What is instructional design? Read our free guide

Everything you need to know to implement instructional design best practices in your e-learning content.

By Inês Pinto

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Question: What do the following scenarios have in common?

  • A primary school teacher giving a lesson about the alphabet to a class of 20 students.
  • A university professor teaching a lecture on molecular biology to 150 students.
  • An HR manager leading an onboarding session for a group of 10 new recruits.
  • A subject matter expert creating an e-learning course about the importance of empathy in sales for a team of five Account Executives.

Answer: instructional design.

This is the philosophy that underlines the processes that all these different instructors follow to deliver their materials to their audience. But what is instructional design? And why is it important in e-learning?

Simply put, instructional design refers to the process of planning, creating, and delivering effective materials to meet a specific learning need.

In this instructional design guide, we will explore the main principles of instructional design, examine the five different instructional design models, and analyze the role of instructional design in e-learning to help you effectively implement instructional design best practices in your e-learning content creation process.

What is instructional design for e-learning?

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By definition, instructional design (or instructional systems design) is the systematic process of creating and delivering learning materials and experiences to learners. At the core of the instructional design process is the learning objective. This learning goal should match the desired outcome for the learner. It is the instructional designer’s job to create and deliver instructional materials and experiences that effectively help the learner achieve the previously set learning goal.

To achieve this, the instructional design process starts with assessing the learners’ needs and understanding how they learn to create the most adequate instructional materials to assist in the learning process. Once these materials are delivered, the outcome of the instructional intervention is evaluated by measuring observable results, such as a change in behavior or improved performance.

The History of Instructional Design

The concept of instructional design dates back as far as the very beginnings of humanity. But modern-day instructional design as we know it today was actually developed during World War II. At this time, the US Air Force faced the need to rapidly train a large number of soldiers to perform many complex technical tasks. To best meet this high learning demand, the military developed a systemic approach to their instruction that focused on observable behaviors. They began by breaking down tasks into subtasks and linking each subtask to a learning objective. Training programs were designed around principles of good instruction and behavioral science to award correct performance and fix mistakes rapidly.

After the war, the success of this training model was replicated in corporate training as well as the classroom. Since then, the field of instructional design has only expanded with new instructional design theories and technologies developing at a rapid pace. Today, there are many instructional design models and strategies that learning professionals can choose from to best meet their learners’ needs.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of these examples to explore the role of instructional design in corporate Learning and Development (L&D) today.

What is an instructional designer?

Instructional designers are an important piece of the instructional design process so it’s important to understand their role.

Simply put, instructional designers are responsible for creating and delivering the learning materials and experiences to the learners. They may work with physical materials, such as manuals and handbooks, or with e-learning technologies and multimedia to create instructional experiences. While instructional designers may work in academic settings (such as elementary and secondary schools, universities, and adult training facilities), in this guide we’ll focus on the role of instructional designers in corporate training.

In the corporate sector, the role of the instructional designer is to systematically collect, process, and analyze data to assess an organization’s learning needs. Once a learning need is identified, instructional designers are typically responsible for developing the necessary training materials and then evaluating the success of the instructional intervention. If an area of the training doesn’t meet the standards initially set by the organization, it’s up to the instructional designer to update the learning content to ensure that employees are able to understand the new topics being taught. This process is key to ensure that organizations are working efficiently and using their resources wisely.

Instructional designers work as part of a team, usually within an organization’s L&D department. Let’s say your L&D department wants to create an e-learning course. An instructional designer will play a part in developing this course, along with a subject matter expert, a learning management system (LMS) specialist and a quality assurance tester. In this team, it’s the role of the e-learning instructional designer to fill in the knowledge gaps and ensure the learning objectives are fulfilled. Instructional designers typically have a more in-depth knowledge of e-learning authoring tools and the organization’s LMS and can use that knowledge to help design and develop engaging e-learning experiences.

Why does instructional design matter in e-learning?

