – teaching the students how the content fits together will help motivate them to learn all of the parts.
  2. Build on what they already know – by gaining a feel for what the students already know, the teacher can use that as a foundation and organizational tool for future learning.
  3. Show the students – don’t tell them – use examples and non-examples, demonstrations, and visualizations in your teaching to help the students make connections. Use alternative methods of demonstrating concepts to make sure that you can connect with all learners.
  4. Give the students time to reflect on, revise, and critique what they have done – evaluating and review their own work can help the students to see what they might have missed or to realize that they have expanded their understanding. Taking time to ponder and revisit  can also help reinforce learning.
  5. Help them to organize what they are learning – a disorganized student is a distracted student, learning how to organize materials can be as important as learning the materials. It makes it easier to find information when you are reviewing or solving problems.
  6. Let them get creative – everyone is different, therefore letting the student apply what they have learned in a way that makes sense to them is going to be more effective and reinforcing that learning for the student.


As you can see, these two Instructional Design models are very complementary. By combining the strengths of both, you can use them to come up with lesson plans that have a high likelihood of engaging your students, and of having students who don’t just know the material, but actually understand it and can apply it. Use this process and your lessons will be clearer than MUD. J


Hawker Brownlow Education. (2013, July 17). What is Understanding by Design? Author Jay McTighe explains [Video file]. Retrieved from

Merrill, M. (2002). First Principles Of Instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2003). Overview of UbD & the design template. In Understanding by Design. ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Chapters 1 and 3. In Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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