Good instructional design improves learning outcomes. So it's worth knowing best practices whether you create or commission courses.
Instructional design is the method by which a course is created. The term has been around since the 1940s, when psychologists and educationalists created training materials to assess the learning abilities of soldiers fighting in World War II.
How has instructional design evolved?
In recent years, instructional design has become more closely associated with workplace training, particularly around legal and compliance topics.
"The process by which learning products and experiences are designed, developed, and delivered. These learning products include online courses, instructional manuals, video tutorials, learning simulations, etc. Instructional designers are the 'architects' of the learning experience and the 'directors' of the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) process."Instructional Design Central
Instructional design has evolved to incorporate new, adaptive, innovative, and creative modes, models, formats, and tools to impart knowledge and skills to learners.
But the primary functions of instructional design remain the same:
- Analyzing learning needs
- Developing better learning experiences
Nowadays, it focuses on the Learning Experience (LX), influenced by technological advances, including social media, cloud-based computing, and big data.
Courses are modular and bite-sized in form, comprising means of learning beyond kinaesthetic, i.e., leveraging the power of storytelling and scenario-based teaching to engage learners and help them access the lessons quickly and conveniently.
In fact, accessibility now forms the crux of what is considered to be "good” instructional design. Videos, subtitles, user navigation, interactivity, verbal, oral and audio responses are all thrown into the mix for most e-learning courses.
Key instructional design models
Here is a quick rundown of some of the most well-known instructional design models. There are strong similarities between them, although each takes a slightly different stance.
The ADDIE model was conceived in 1975 by the US Army and the Centre for Educational Technology at Florida State University. It tackles learning in stages and focuses more on e-learning development rather than learning behaviours.
The model's name is an acronym derived from the five phases that it suggests for building training:
- Analyze - Analysis to understand the gaps in knowledge and skills.
- Design - Making informed design decisions based on the analysis.
- Develop - Bringing the learning experience to life.
- Implement - Distributing the training to the relevant audience.
- Evaluate - Evaluating training effectiveness, then revising and updating.
Bloom's taxonomy of learning
Created in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is a hierarchical learning theory model that explains how people learn and what stages each learner goes through to master higher-order skills.
Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning identifies three key domains:
- Cognitive (knowledge-based)
- Affective (emotion and attitude)
- Psychomotor (action or behaviour)
When it comes to developing an e-learning course, it is the cognitive domain of most use. This domain consists of six successive tiers of cognition, starting from ‘Knowledge’ and ending with ‘Evaluation’. Generally speaking, the higher up the pyramid a learner goes, the closer they’ll get to mastering the subject.
Find out how to use Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning to improve outcomes.
Gagné's Taxonomy of Learning
Another interesting instructional design model is that of Robert Gagné, an American educational psychologist. He believed that learning is ongoing, and humans develop intellectually based on their physical capacities.
Gagné's taxonomy suggests five types of learning outcomes:
- Intellectual skills - Procedures to get things done, including:
- Discrimination (classifying objects by one or more characteristics)
- Concrete concept (identifying objects based on unique characteristics)
- Defined concept (demonstrating understanding of something abstract)
- Rules (making connections between concepts and objects), and
- Problem-solving (using multiple rules to find a solution)
- Cognitive strategies - Strategies that involve thinking, including:
- Rehearsal (copying, underlining, or reading out loud)
- Elaboration (note-taking, paraphrasing, summarising & answering questions)
- Organising (creating concept maps and arranging ideas meaningfully),
- Setting goals (creating key milestones or targets)
- Tracking progress (managing time and assessing gaps that need filling)
- Modifying strategies (adapting by using differing tools & techniques)
- Verbal information - Techniques to help learners remember training.
- Motor skills - Physical action, e.g. those learned for first-aid.
- Attitudes - How learners prefer to absorb information.
Merrill’s principles of instruction
This model was created by noted educational researcher M. David Merrill who believes that truly effective learning experiences are rooted in problem-solving.
Merrill defines five core phases of learning:
- Demonstration - Using visual examples to help learners absorb information.
- Application - Interactive, problem-solving exercises to apply learnings.
- Activation - Linking information with the previous knowledge acquired.
- Integration - Applying knowledge within your daily work.
- Engagement - Task-centric learning encouraging engagement with content.
Best practice guidelines for instructional design
In this age of dwindling attention spans and tighter timeframes to meet incessant deadlines, getting learners to complete workplace training can be quite a challenge; unless it’s made mandatory or there is some convincing incentive for employees to take the time to complete a course.
What doesn’t help is if the course itself doesn’t inspire learners to work through it, especially if the subject matter is, by default, dry and tedious. In such cases, strong instructional design is needed for maximum learning impact.
Branch and Merrill did some inspirational work in defining what good instructional design needs. With this in mind, we've tried to distil the best of all of the models' strengths to help you apply them to your own instructional design.
1. Define your goals at the outset
Well-defined goals are essential for a course to be truly effective in delivering learner outcomes.
Understanding the training requirements, who needs to take the training, and how this training is supposed to benefit learners must be established before any form of instructional design work can begin.
2. Make courses learner-centric
The learner and their performance should be the focal points.
The purpose of a course is to get a learner to update themselves on the required knowledge or skills for them to do their job professionally, compliantly, and successfully.
However, it’s also important for learners to settle into the course quickly and comfortably to efficiently get through it, understand clearly what they need to know and reflect this understanding through effective forms of assessment.
It would probably help if you and your team attempted the course yourselves to see if you find it motivating, educative and engaging enough because if you don’t, the chances are learners won’t either!
3. Give learners control & context
Courses should help learners understand, identify with, and enable them to perform the behaviours that will be expected of them in the real world.
Give learners, especially professionals, a sense of control. Allow them to decide on their own pace of learning, and the impact of learning will be stronger.
Having timed exercises or activities are not always effective, as they create a (perhaps unnecessary) pressure or stressor that could either put learners off from absorbing information or confuse them. This is not helpful when it comes to educating learners on matters that are more technically complex.
4. Leverage the skills of your team
Create an effective course involving a team of professionals, typically content writers, graphic designers, video editors, proofreaders, and instructional designers.
Keeping the "Learner-First" approach in mind, courses ought to be constructed with the learner at the centre of it. This especially applies to workplace legal and compliance training. The learner is the "hero" with the "mission" of successfully complying with the legislation/regulation, and the training details the steps they need to take to achieve that goal.
Creating relevant, real-life scenario-based exercises using storyboarded audio-visual content, appealing imagery, and brief text blocks (with legible, accessible fonts) is the way forward.
Depending on the seriousness of the subject matter, some courses could even be created using gamification approaches to help attain higher learner impact levels. While it does not have to be at par with the likes of Candy Crush, including a couple of assessment activities that incentivise learners to score points while they are learning is an example of good instructional design.
5. Focus on valid, reliable, measurable outcomes
Be empirical to gauge learner performance accurately and effectively. Make learner engagement and performance data the heart of your process.
Compliance training often requires learners to update their knowledge or certification annually, which can seem annoying or a little excessive, especially if they already know the subject matter well.
This is where pre-assessment can help to gauge existing levels of understanding. If a learner passes these, they can skip straight to certification – and if not, they can be guided to take a refresher course.
When it comes to learners requiring training on a particular skill or piece of knowledge, a bite-sized or microlearning course could easily be created to help them get informed and updated.
Key workplace learning theories
Instructional design is just one of six of the most well-established learning theories we've examined to help improve your outcomes.
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