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Online learning is booming in popularity in the corporate world for both informal and formal learning. And while e-learning is increasingly recognized as a convenient way to teach new skills and knowledge, the research is clear: there are key instructional design components that must be present in e-learning content to ensure that it effectively helps the learners achieve specific objectives and outcomes. Without these key components, e-learning is just words on a screen.

The instructional design process is what allows e-learning course creators to correctly identify knowledge or skills gaps and then present the new information in a way that makes sense to the learners. This means e-learning courses become more efficient, resulting in less wasted time for L&D teams and learners alike. And in business, time is money, so good instructional design ultimately has a positive impact on the bottom line. Indeed, there are many benefits of instructional design for online course development:

Instructional design helps understand the learners

Good instructional design begins by understanding that learners are a diverse group, with a variety of needs and characteristics. That’s why the first step of the instructional design process is to analyze the learners in terms of their background knowledge, demographics, time availability for the course, likely study environment, and more. Additionally, instructional designers take into account business and learning objectives. Based on this analysis, the instructional designer will then create the curriculum and identify the best methodologies and strategies to teach the necessary information.

Instructional design makes e-learning more engaging

Since instructional designers take the time to get to know their learners first, once they begin developing e-learning content they’re able to more easily identify the learning activities that are more relevant and appealing to their learners. Based on their analysis and background, instructional designers can then select the most relevant tools and strategies that best suit the learners’ needs in order to create a more interactive learning experience.

Instructional design helps learners retain knowledge

Nowadays, it’s incredibly easy to find new information. Everything is a quick Google search away. But there’s a difference between accessing new information and understanding it in a way that effectively helps you learn something new and apply it on the job. That’s where instructional design comes in. E-learning content that is created by following the principles of good instructional design ultimately helps learners acquire and retain knowledge more efficiently. This is done by applying effective instructional design strategies that cater to learners’ different learning styles and capabilities. We’ll explore this in more detail in a later section.

Instructional design encourages learners to take action

In corporate training, acquiring new knowledge and skills on its own isn’t enough. Employees must be able to understand how this new information can be applied on the job. This is one of the main benefits of instructional design for online course development. Good instructional design will make the overall e-learning experience more inspiring for learners, motivating them to put their knowledge into practice and achieve more than they initially expected.

What are the principles of instructional design?

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We all want to create the best possible learning materials and experiences for our learners. But with so many instructional design strategies and technology available, developing engaging corporate trainings can quickly feel like an overwhelming task.

Fortunately, there is an entire school of thought that backs up the instructional design process and offers insights into how to create effective course materials. Indeed, instructional design is based on three principles of psychology: behavioral, cognitive, and constructive.

Behavioral psychology recommends repetition and reinforcement in the learning material to create or change a behavior in the learner. Cognitive psychology suggests targeting the learner’s different senses to create an engaging learning process. Finally, constructivism focuses on the learner’s own experiences and personal interpretation of the learning materials. To create a solid foundation that delivers on these principles, all e-learning content should:

  • Present the information.
  • Guide the learner to practice the new knowledge.
  • Provide time for independent practice by the learner.
  • Assess how the learner is doing.

Based on this initial framework, different researchers in the field have developed their own instructional design principles and models. These principles help instructional designers identify best practices to effectively create, deliver, and assess learning materials and experiences.

In this section, we’ll focus on the Nine Principles (or Events) of Instruction developed by Robert Gagné, an American educational psychologist. In the 1950s, Gagné identified patterns in how people process new information and proposed his nine-step framework that detailed each element that was necessary for effective learning to take place.

In practice, these instructional design principles can serve as a checklist to help subject matter experts, managers, and trainers to structure their e-learning content. Below, we’ll take a look at what each principle entails and how to implement it in an online corporate learning environment.

Principle 1: Gain attention

Effective learning starts even before the learning material is presented. At this stage, the most important factor is to gain the learners’ attention. This ensures they are motivated to learn and to participate in the learning activities. The point here is to stimulate learners with novelty, uncertainty, and surprise in order to get them interested and invested in the training.

