Perkins and Unger's Teaching and Learning for Understanding (TfU)

When to use it?
TfU is suitable guide to organizing learning in any situation where understanding is a priority.

TfU provides the guidelines about what generative topics will best support learners' construction of their understanding, about how to identify and develop suitable goals of understanding, about how to arrange a sequence to refine and advance understanding performance, and about what evaluation mechanism should be used to support assessment of understanding.

How to use it?
The key elements in the design instruction for understanding:

  1. Generative Topics:
    Topics should be presented to help to generate students' construction of the understanding. Four basic attributes serve criteria for generative topics:

The topic selection emphasizes the relevance to the discipline as well as to the learners, the authenticity of the topics, and the complexity of the topics.

  1. Understanding Goals: What is it that learners should strive to understand the generative topic? The descriptions of the goal should be explicit and public, the goals should be nested to include multiple themes, and the focus of the goals should cover the content knowledge, methods, purposes and forms of expression in the domain.
  2. Understanding Performances: a sequence of performance should allow learners ready entry to the topic, advance their understanding and bring them to a contextually appropriate level of understanding. Learners should be provided with opportunities to explore and to manipulate the physical objects; then it comes to a phase, in which the learners should be exposed to a guided inquiry to systematically engage in understanding the topics; finally, the learners should carry out a culminating performance to demonstrate their understanding.

Also, the understanding performances should meet the following criteria:

  1. Ongoing Assessment
    Ongoing assessment recognizes the importance of feedback in learning. Instead of end-unit assessment, TfU proposed that the teachers should develop ongoing assessment early and often in the learning process to give students informative feedback. Students are assessed on the sequential understanding performances instead of separate tests. Multiple sources of feedback are encouraged, e.g. peer evaluation. The planning of the ongoing assessment needs to consider who should give feedback and when as well as the sufficient time for feedback and follow-up rethinking.

Ongoing assessment should be part of the learning experience and meet the following standards:

Perkins and Unger (1999) suggested to ask four major questions in planning:

  1. What do you really want your students to understand?
  2. What can you do to help them build those understandings?
  3. What actions can they take to help themselves to build their own understandings?
  4. How will we, and they, know that they understand?

Research on TfU:

Purposes of the research:

What other instructional-design theories are discussed?

The instructional theories discussed in this knowledge base are classified as follows based on the different theoretical foundations about learning.


Perkins, D. N., & Unger, C. (1999). Teaching and learning for understanding. In C. M. Reigeluth, (Ed), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Volume II. pp,91-114. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.