Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2022


Understanding by design, learning outcomes, writing


In this essay, I ask how Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe) functions in planning skill-based composition classes. I inspect how the first step of Wiggins and McTighe’s approach to course design, establishing desired learning outcomes prior to meeting the students, makes generalizing and limiting assumptions about a heterogenous group of students. I complicate Understanding by Design with Willie James Jennings’ notion of “forced affection,” positing that predetermined learning outcomes hinder students in their unique expression of ideas and identity. I close by suggesting inventing “big ideas” for writing classes which students then fill with meaning themselves, resulting in a distribution of affection.

The 2022 Writing Instructor Support Retreat introduced Western Washington University (WWU) writing teachers to a variety of approaches for teaching writing in a way that strives for social justice and recognizes the heterogeneity of writing students. One of the methods that the facilitators presented was “Understanding by Design” (UBD), an approach to help intentionally design desired learning goals, assignments, and in-class activities for any college-level class. One of the first steps of UBD is to determine learning outcomes for a course. Determining learning outcomes in preparation for the course seems plausible to me in content-heavy and textbook-led classes, where the content, which students need to be familiar with by the end of the class, is specific and tangible. To what extent are predetermined learning outcomes useful in skill-based writing classes? What assumptions do learning outcomes make about students and their writing? What might alternative approaches to pre-established learning outcomes look like in skill-based classes?

In this essay, I explore the mechanisms of UBD and the problematic aspects that accompany determining learning outcomes in writing classes. I complicate UBD with Willie James Jennings’ notion of “forced affection” before closing with suggestions of how to responsibly apply UBD’s learning outcomes to writing classes in a way that distributes affection. I connect my findings to English 201, a writing class I’m currently designing.


WIS Summer Retreat

Subjects - Topical (LCSH)

Teaching; Lesson planning; Curriculum planning; Curriculum-based assessment; Academic achievement






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