Principle 2: Inform learners of the objectives

Once you’ve captured your learners’ attention, it’s time to set their expectations for the course. What is the value employees can gain from this course? What new skill will they learn? What new task will they be able to perform once they’ve completed your training? These are some of the questions you should be able to answer so that your learners know what they will accomplish during the session and how they will be able to use their new knowledge in the future.

Principle 3: Stimulate recall of prior learning

We learn new information more effectively if we’re able to connect it with information that we already have. Thus, at this stage it’s important to identify prior learnings that are relevant to the training and link them with the topic at hand to help learners make sense of the new information they’ll be receiving.

Principle 4: Present new content

When presenting new information to the learners, make sure to utilize the learning strategies that provide the most effective and efficient instruction results. Examples of instructional design strategies for e-learning include guided learning, simulations, and gamification. We’ll take a look at these in more detail in a later section.

Principle 5: Provide learning guidance

Once you’ve presented the new information, it’s important to help employees learn how to learn. Advise learners on different learning strategies and inform them about the resources available to them. Provide support by offering helpful hints and give coaching advice as needed.

Principle 6: Elicit performance

Let employees practice their newly acquired skill, behavior, or knowledge to activate the learning process. Provide activities that allow the leaners to internalize the new information and ensure the correct understanding and application of the concepts they’ve learned.

Principle 7: Provide feedback

For effective learning to take place, feedback must be provided in a timely way. Assess the learners’ performance in the moment and emphasize any important points. By providing feedback, you’ll be able to reinforce correct answers, give guidance on the degree of correctness of the task that was performed, and fix any incorrect behavior or response. This ensures learners are able to identify gaps in understanding before it’s too late.

Principle 8: Assess learning performance

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of your corporate training materials, administer a test to the learners. This will help you conclude if the learning outcomes you set initially have been achieved. For best results, conduct a pre- and post-training test to check on your learners’ progression of competency in the new information or skills. Additionally, make sure to embed assessment opportunities throughout the training using quizzes or short active learning activities.

Principle 9: Enhance retention and transfer of knowledge

Once the training is complete, it’s important to provide resources that improve knowledge retention and transfer for your learners. This means creating or offering access to materials to ensure that your learners can easily remember the new knowledge they’ve acquired during the training and effectively implement it in the workplace.

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What are the 4 models of instructional design?

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An instructional design model is what defines the activities that will guide the development of your online training projects. It sets the framework that will impact and inform your strategies in your e-learning project. With this framework, you’ll be able to get a wide overview of all the important components that have to be included in your e-learning course.

Gagné’s nine instructional design principles offer a solid foundation to develop any type of online training content. But this framework is just one out of many different types of instructional design models. In this section, we’ll take a look at the main examples of instructional design models to help you understand which one is right for your e-learning needs.

Gagné’s Nine Events of Learning

As we’ve discussed, Gagné’s Nine Events (or Principles) of Learning are based on a behaviorist approach to learning. The nine events follow a systematic instructional design process with a sequence of steps that can be easily adapted to different learning situations.

Today, this is one of the most used instructional design models as it provides a solid foundation for developing effective e-learning materials.

ADDIE Model of Instructional Design

As one of the first models of instructional design, ADDIE has been the subject of much debate in recent years over its effectiveness and appropriateness for meeting the current needs of learners. Nonetheless, the model is still one of the most popular in the industry and is largely considered the unspoken standard for developing e-learning experiences today.

ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. In this instructional design model, each phase has an outcome that feeds into the next phase.

  1. Analysis: The first step of the model consists of collecting information to learn more about the learners’ and the organization’s needs and expectations. This analysis will help the instructional designer understand why the training is needed and drive the design and development process.
  2. Design: Once the analysis is complete, the instructional designer will select a learning strategy (more on this later), define the learning objectives, create the storyboard, and select the appropriate delivery methods.
  3. Development: During the development phase, the instructional designer develops the course materials and incorporates them into the design.
  4. Implementation: The e-learning content is released and delivered to the learners. During this phase, it’s important to continuously monitor the impact of the e-learning content.
  5. Evaluation: In the final step of the ADDIE model, the instructional designer evaluates the impact of the course based on learner feedback, surveys, and course analytics.

