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Instructional Design Principles for Beginners

Perhaps you have heard of Instructional Design, perhaps you haven’t - but if you’re in the field of corporate training or working to produce content for adults or children to learn from, it’s likely helpful to have a working knowledge of instructional design. To that extent, we wanted to provide a resource in which to reference as you are creating training material, putting together courses, or working to teach others on any subject matter.

A Quick History Lesson: Instructional Design Beginnings


Instructional Design was born in the 1940’s during World War II. An interesting time to say the least for these methodologies to be created, however, it only began the framework for instructional design as we know it today. Education specialists and psychologists were tasked with creating manuals to train soldiers by the masses, as well as test the learners for the knowledge that they held and their abilities.


On to the 1950’s where psychologists such as B.F. Skinner produced articles such as “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching,” which suggested instructional materials should be broken up into small steps, frequent questions, a feedback loop and self-pacing. Does this sound familiar? This is also the time when Benjamin Bloom published him work “Bloom’s Taxonomy” to explain the hierarchical process by which people learn through three different domains.


Robert Gagne enters the scene and creates three domains of learning outcomes, five learning outcomes, and nine events of instruction - without getting too bogged down in this information, it is important to know that this is the very core of instructional design theories and models today.


Different means of communicating information was introduced into education and business practices - such as the use of filmstrips - to increase the effectiveness of instruction.


The Component Display Theory, which is a set of methods for presenting instructional materials was born, computers began to be integrated in the instructional system, and interest in cognitive psychology began to rise.


The idea that real-world learning experiences are necessary to help the learners form their own knowledge. Think field trips, or creating scenarios to problem solve. Prototyping of training materials also was introduced in the 1990’s, essentially materials that were revised through rapid testing and iterations. Lastly, Computer Based Training (CBT) became ever present through CD-ROMs.


e-Learning is introduced through the proliferation of individuals computers throughout companies and organizations. The development of LMS and Onboarding software took off at this point in time and is still important today.


Smartphones and tablets pave the way for mobile and social learning, as well as the introduction of “blended learning,” in other words, a combination of in-person training and online learning.

2015 to Present

With the increased attention given to Big Data and availability to analytics providing rich insight, learning has never been more personalized and tailored to the individual. Not only is the outcome of the learning important, but solutions are now also focused on the user experience of the learning.

Even as Instructional Design theory and contributions from psychologists and educational specialists has shifted over the decades, there are pieces from each decade that are still applied to instructional design as we know it today. The most recent shifts have not in fact come from theorists and instead come from the shifts in technological advances and how learners access instruction. There is more to come from instructional design, especially as it plays a large part in corporations that work to retain talent, but even more so - people today are taking a hold of their own education, and learning and development through platforms that offer classes, or institutions that offer courses. It is an exciting time to be a life-long learner with access to education at your fingertips.

Learners working through courses that have been developed using instructional design principles.

What are Instructional Design Principles?

While this list is by no means exhaustive and principles grow and develop as technology and new theories develop; for right now - these are some of the top principles to pay attention to when you are designing your course content. Most of these principles are taken from the theories developed by Robert Gagne in his book, The Conditions of Learning. These principles provide the framework for developing a powerful learning environment for users and even though they were originally developed in the 1960s - these principles have stood the test of time and are applicable to the LMS platforms of today.

Attention Grabbing Isn’t Just for the Opening Scene of Movies.

I’m sure you have been in a movie that just didn’t do a good job of sucking you in from the opening scene and you struggled to stay involved in the plotline throughout the rest of the show - courses are similar. If you lose the learners in the introduction, you may not get them back for the meat of the content. A powerful opening sets the expectations that learners should remain engaged with the content, not to mention engagement increases memory. Providing an introductory video, a scenario that sets the stage, interesting statistics to provoke curiosity or a number of other attention-grabbing tactics to ensure your learners start out with you and hopefully end with you, as well.

Create Targets & Objectives.

Preparing learners for what they need to know helps focus their attention on that content when it appears in a course. Outlining the objectives and targets for the module promotes more effective learning. There are many ways to introduce objectives to learners - whether it is through thought-provoking questions at the onset of the lesson for them to think about before diving into, to simply creating a list of the skills or knowledge that should be mastered by course completion. Setting the stage for the learning that will take place focuses the lesson, not to mention provides a starting point for feedback - if students are consistently missing an objective, that gives guidance to where the course may need to be modified before future learners work through the content.

Incorporate and Build Upon Prior Knowledge.

Not all learners enter into coursework from the same starting place, testing pre-existing knowledge and skills before putting a learner through coursework can ensure that they are building upon earned knowledge and further challenged. Not to mention, avoid boring students that are further along than the course suggests.

Switch Up How You Present Information.

There are various ways to engage learners and many of them stem from the way that information is originally presented. If each course is designed the same with a powerpoint and audio, eventually the learners will become bored of this type of content. That’s not to say that a powerpoint with an audio overlay is bad - it’s not, but try out a few different ways to creatively present content like storytelling, gamification, and interactive video. This will ensure that learners do not opt out of learning because they are bored and instead they will continue to be stimulated through the various forms of information presentation.

Provide Guidance to Learners.

Especially when the information that learners have to interact with is tedious and complex, provide additional guidance through linking to outside resources or additional information can be very helpful. Not only does this allow for learners to further engage with the learning, but it can stave off frustration and therefore disengagement. Another example of guidance that is helpful is to provide progress indicators alongside course content. Showing people how far they have come and how far they have to go can be motivating to complete the course all by itself!

Feedback is Critical.

Providing feedback at regular intervals can help keep learners engaged but also point them down the path to success in mastering subject matter. Feedback can also help learners gauge how well they are doing in the course before it’s completion.

Gauge Performance through Assessments.

This concept can take on many forms, but most frequently is associated with activities or quizzes set at the end of a learning module. Measuring performance is not only important from the standpoint of the learner, but also the instructor. These assessment can provide further guidance about what the learner still needs to master, or guidance to the educator on what needs more evaluation before the next round of users completes the course.

Measure Retention and Require Repetition.

Working to enhance retention rates is very important - sending a checkup to learners after some time has passed since course completion is a great way to assess whether the knowledge gained has been retained. Another method to ensure that learned content is stored is by creating discussion forums where learners are able to interact with peers and teach others through their own knowledge. It has been shown that once someone can teach a concept to someone else, then that knowledge has been mastered.

These and many other principles, while introduced decades ago, are still able to be applied to the modern learning environment which educational institutions and businesses use today. From onboarding, to continuing education, these principles should help guide and mold corporate training and educational design.

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