Great Instructional Design: Bones, Brains, and Ballast

I’m a veteran instructional designer (ID) and recently decided to move to the next great step in my career. To prepare, I jumped in to the (always fun) process of updating my résumé and cover letters and preparing for a slew of interview questions. This effort forced me to reflect on my years of experience as an ID, and synthesize my approach and beliefs about our profession. I’ve worked on a lot of projects, some very challenging, and I’ve worked with very talented IDs. Along the path, I’ve learned a great deal about good design. (I did, FYI, find a great new position with SweetRush … let the new adventure begin!)

One of the questions posed to me seemed to get to the essence of everything we do as IDs: What, exactly, makes for great instructional design? To me, there are three essential elements of great instructional design: great bones, brain science, and, what I like to call, “more than just a pretty face.”

Great Bones

Just like almost anything well made, great instructional design relies on a good underlying structure. That means, for starters, a clear understanding of who the audience is. IDs must clearly understand what learners’ goals are (which we define) in taking the course, what learners already know coming into the course, and what their strengths and weaknesses as learners are. It’s also essential to understand the context of the course—what business requirements are driving the need for the learning? For the instruction to be appropriate and on target, the above are not optional!

Learning objectives are also under the hood, and might not be immediately valued. Well-written, learner-centric objectives that describe measurable outcomes will ensure that the content, activities, and assessments are well aligned and will result in the desired outcomes. They will also guide the development of the entire course, including the graphical elements and special activities such as game elements.

And the organization of the content—how it is chunked and sequenced—is critical. For example, the content should be presented and practiced in a real-life way so the learners will have a much easier time taking the new learning back to their workplace and putting it into action.

Brain Science

Great instruction is built in a way that is sympathetic to the workings of the human brain. How much text should be on screen, what the optimal narration is, and how graphics should appear are all questions that cognitive scientists have studied. Cognitive load theory (how to manage extraneous and essential processing), the use of multimedia in instruction, and the science of assessment, guide developers and go a long way toward making truly outstanding instructional design. If you have a strong understanding of these issues, great. But if not, this is knowledge you need to acquire.

More Than Just a Pretty Face

Great instruction also looks and operates well. When interfaces operate according to optimal usability guidelines, instruction just works seamlessly for users. Because learners aren’t fighting the interface, they have more cognitive resources for learning what the lesson or course is trying to teach.

Likewise, instructional design that incorporates game elements isn’t just about fun. Gamification helps to create an environment where learners can experience “flow,” that wonderful zone where they feel completely immersed in the activity and are totally focused in an energizing way. Anyone who has sat down with a task, only to look up hours later and wonder where the time went, has experienced flow. When added to the learning process, it brings a level of concentration to the subject that can significantly increase subject mastery.

Great instructional design is an attainable goal. It requires the hard work of planning and structuring the instruction, mindful use of research and brain science, and leveraging what is known from usability and now, increasingly, from gaming.

Interested in hearing more about great instructional design for corporate training? Visit our site for an interactive infographic and more blog posts on this topic.

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