The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A World Class Instructional Designer From Scratch

The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A World Class Instructional Designer From Scratch – Part 1
Summary: Becoming “world class” at anything is not easy, but like all journeys, it begins with a single step. So, don't waste any more time; here's the first step to getting started on your journey of becoming a world class Instructional Designer.

How To Become A World Class Instructional Designer From Scratch

“Anna, I want to become a world class Instructional Designer and I’m starting from square one. Can you give me some guidance on where to begin?”

I get some variation of that question all the time, so I decided to create a resource I could point people to if they’re just starting out on the path.

Other bloggers have written about this and given some great advice, notably Cathy Moore, Christopher Pappas, Connie Malamed, Tom Kuhlmann, and Cammy Bean. I want to acknowledge these folks because I’m not the first to this party, and I’ve incorporated some helpful ideas from the broader conversation into this article.

I’ve added quite a bit of advice gleaned from my personal journey in the field of Instructional Design and, hopefully, my ideas will add to the conversation.

So… word to the wise, there are plenty of opinions on this subject, and while I’ve tried to make this article pretty comprehensive, it would be a good idea to check out the links above for other takes.

I’ve organized (read *rough chronological order*) my ideas into several "steps" (well about 9), but in the real world, you’ll probably want to work through several of these at the same time.

Also, this article goes far beyond just advice on how to get your first job. That would be fairly straightforward. Like your grandmother may have told you, “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right”, so that’s what I’m going for here.

At the risk of sounding controversial (actually I don’t think there’s much risk - most Instructional Designers would agree) there are a lot of mediocre to downright bad Instructional Designers out there, so just giving people advice on how to "break into" the field wouldn’t serve the industry as well.

I want to show you how to become a great Instructional Designer.

Here are the steps, and in this article, I talk about the first one.

  1. Get a grasp of Instructional Design theories and how people learn.
  2. Develop your "eye for learning" and build your "swipe file".
  3. Develop your fundamental technology skills.
  4. Develop your "soft" skills.
  5. Build your network.
  6. Build your "super-portfolio".
  7. Get experience.
  8. Find your niche, and specialize.
  9. Never stop learning and keep an eye on where the industry is going.

So without further ado… here is your first step (with a bonus section!).

Before You Begin, Ask Yourself "Why Do I Want To Do This?" 

Instructional Design is a very challenging profession. It’s competitive. Designing great learning experiences, then putting them out in the world, to possibly fail, can take an enormous amount of emotional energy. The industry is changing fast, and to keep up with your competitors, and serve your learners in the best way possible, you’ll need to continuously focus on self-education and professional development.

On top of all of that, you have an enormous responsibility to your learners.

So my point is, if you’re getting into this, you’d better be passionate about what you’re doing. If anything, just to give yourself some fuel to keep going.

Here are some bad reasons to get into Instructional Design:

  • It looks like good money.
  • I love graphic design.
  • I’m good with technology.

Here are some good ones:

  • I have a passion for teaching people.
  • I am ultra curious about learning, education, technology, psychology, and spend my off hours reading about these topics,
  • I love solving problems.

And, yeah, I realize that saying “I am really passionate about teaching” doesn’t cut it. But that’s another discussion altogether… heck, that’s what the comments area is for! Feel free to discuss.

Okay. So.

Step #1: Get A Grasp Of Instructional Design And How People Learn

Almost all great Instructional Designers are obsessed with learning more about their craft, and after a few years in the profession, they develop their own design philosophy based on the latest research, firsthand experience, and best practices shared by colleagues.

But everyone had to start somewhere. Einstein started by learning to count to 10. If you want to design adult learning experiences that deliver value to your learner, you’re going to need some foundation of knowledge to build on. After a short while in the trenches, you’ll start to develop your own style and philosophy too, but in the beginning, start from the beginning.

Learning theories (Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Design-Based, Humanism) design frameworks and processes (ADDIE, SAM, AGILE...) are good for you to learn not only to have a foundation of knowledge to build on, and to create learning experiences that matter, but when it comes time for you to look for work in the field, you’ll be expected to be able to "talk the talk".

So… where to begin learning all of this?

To Degree, Or Not To Degree?

Now, if you poke around the blogosphere, you may notice in the field of Instructional Design there’s some kind of epic debate about whether or not one needs a formal degree (note: We’re talking about a masters degree in Instructional Design or something closely related) to be good at this kind of work, or to make a career out of it, or whatever.

