Big ideas and course design


“A big idea must have pedagogical power: It must enable the learner to make sense of what has come before; and, most notably, be helpful in making new, unfamiliar ideas seem more familiar….a big idea is not just another fact or a vague abstraction but a conceptual tool for sharpening thinking, connecting discrepant pieces of knowledge, and equipping learners for transferable applications.”

(Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.70)


Below are some notes on the concept of “Big Ideas,” as presented in Understanding by Design. This information is part of the Course Design Intensive, a 3-day workshop for university instructors seeking to design or re-design a course.

Big ideas are at the core of a subject/field. They are often abstract, non-obvious, and counterintuitive to the novice (Note 1). Big ideas are essential for making coherent connections in a field and are a conceptual anchor that makes facts more understandable and useful (p.80).

A big idea can manifest in various formats (phrase, words, question etc). In pedagogical practice, a big idea may appear as a helpful:

  • concept (e.g. adaptation, perspective)
  • theme (e.g. “coming of age”)
  • on-going debate and point of view (e.g. nature versus nurture, conservatives vs liberals)
  • paradox (e.g. freedom must have limits)
  • theory (e.g. evolution vs natural selection, social constructivism)
  • underlying assumption (e.g. markets are rational)
  • recurring question (e.g. “Can we provide it?” “Is that fair?”) 
  • understanding or principles (e.g. correlation does not ensure causality, the reader has to question the text to understand it)  (p.70)

From the above examples, we can see that big ideas are:

  • broad and abstract
  • represented by few words
  • universal in application
  • timeless (p.69)

In summary, a big idea:

  • provides a conceptual lens
  • provides breadth of meaning by connecting and organizing many facts, skills and experiences
  • points to ideas that are at the heart of expert understanding of the subject/field
  • requires “uncoverage” because its meaning or value is rarely obvious to learner
  • applies to many other inquiries and issues over time (great transfer value) (p.69)



Note 1: Wiggins & McTighe distinguish big ideas from basic ideas. The latter, they write, are “the basis for further work; for example, definitions, building-block skills, and rules of thumb.” (p.67).

Basic term Core idea
Graph “Best fit” curve of the data
Ecosystem Natural selection
Fact versus opinion Credible thesis


Photo credit: Stephanie Carter, “dandelion” https ://

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