Instructional design

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  • “Instructional Design is that branch of knowledge concerned with research and theory about instructional strategies and the process for developing and implementing those strategies.” Sara McNeil.
  • Systematic integration from general learning principles into learning material (Siemens 2002)
  • “Instructional Design is the art and science of creating an instructional environment and materials that will bring the learner from the state of not being able to accomplish certain tasks to the state of being able to accomplish those tasks. Instructional Design is based on theoretical and practical research in the areas of cognition, educational psychology, and problem solving.” [1].

This article provides a short overview and points to more specialized articles.

What is Instructional Design Theory ?

According to Reigeluth (1999: 6-7) a "grand old man" in this field, Instructional Design-Theory is:

  1. design-oriented (focusing on means to attain given goals for learning or development) and
  2. identifies methods of instruction (ways to support and facilitate learning) and the situation in which these methods should and should not be used.
  3. Methods of instruction can be broken down into more detailed component methods
  4. Methods are probabilistic, rather than deterministic...

Sara McNeil defines the Instructional design from four different perspectives:

  • Instructional Design as a Process: Instructional Design is the systematic development of instructional specifications using learning and instructional theory to ensure the quality of instruction. It is the entire process of analysis of learning needs and goals and the development of a delivery system to meet those needs. It includes development of instructional materials and activities; and tryout and evaluation of all instruction and learner activities.
  • Instructional Design as a Discipline: Instructional Design is that branch of knowledge concerned with research and theory about instructional strategies and the process for developing and implementing those strategies.
  • Instructional Design as a Science: Instructional Design is the science of creating detailed specifications for the development, implementation, evaluation, and maintenance of situations that facilitate the learning of both large and small units of subject matter at all levels of complexity.
  • Instructional Design as Reality: Instructional Design can start at any point in the design process. Often a glimmer of an idea is developed to give the core of an instruction situation. By the time the entire process is done the designer looks back and she or he checks to see that all parts of the "science" have been taken into account. Then the entire process is written up as if it occurred in a systematic fashion.


Some trace the emergence of instructional design back to WW II when in the USA the need arose to train quickly and efficiently thousands of new recruits. According to the hypertext history in instructional design (retrieved 00:27, 15 August 2007 (MEST)) it was also during this period that the term "instructional technologist" was coined. However, one usually traces back the conceptual foundations of instructional design to behaviorist theorists like Thorndike and Watson, and later Pressey and Skinner. In other words, the birth of instructional design is strongly related on one hand to the emergence of empirical research in psychology and education and on the other to specific needs of the system.

Theoretical Foundations and related fields

Firstly, instructional design theory is founded in learning theory, pedagogical theory and instructional theory and draws from many other fundamental disciplines such as motivation research. All these disciplines have their word to say about pedagogic strategy.

Second, it's also a craft, i.e. an engineering discipline who's methods draw a lot from software engineering

Third, modern sophisticated instructional designs make use of educational technologies. Some authors even argue, that some of the more interesting designs can't be done without technology. Instructional design and educational technology depend on each other for several reasons:

  • Large scale applications (e.g. instructional multi-media or e-learning) are very expensive. They need a good instructional design method which is based on sound instructional design models.
  • Technology can only enhance the learning process if there is an improvement teaching strategies and methods (one does not learn better through a simple media effect).

Fourth, The planning of an a learning environment in the sense of Instructional Design should be evidence orientated. This means, that decisions for methods, design and motivation are accredited through empirical results. This can be reached through design patterns, edit formats which have been approved to solve a problem. (Niegemann 2013)

Note: In e-learning technology, good "main-stream" instructional design is best represented by IMS Learning Design (LD).

Instructional Design as Instructional Technology

Instructional Design is primarily an engineering discipline (even if it is based on solid research), i.e. most instructional designers have as a job to design real courses. "As Instructional Technology it's the systemic and systematic application of strategies and techniques derived from behavioral, cognitive, and constructivist theories to the solution of instructional problems" (Berger and Kam).

Note that Instructional Technology is often used as synonym for Educational technology, but with the idea that:

Instructional Technology = Instructional Design + Instructional Development

In other words, Instruction Technology / Design etc. has a more "industrial" or engineering flavor than Educational Technology / Pedagogical Design.

What is good Instructional Design ?

DSchneider doesn't think that the Instructional Designer community necessarily possesses the "whole wisdom" needed for teaching or the design of learning environments and learning materials etc. Moreover, the method can kill the project, e.g. some "traditional"" ISD models may deter designers from the core problem which is in our opinion the pedagogic scenarization.

However, regardless of these kinds of fears, instructional design theory provides at least solid foundations against which you can evaluate a design.

Some instructional designers do try to look at invariants of good pedagogy and adapt design theory to emerging new pedagogies. A good example is Reigeluth, known first for his 1983 behaviorist reader entitled: Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of Their Current Status. A second volume, edited in 1999 as "Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory" gave a lot of space to constructivist designs. A third volume is under preparation.

