Instructional Design 101: A Must-Read List For Beginners

Instructional Design 101: A Must-Read List For Beginners
Summary: Whether you are beginning your career in Instructional Design by happenstance, pivoting your way into the field from somewhere else, or fresh out of formal training, this article is for you!

Instructional Design: There Are Some Fundamental Things You Need To Know

While there are some learning fields that can be advantageous to ID, like education or graphic design, one of the many splendors of this career is that designers come from a variety of educational and experiential backgrounds. Because the nature of ID is very versatile, all of your experience and training thus far will help you as you begin your journey. With that being said, there are also some fundamental things that you will want to know and do in order to make your transition to Instructional Design smooth. Without further ado, I give you this list:

1. Research Learning Theories

When you are creating eLearning courses, you need to understand a few learning theories so you can optimize your instructional methods. The three primary learning theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. For the purposes of this article, I will provide you with a brief explanation of each:

  • Behaviorism 
    Learning as a process of responding to external stimuli.
  • Cognitivism
    Learning as a process of attaining and retaining knowledge.
  • Constructivism
    Learning as a process of construction, where learning evolves from our own knowledge based on our personal experiences.

It’s important to have a basic understanding of these theories because they all point to how students learn. Every student learns in a different way, and as an ID, you can decide which parts of what theory you want to leverage to make your course more accessible.

For instance, if the primary objective of your course is to demonstrate the steps learners need to take in order to do something, then you should consider a behaviorist approach. This need could be met by developing a scenario where learners respond to various choices that characters must make so that they actually practice the steps. Or, you could engage the cognitivism theory where students watch a recorded tutorial on how to log in to a certain software system as a way to engage their minds and therefore retain the information that explains the login process. No matter which theory or theories you decide to use, make sure all your development is learner-centered and accounts for the diversity of learning styles.

2. Know How To Write Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are to a course what coffee is in the morning: necessary. Learning objectives are literally—okay, figuratively—the anchors of your course. Learning objectives tell your learners what they can expect to learn and be able to do by the end of their participation in the course. They should never be a surprise to learners, in fact, they need to be stated at the beginning.

Learning objectives help set learner expectations and guide the learner throughout the duration of their time in the course. Objectives are also critical to assessing the success of your course, but more on that later. Finally, learning objectives help you, as the designer, stay on course (pun intended). If you are ever unsure where content fits within your course, you can refer back to the objectives and see where it fits. If the content doesn’t align with the objectives then it doesn’t make the cut.

3. Describe The Basic Principles Of Assessment And Evaluation

Did your course work? No, really, did it do what it was created to do? These are questions that all IDs ask themselves throughout the design process, but especially so when considering assessment and evaluation. A good ID will know whether their course did what it was intended to do because the course will be measurable. It’s measured by its ability to meet the learning objectives. There are two key ways that this can be accomplished: formative assessment and summative assessment. Let’s tease these two terms out further:

  • Formative
    The purpose of a formative assessment is to monitor a learner’s progress through a course. A formative assessment usually addresses one learning objective at a predetermined interval. Learners also receive immediate feedback after they have completed a formative assessment so that they can use the feedback to adjust their behavior and be successful in the course.
  • Summative
    Just as the name implies, a summative evaluation comes at the conclusion of the course. In eLearning, summative assessments are typically paired with immediate feedback so that students can identify areas of strengths exhibited during the course as well as areas for improvement that they should address going forward.

You do not have to be an assessment wizard—though it’s cool if you are—to implement evaluation strategies, but you should be comfortable enough to discuss how you know your course has achieved its goals.

4. Eliminate The "Nice-To-Know"

Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is enjoyable and challenging all at the same time. It is rewarding to help transform someone’s once-static content into a beautiful, interactive module. However, it can be hard to help them understand that not everything in their PowerPoint has to be in the course, even if they feel otherwise. While all the content can be important, there are many instances where you will need to decide which pieces of information are "must-know" and which ones are "nice-to-know."

It’s no secret that learner attention spans are getting shorter, so you must ensure that everything contained in your course has a purpose. You do not want to waste anyone’s time. Now, this can be a delicate conversation to have with an SME. However, you must have the conversation and provide evidence pointing to your reasons why something could be left out, and why doing so would not compromise the integrity of the course. You, the SME, and the learner will all be better off for it!

5. Develop Your People Skills

Even though the bulk of your work as an Instructional Designer will be completed independently, you are still required to connect with many stakeholders including SMEs, prospective learners, and/or course sponsors. As an ID, you are likely part of a large and collaborative team which means there will be ongoing interactions with others. Honing your people skills will be instrumental in helping you to navigate the external activities of Instructional Design. Learning to communicate clearly, exhibiting understanding, and displaying good judgment are just a few examples that come to mind. Fostering these skills will help you build positive working relationships with peers and colleagues, and who knows what kinds of opportunities that could lead to later on.

My final parting words shall be this: have fun! Instructional Design is very rewarding and if you invest in your professional development and maintain a desire to grow, then you’ll never be disappointed in this career path. Now, off you go—happy creating.