In the end, the results from the evaluation are converted into actionable improvements and the whole ADDIE process is repeated.

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI)

Developed by education researcher David Merrill in 2002, MPI is a pioneer when it comes to instructional design models. This model is centered around five principles of learning that help learners extract the maximum amount of knowledge from a course:

  • Task-centered principle: The first principle is that learners should relate to the problems and tasks they can handle. Learning always begins with real-world problems.
  • Activation principle: For effective learning to take place, a course must active existing knowledge in learners and help them connect previous knowledge with the new one.
  • Demonstration principle: The new information must be presented using various methods (text, audio, video, and more). This leverages different parts of the learner’s brain, thus helping them assimilate knowledge more efficiently.
  • Application principle: Learners should be encouraged to apply the acquired knowledge themselves. When allowed to practice on their own, learners will also gain the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
  • Integration principle: The final principle is that the learning content must offer students opportunities to integrate the newly acquired knowledge into their real world through discussion, reflection and/or presentation of the new knowledge.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Less popular than the other examples of instructional design models but still relevant in terms of instructional design for e-learning is Bloom’s Taxonomy. This model was initially developed by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1956. At this time, Bloom created a classification system made up of measurable verbs that organize the different levels of cognitive learning: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

Later, in 2001, these six categories were modified by Anderson and Krathwol and are now known as the “Revised Taxonomy”:

  • Remembering: Learners are able to demonstrate memory of previous knowledge by recalling relevant facts, concepts, and terms.
  • Understanding: Learners exhibit an understanding of the new information by organizing, comparing, interpreting, and stating the main ideas.
  • Applying: Learners are able to solve problems in new situations by applying the acquired knowledge.
  • Analyzing: Learners can examine the new information and break it into parts, making inferences and finding evidence to support their point of view.
  • Evaluation: Learners are able to present their opinions by making judgements about information or quality of the work based on a set of criteria.
  • Creating: Learners can put information together in a new way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.

What is Agile instructional design methodology?

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Agile instructional design refers to an approach to learning content development that focuses on speed, flexibility, and collaboration. The term “Agile” actually originated in the software development industry but has been quickly spreading to fields due to its flexible approach to project development. In the e-learning industry, the principles of the Agile philosophy bring many advantages to the content creation process. But what exactly is an Agile instructional design methodology and how does it work?

Developed by performance-support practitioner Conrad Gottfredson, the Agile instructional design method is a project-oriented approach to e-learning design that encompasses five stages: Align, Get set, Iterate and implement, Leverage, and Evaluate. Each of these phases is linked to a specific task or outcome that must be completed before moving on to the next one:

  • Align: Define the objective and set goals.
  • Get set: Create a plan for how the process should develop.
  • Iterate and implement: Implement the project to reach the set goals and objectives by following through with the plan.
  • Leverage: After implementation, take in all the data.
  • Evaluate: Analyze the data from implementation and feed that information into the project to improve every cycle of the project.

According to Gottfredson, this methodology helps organizations become more “agile”, nimble, and adaptive to better meet their learning needs. Corporations are always looking for faster and more efficient ways to train their employees and improve performance support. The Agile instructional design methodology provides an iterative process that uses collaboration, feedback, and iterations (or “sprints”) to streamline the e-learning development process. But what does the Agile method of instructional design look like in practice?

Agile instructional design process

We’ve already established that the Agile methodology refers to a project-oriented approach. But this methodology can be hard to conceptualize as its flexible nature can make the model feel too vague. However, when we break the model down into its different steps the process becomes clearer:

