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.


Accessibility Considerations for Instructional Design



Accessibility ImagesI attended a webinar today on Digital Accessibility and got a lot to think about. Accessibility is both a legal issue, in that it is required by law, and a moral issue, in that it is the right thing to do. Accessibility issues have evolved as the awareness of disabilities has become more universal. In the early days, accessibility referred mostly to physical disabilities and was handled with things like wheelchairs and elevators. Now, in education, disabilities are more likely to mean learning disabilities that need to be addressed. The good news is that more and more, students with disabilities in K12 are being recognized and are having their needs met. This allows them to move on to higher education, where the need to address accessibility is become more important than ever.

In this era of digital access, there are more tools than ever that are available to help students of all ability levels succeed. Several key tools that should be the considered for all courses include adding captions or having transcripts for videos, providing audio versions of written materials, and having alternative ways to communicate if you are using pictures, graphics, and/or charts. Website/course design should also be an important consideration – the LMS capabilities that are available should be taken advantage of.

Many accessibility issues arise because it is not taken into consideration when a course is being designed, but rather, when an instructor is made aware that a student with a disability will be taking their course. While adjusting a course to be more accommodating when notified of a student with a disability is preferable to doing nothing, taking accessibility into consideration from the outset is preferable, easier in the long run, and more beneficial to all students. As an example, I had a hearing impaired student enroll in my CSC175 course last semester. This required me to go back and ensure that all of my videos had captions. For videos that I was using that were created by someone else, the Disabilities Services office helped, but I have a lot of content that I created myself, and since I was planning to edit the videos, I also went ahead and captioned them. I found that many of my students actually preferred watching the videos with the captions to the uncaptioned videos, for whatever reason. Keeping that in mind, I will be captioning any videos that I create in the future. This adds a little bit of time in the creation of the content, but will better serve the students in the long run.

If you are wanting to redesign your course with accessibility in mind, the Universal Design for Learning model is a good one to follow (there will be a blog post on that soon). In the meantime, below is a list of design choices that can increase accessibility to your course content (this list was given in the webinar, and I am sharing it here.):

  • Caption your videos
  • Offer choices for assignment submissions
  • Allow students to revise and resubmit work
  • Reduce the cost of course materials
  • Offer the course online

All of these suggestions address different accessibility needs and could be taken into consideration in your course design work. If you are looking for ways to make your material more accessible in Canvas, they actually provide a list of General Accessibility Design  Guidelines and how to implement them. This is everything from ensuring that you have meaningful alt text descriptions of images for screen readers to page design and using headings. If you are interested in learning more about Accessibility and Canvas, they actually have an Accessibility Group where instructors help each other with accessibility issues that they have run into.

All in all, taking accessibility into consideration as part of your course design can benefit all students, not just student with known disabilities. Everyone learns differently, and having alternatives makes it easier to meet the student where they are.

Asynchronous discussion forums as a teaching tool


When done correctly, asynchronous discussion forums can be a wonderful tool for enhancing learning, generating community, and engaging the student, however if careful thought and planning is not put into the way this tool is used, it can degenerate into busywork for the student and a time sink for the teacher. The design of the question used is critical when setting up an asynchronous discussion forum (ADF). The desired learning outcomes of the assignment must be taken into consideration as well as the format that the question will take.

Studies have shown that problem solving or debate types of questions tend to generate higher level thinking in the responses of the students. Another possible option is to let the student ask the question instead of having the instructor provide one. For this approach to be successful the students should be provided with strong guidelines as to how to set up their question, and an examples of they types of questions expected should be given.

Other things that can be taken into consideration when using discussion forums in an online class include:

  • It must be graded if it is to be taken seriously by the students.
  • Breaking the class into smaller groups for discussion can prevent the forum from becoming overwhelming.
  • Giving an example of what a “quality” forum post and response looks like can help the students to better understand what is expected of them.
  • Providing a rubric for grading can also help the students ensure that their post meets the required standards as well as helping the teacher determine how to grade the post. (Solan and Linardopoulos give a sample rubric in the appendix of their article “Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a grading Rubric for Online Discussions” that would be useful for many courses)
  • If the learning management system allows for it, allowing or requiring the students to make audio posts can result in a more conversational discussion. The teacher could require to student to provide an written outline of their primary post to assist students in crafting a reply without having to listen to the post multiple times.

In their article “A Journey on Refining Rules for Online Discussion,”  Chen, Wang, and Hung (2009) investigated many of the common rules to determine their effectiveness and determined that while some make sense, others actually have a negative impact on the quality of forum responses. Two areas where they suggested improvements could be made are:

  1. Students are required to respond to other students’ posts, but instead of requiring a specific number of responses, they are required to respond to any post that responds to something that they posted. This results in a better back and forth in the forum.
  2. If a student can’t think of anything to add to the discussion, they have the option of summarizing what has been posted up to that point. This results in a synthesis of ideas that isn’t always present in forums.

Finally, instructor involvement can play an important part in the success of an online discussion forum. The teacher should monitor the forums and get involved when necessary to keep the discussion going and get it back on track. However, it is important that the instructor not micro-manage the forum, but let the students take the conversation where their interests are – the exchange of ideas being one of the main benefits of a discussion forum.

In the video “Asynchronous Discussion in Online Courses,” Dr. Alisa Cooper demonstrates how she uses discussion forums in her online English courses. She makes several good recommendations in this video including using screen-casting to give the students feedback on their posts, letting the students pick the question that they want to answer, and including a Q&A forum where the students can ask questions and get responses from the instructor.

I have struggled with the successful implementation of of discussion forums in my online course, so when I was required to do a literature review paper last semester I chose ADFs as my topic. Much of what I have discussed in this blog post was learned in the process of writing that paper. Sources mentioned directly are cited below. All sources used as well as more details on using ADFs as a learning tool can be found in my paper “The Use of Asynchronous Discussion Forums as a Learning Tool in the Online Classroom.” Based on what I learned in that research, I have changed my approach to discussion forums in my online course. Instead of the traditional linear forums, I am using padlet, which works more like a bulletin board. Below is a screenshot of one of the forums that I am using in my Information Technology course this semester. We haven’t done a discussion yet this semester, but I am optimistic that this will generate a better response from my students.

Photo Manipulation Discussion Board


Chen, D., Wang, Y., & Hung, D. (2009). A journey on refining rules for online discussion: Implications for the design of learning management systems.  Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 20(2), 157-173.

Solan A, & Linardopoulos, N. (2011). Development, implementation, and evaluation of a grading rubric for online discussion. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4), 452.

Cooper, Alisa [soul4real]. (2013, March 6). Asynchronous Discussion in Online Courses. [Video files]. Retrieved from