I’m going to be brief on this point, and mostly sidestep it, because I think the debate is about as exciting as sleep medication, and really, it’s not all that useful to you.

Here are my really simple (probably obvious) thoughts on this:

  • Do you need a degree to become a great Instructional Designer? 
    Of course not!
  • Will a degree help you along this path? 
    Of course!

That’s basically it.

This probably goes without saying, there are some pretty bad Instructional Designers with masters, even doctorates, and you’ll find superstars without a degree.

I’m preparing some marshmallows because I can already feel the flames coming my way *GASP* “How dare you imply that one doesn’t need proper training to do such important work” etc. and so on and blah blah blah.

But if you’re tempted to write some comment as if I offended you personally, just look carefully at the words I wrote above. You can’t argue with them. They’re facts.

If you have the resources to devote to a master's program or a certification, then by all means, you should do it. Formal training isn’t going to hurt you! If you’re just starting out from scratch, either fresh out of undergrad, or transitioning from an unrelated field, then this is probably a good place to start.

Most Instructional Designers don’t have a masters degree; most of us "fell into" this role in one way or another, but I do suspect the percentages here are shifting. It’s actually a misleading statistic because most veteran Instructional Designers started their careers when there weren’t any (or there were very few) Instructional Design programs out there.

They are much more available nowadays. You can take them online. Some of them you can complete at your own pace.

If you do go this route, just make sure to do your homework when choosing which school or program you’re committing to. The #1 downside to these programs is that many people say they can be too "academic", and overly focused on the theory and philosophy, with little focus on real life application or delivery.

So… choose one that will make you get your hands dirty, and add some meat to your portfolio (more on that later). The way the degree is done is actually a good clue as to whether it is a good investment; look for practicums and projects.

Alternatives? You have plenty.

You can always try to make it work in the job field; if it turns out you need a degree, you can get one. I’ve heard from lots of Instructional Designers with years of experience that they’re now springing for a Masters in Instructional Design, 10 years into their career. I suspect they’ll actually get a lot more out of the program because of their real-world experience too.

Just something to chew on….

Bonus Material: How To Study Instructional Design On Your Own (You Should Be Doing This Even If You’Re In A Master's Degree Program)

No matter how you choose to build your theoretical foundation, remember that it’s only the beginning. The learning industry is ripe for disruption, and it’s facing what I like to call "catastrophic" changes because of technology (I don’t use the word catastrophic in a negative sense).

So, to stay ahead of the curve, before, during, and after (especially after) you lay your foundation, you’ll need to keep learning on your own. Press your ear to the ground of the learning industry, listen to the hushed whispers of good stuff you can get your hands on.

1. Read The Books. 

I love reading.

Here are some of my favorites:

Ranty Sidenote: You frequently hear people say “Hey I just read 40 books last year!”, and that’s great... considering that most people read less than one book a year. But, how about you stick to two and really apply them?

The books I recommended are instruction manuals - guides, not stories to pass the time.

These are meant to be read and re-read. Every time you read one of these books I guarantee you’ll see a chapter that you don’t remember reading before or advice that didn’t mean anything to you until after you had “burned yourself on the iron”.

That’s why you have to revisit these books.

Trust me on this.

2. Read The Blogs 

This is a great resource.

Here are some of my favorites, I won’t go into detail why I like them. Check out a couple articles, and if the author “speaks” to you… sign up for a newsletter.

And, of course, the one you’re reading now! eLearning Industry!

3. Check Out The Webinars.

This information is GOLD!

  • InSyncTraining
    Advice from experts in the industry on visual design, social media integration… and many others. One of my favorite people has a channel dedicated to her - Jane Bozarth (a.k.a. Bozarthzone).
  • Training Magazine Network
    More conversations with experts in the field, case studies, best practices - pick what interests you. Several phenomenal webinars you should check out are any done by Ray Jimenez and Ethan Edwards.

Okay, so you’ve got some homework!

Yes, this is only part one of a series, but in the meantime, what’s your go-to resource or step to becoming a world-class Instructional Designer?

What's stopping you from joining a community of like-minded individuals and increasing your confidence? I offer one community and resource site here: Join us!

What are your roadblocks to becoming someone who delivers tremendous value?

Let me know you appreciate this article about how to become a world class Instructional Designer by sharing and commenting.


Special thanks to Michael Farris and Krishna Khanna for feedback on this article.