  1. Every project begins with a meeting between all relevant stakeholders which can include e-learning professionals, e-learning content creators, subject matter experts, team leads, and managers, to name a few. This is when the brainstorming begins and a plan is laid out for how the e-learning content development process will take place. At this stage, it is also important to define the objectives of the e-learning course as well as any other non-negotiables.
  2. After this initial meeting, development of the e-learning content begins. Agile projects work in small bursts or “sprints” which typically last between one and three weeks. The e-learning team will work rapidly on a specific segment of the e-learning content before it is sent out for feedback and testing.
  3. Once all the issues have been identified and addressed with the completed segment, the e-learning team repeats the process for each section of the e-learning course. This ensures every segment of the e-learning content is fully developed before moving on to the next module or unit.
  4. Once all sections of the e-learning content have been through this process, the e-learning team brings the project together into a rough whole that is once again sent out for feedback. This Alpha build of the course is then tested and updated until all issues have been addressed, bringing the e-learning course into the Beta stage.
  5. In a final stage, the course is further refined until all stakeholders are confident that the project goals have been achieved and the e-learning course is launched.

ADDIE vs Agile instructional design methodology

The ADDIE and Agile methodologies are two frameworks that are often leveraged by L&D teams to guide them through an e-learning development project. The philosophies behind these methodologies share many similarities: they both include analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation as part of their processes. But what are the differences between ADDIE and Agile methodologies? We’ve found these two models differ in four main elements:

Structure

Despite sharing very similar phases in the e-learning content development process, the way each method chooses to structure their process is quite different. ADDIE follows a waterfall-like approach, organizing each step into a sequential structure. This means each phase must be fully completed in order to feed into the next one. For example, in the analysis phase of the ADDIE model, all the business requirements (such as learners’ needs, cost estimates, schedules, etc.) must be defined prior to moving on to the next phase. In contrast, in the Agile methodology, the five stages work together incrementally in short iterations or “sprints”.

Flexibility

The Agile methodology gets its name for a reason: due to its more dynamic structure, e-learning teams that follow this model become more flexible and can adapt more easily to changes in content, business updates, and shifting directions from stakeholders. The ADDIE model, on the other hand, emphasizes a linear method that becomes more rigid in the face of a dynamic business setting.

Collaboration

While collaboration is a key element in both the ADDIE and Agile methodologies, the way it takes place in each e-learning development process is quite different. In the ADDIE model of instructional design, e-learning teams collaborate routinely during each phase of the project. But, for the most part, this team is given the freedom to establish a collaborative relationship on their own terms. In an Agile methodology, there are daily meetings (also called “daily stand-ups”) built into the model. These meetings are a space for stakeholders and e-learning teams to discuss accomplishments from the previous day, priorities for the current day, and any outstanding issues blocking progress. Additionally, while in the ADDIE model the evaluation of the e-learning content is saved for the final phase – Evaluation – in the Agile methodology this assessment is continuous as the e-learning team works in short iterations or “sprints”.

Transparency

Due to its continuous collaboration, feedback, and assessment loop, the Agile methodology requires a greater degree of transparency than the sequential structure in ADDIE. E-learning teams working in an Agile model are constantly meeting with stakeholders and submitting e-learning content for evaluation on a regular basis (i.e. at the end of every “sprint”). Transparency is even more important in this process to ensure that all issues are addressed before further work is done on the project.

Instructional design strategies for e-learning

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A strategy is a long-term, high-level plan that clearly outlines the steps needed to accomplish a goal through the efficient use of available resources. But what does this mean in e-learning?

Before we explore the different instructional design strategies, it’s important to clearly define the difference between instructional design models and strategies. While the two concepts are intrinsically linked, they are not interchangeable. Instructional design models (or methodologies) can be seen as the general guidelines. They offer a framework to guide the e-learning content design and development process. Instructional design strategies, on the other hand, are the tools that instructional designers use to develop the course in a way that maximizes the learning of the topic at hand.

In online learning, effective instructional design strategies are particularly necessary to overcome the main challenges of the digital learning environment:

  • They make up for the lack of a physical instructor. In online learning, the instructor is not face-to-face with the learners to gauge their level of involvement and response to the learning content. Choosing the right instructional design strategy will help facilitate this same experience in an online learning environment.
  • Instructional design strategies help make the online learning applicable. Many organizations use online learning as a way to train employees on skills that must be applied on the job. A robust instructional design strategy will ensure the learning content is practical and ready to be applied by the employees.
  • Learning strategies help learners better use the online instructional environment and resources more effectively. When learning takes place digitally, instructors become facilitators of learning and the responsibility for the learning lies with the learners themselves. This means an effective strategy must be in place to ensure the learners know how to make the best use of the online resources they have access to.