Another example is Merrill's First principles of instruction (2002), which claims that the following 5 elements need to be found in any effective design:

  1. Does the courseware relate to real world problems?
  2. Does the courseware activate prior knowledge or experience?
  3. Does the courseware demonstrate what is to be learned?
  4. Can learners practice and apply acquired knowledge or skill?
  5. Are learners encouraged to integrate (transfer) the new knowledge or skill into their everyday life?

Instructional design models and methods

We would like to distinguish between an instructional design method that defines how to organize the whole design process and an instructional design model that represents a class of a pedagogical design, i.e. how to teach, how to bring people to learn, etc.). It is not always easy to draw a line between "models" and "methods". This is particularly the case for frameworks like Instructional systems design (ISD).

Instructional design methods:

An instructional design method defines how to organize the whole design process (whereas an instructional design model represents a class of a pedagogical design, i.e. how to teach, how to bring people to learn, etc.

See also the various articles in the category design methods.

Instructional design models:

An Instructional design model is a method, i.e. a general design rule on how to teach/bring to learn. Usually restricted to a given class of subjects and contexts. Instructional design models usually have a stronger focus on learning theory than instructional design methods.

[...] Models, like myths and metaphors, help us to make sense of our world. Whether derived from whim or from serious research, a model offers its user a means of comprehending an otherwise incomprehensible problem. An instructional design model gives structure and meaning to an I.D. problem, enabling the would-be designer to negotiate her design task with a semblance of conscious understanding. Models help us to visualize the problem, to break it down into discrete, manageable units. The value of a specific model is determined within the context of use. Like any other instrument, a model assumes a specific intention of its user. A model should be judged by how it mediates the designer's intention, how well it can share a work load, and how effectively it shifts focus away from itself toward the object of the design activity.

( Martin Ryder )

Which criterias are necessary to decide for a Design

In According to Niegemann et. al. is the Instructional Design a systematik planning of learning environments, like Architekture if you build a house, Software engineering if you plan a program, or creating a therapy by a medical doctor. There are two factors with influence the Design, and the learners behavior. Internal factors are things like learners prevoius knowledge and motivation, external factors are things like the designing of learning environment. With regard to these factors there are three possibilities to decide. The first is a descission against every design model, but this is handicraft work without reflection. The second possibility is to choose one designing model. The third is choosing some aspects from separate Designing Models, which a designer think are important for his proejct.

Important for the descission of a design are also the goals an E-Learning Tool, has. These could for example be:

  • Qualification of Personal
  • Similar Kinds of Training Possibility (on-demand) or (just in time)
  • Simulations
  • Time- or Room-Shift Learning
  • Faciliation of Learning

(Niegmann et. al 2008)

Other articles and further exploration of the topic



  • Edmonds Gerald S, Robert C, Branch and Prachee Mukherjee (1994), A Conceptual Framework for Comparing Instructional Design Models, ETR&D, VoL 42, No. 4, 1994, pp. 55-72 LSSN 1042-1629. PDF (Access restricted)
  • Dick, Walter O, Lou Carey & James O Carey (1994). Systematic Design of Instruction (6th edition).Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205412742 (This seems to be a popular textbook but did not read it -- DSchneider)
  • Institute for Interactive Technologies , Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, USA, E-Learning Concepts and Techniques, HTML, retrieved 22:18, 9 December 2006 (MET) (This is a collaborative e-book by students and guest authors, includes presentation and discussion of ID)
  • Mergel, Brenda (1998), Instructional Design & Learning Theory, University of Saskatchewan, on-line paper. HTML, PDF. This paper is a very nice introduction where the authors explores connections between instructional design and learning theory.
  • Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. [2]
  • Morrison Garry R., Steven M. Ross, Jerrold E. Kemp (2004), Designing Effective Instruction, 4th edition, Wiley, ISBN 0471216518
  • Niegemann, H.; Domagk S. ; Hassel, S. ; Hein, A.; Hupfer, M. ; Zobel, A.  : Kompendium Multimedials Lernen, Heidelberg 2008.
  • Niegemann, H.: "Instructional Design". Lecture at Saarland University (Summer 2013). Unpublished Manuscript.
  • Orey, M. (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia. HTML
    • This is an evolving e-book (Mediawiki) covering learning and cognitive theories and instructional theories and models.
  • Reigeluth (ed.) (1999). Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Vol. 2 (Instructional Design Theories & Models), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0805828591 (Good buy -- DSchneider)
  • Reigeluth (ed.) (1983). Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of Their Current Status. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0898592755 (A classic, still worth reading)
  • Reiser Robert A. and John V. Dempsey (eds). (2006). Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, 2nd edition. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0131708058 (probably the best buy if you are looking for a single book covering educational technology, learning theory and instructional design)