Documentation:Course Design Intensive/Facilitators Guidebook/Big Ideas

From UBC Wiki

What are Big Ideas?

Big ideas are at the core of the subject or discipline. They are powerful ideas that promote insight and meaning-making and can serve as organizers for novice learners because they offer a structure for making connections. They point to the ideas at the heart of expert understanding of a subject. Most importantly, they are "conceptual tools for sharpening thinking, connecting discrepant pieces of knowledge, and equipping learners for transferable applications." (p. 70) [1]

Big ideas are most useful when they are sufficiently broad to require "uncovering" and "inquiry" by the learner. Since they are abstract and serve as "guiding conjectures" in a discipline, they are subject to refinement and iteration as we learn more. [2] This implies that we need to incorporate many opportunities for students to question big ideas as they work. They are not learning outcomes in and of themselves though they may form a basis from which learning outcomes are derived. Big ideas articulate the enduring understandings that you hope learners will retain and revisit long after the course is over.

One example is "we are all part of a food chain of living and non-living things". It links diverse animals and plant matter into an ecosystem of energy. It is an organizing principle. Newton's laws of motion are big ideas, on a grand scale.

Course Examples

Here is an example of a course overview highlighting the big idea that is core to understanding in the course:

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Mark Sample's course overview: Hacking Remixing Design (Davidson College)

Other course based examples:


Big ideas represent understandings that are arrived at (or uncovered) over time through inquiry. They typically contain these elements (Wiggins and McTighe, p. 69):

  • Enduring value beyond the course. Learners will remember long after the course ends.
  • Core to the discipline and revisited over time.
  • Require “uncoverage.” Bringing to light the subtle, non-obvious, misunderstood, problematic, controversial aspects of a concept.
  • Engage inquiry.
  • Have great transfer value; applying to other inquiries across disciplines or subjects over time
  • Represented by different examples that share common attributes.

In their book, Understanding by Design, Wiggins & McTighe suggest that (in practice), big ideas often manifest themselves as a helpful:

  • Concept (ie. adaptation, function, perspective)
  • Theme (ie. good triumphs over evil, coming of age, identity, etc)
  • Ongoing debate or point of view (ie. acceptable margin or error, nature vs. nurture)
  • Paradox (ie. the limits of freedom, etc.)
  • Theory/Laws (ie. Newtons Laws of Nature)
  • Underlying assumptions (course design influences learning and vice versa)
  • Understanding or principle (form follows function)

Learners uncover understanding through questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, experiments and explanations, etc.


  • The present and the past are in ongoing conversation."
  • Life on earth depends on, is shaped by and affects climate.
  • Human beings are image driven thinkers.
  • Pattern recognition enables prediction.
  • Correlation does not equal causality.
  • Silence conveys meaning.
  • The diversity of life is the result of ongoing evolutionary change.
  • Form follows function.
  • Scientific ideas evolve as new understandings are developed.
  • Storytelling preserves culture.
  • Methods influence outcomes.
  • Data is everywhere.

Tips for Uncovering Your Big Ideas

Ask yourself one or more of the following questions as you consider the intention of your course [3]:

  • Why study ....? Why should we care about...?
  • What makes the study of ..."universal"?
  • If this course was a story, what's the moral of the story?
  • What's the big idea underneath the skill or process of...?
  • What larger issue, problem or concept underlies...?
  • What couldn't we do if we didn't understand...?
  • How is ... used and applied in the world?
  • How would we be changed if we understood...?


  1. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.
  2. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.
  3. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA. (p. 74)

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