There are six main instructional design strategies for e-learning that e-learning developers can choose from: storytelling, guided learning, scenario-based learning, learning through exploration and discovery, simulations, and gamification. To choose the best instructional design strategy, the instructional designer must first set up clear learning goals, determine the actions that need to be taken to meet these goals, and take stock of the available resources, techniques, and devices.

Storytelling

One of the most common instructional design strategies for e-learning, storytelling aims to connect with learners on an emotional level to build empathy and spark interest in even the most mundane training subjects. Some examples of storytelling in e-learning include case studies and comic strips.

Guided learning

This learning strategy uses a coach or mentor who can be a senior professional, a manager, or anyone that the learners can relate to in the job context. In guided learning, this coach/mentor acts as a virtual instructor and guides the learners through the e-learning course.

Scenario-based learning

Scenario-based e-learning provides simulated job-related situations where learners must assess a situation and make the best decision to solve the problem with the information they have at hand. This is a useful strategy to implement when trying to teach a topic where there are no right or wrong actions or when you want to bring about a change in learners’ behaviors. For example, soft skills and compliance trainings can benefit from this strategy.

Simulations

If scenarios offer a context that is similar to a job environment, simulations mimic job situations in a virtual context. This helps learners acquire hands-on experience in a risk-free environment. For this reason, simulations are a useful learning strategy to apply in software training.

Learning through exploration and discovery (LEAD)

This approach gives learners the freedom to explore e-learning content at their own pace. In this strategy, all the learning content is laid out on a “map” and learners can choose which courses to take and when to take them. An image or icon is used to let learners know how they’re progressing on their learning journey. When conducting onboarding training, this strategy is especially useful as learners get access to all the learning content at once and can take their time to choose their own learning path.

Gamification

In a more recent trend, gamification has become a popular tool of edutainment where fun and learning come together to create a more engaging learning experience. This strategy involves using game-like elements (such as points, rewards, and timers) to increase learner engagement.

Implement instructional design best practices with Easygenerator

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There are a variety of instructional design tools that can help you implement instructional design best practices during the different stages of the content development process. These include survey tools for analyzing your organization’s learning needs, mind mapping tools for planning your content, video and graphics tools for creating multimedia resources, and project management software for keeping track of your overall corporate training efforts.

The primary instructional design tool you’ll need, however, is an authoring tool. This type of software is what enables you to develop engaging and interactive e-learning courses from scratch, or even turn existing training materials into e-learning content.

And with so many authoring tools in the market, it’s never been more important to ensure you choose the right one for your organization. Some authoring tools cater specifically to instructional designers to make the most of their extensive background in learning content development. Authoring tools for instructional designers are typically more complex in nature, offering advanced functionality and features.

But you don’t need to be an instructional designer to create learning content that effectively meets your organization’s learning needs. At Easygenerator, we believe organizational knowledge lies in the people in the business. So, we work to empower subject matter experts to create and share their own learning content in an easy and cost-effective way. That’s why we’ve created a zero-learning curve authoring platform that anyone can use to create effective and engaging e-learning content – no instructional design background needed.

With Easygenerator, you can create your e-learning course from scratch or use one of our course templates to help you get started. Our e-learning authoring tool enables anyone, from e-learning professionals to subject-matter experts, to create content, track results, and collaborate in real-time. Plus, you can count on our team to support you during the entire course creation process. Whether it’s through live chat or personal training sessions, we’re on your side so you can create quality courses in no time.

About the author

Inês Pinto is the content manager at Easygenerator. Originally from Portugal, she grew up in Canada and the US before returning to Europe to complete her university studies. She currently resides in Rotterdam with her daughter, husband, and two dogs.

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