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If you’re new to the world of instructional design, eLearning, or learning and development in general, it can be overwhelming trying to navigate what instructional design is, along with everything instructional designers do on a day-to-day and project-by-project basis. And if you’re like most folks in this industry, who fell into instructional design by accident, just like I did 15+ years ago, it’s easy to let all of the conflicting answers and opinions make your head spin.

The truth is, if you were to ask ten different instructional designers what instructional design is and what instructional designers do, you’d end up with eleventy different answers! And this is because very few things are standardized in our industry. As you’ll quickly discover, instructional design is contextual to the organization you work for, the learners you’re serving, and the types of training experiences you’re designing and developing.

So, whether you’re completely brand new to instructional design or exploring it as a potential career path, in this post, I’ll help you answer the question of “What is instructional design?” in a practical and common sense way.

So, What is Instructional Design?

Well, let’s cut straight to the chase on this one: what is instructional design? Well, to put it simply, instructional design is the process of applying solid learning theories in the design and development of effective and engaging training experiences or resources. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Instructional design is the process of applying solid learning theories in the design and development of effective and engaging training experiences or resources.

Yeah, it is! But if that’s the case, then why are there so many different answers and opinions to a question that should be so straightforward? Well, one of the things I’ve noticed in the 15+ years I’ve been working in this industry is that we love to overcomplicate things. And, if you’re new, this is where your head starts to spin. So, let’s dig a little deeper into my simplified definition.

First, it’s important to understand that how one defines instructional design depends on how you got into it in the first place. You see, it’s been my experience that folks tend to view and define instructional design from two perspectives: the theories of instructional design vs. the processes of instructional design.

Those who are formally educated in learning and education often see instructional design as a set of theories that guide us in designing engaging and effective learning experiences. Whereas those who fell into instructional design by accident, as I did years ago, view instructional design as a set of processes that help us develop training experiences in a repeatable and scalable way.

The theories of instructional design are only as good as the processes used to implement them in the real world.

And it’s this duality between theory and process, between design and development, and learning and training that often leads to all of the varying answers and confusion when trying to define instructional design.

But the truth is, you need both! The theories of instructional design are only as good as the processes used to implement them when you’re attempting to solve real-world performance issues.

So, if instructional design is a blend of theories and processes, what does each of those look like? Well, let’s take a closer look at each.

The Theories of Instructional Design

Defining instructional design from a theory point of view is where we start paying close attention to the science behind how people learn, andragogy vs. pedagogy, and how we can use those theories to design and develop training experiences that align with the learning process.

While there are many different theories that underpin everything we do as instructional designers, if you’re new to instructional design and eLearning development, the following are the most commonly referenced ones:

  • Malcolm Knowles’ Principles of Adult Learning, which helps us create training experiences optimized for adult learners,
  • Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, which helps us design task-based training experiences to help learners solve real-world problems,
  • and John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, which helps us avoid overloading our learners with too much cognitive processing of information.

Now, it’s important to note that when we look at instructional design from a theory standpoint, we’re also looking at it from a modality-agnostic point of view. This means that we deploy these theories no matter what method we use to deliver the training experience. For example, it doesn’t matter if it’s a synchronous training like an instructor-led workshop, an asynchronous experience like a self-paced eLearning course, or a fully blended training solution; we still apply the same theories to every learning and training experience.

Now that we have a high-level grasp of the theory side of instructional design, let’s turn our attention to the process slide of instructional design.

The Processes of Instructional Design

So, once you understand the theory of instructional design, you also need to explore the process side as well. More specifically, how instructional design is applied when developing a training solution.

The processes of instructional design are where we come down from the “clouds”  of the theories and get into the nitty-gritty of the real work of instructional design: actually developing a learning and training solution.

From a process standpoint, there’s a lot that instructional designers do on a day-to-day and project-by-project basis; however, if you’re new, most instructional designers:

  • Conduct needs analyses to verify the cause of a performance issue and determine what can and cannot be fixed with training.
  • Work with stakeholders and subject matter experts to scope and manage their training projects.
  • Create action maps to align training efforts towards measurable business goals.
  • Draft design documents to propose blended training solutions.
  • Develop training materials, whether it’s as simple as a job aid or as complex as an eLearning course.
  • Draft storyboards and develop prototypes in various eLearning authoring tools like Articulate Storyline, Rise, etc.
  • Implement and measure those training solutions that are delivered to learners.

There’s a lot that goes into the processes of instructional design; however, it’s important to remember that, unlike the theories of instructional design, the processes of instructional design are modality-specific. And what this means is at a certain point in the development of your training solution, you start taking into account all of the variables you’re working with when it comes to your learners, their learning environment, the project itself, and the content you’re teaching to decide on the best method for developing and delivering the training experience, no matter if it’s a small-scale deliverable or a large-scale training solution.

And when we talk about the process side of instructional design, this is where we start looking at models like ADDIE or SAM, which provides us with a framework for executing these processes in a repeatable and scalable way.

The Bottom Line

So, that’s my simple, practical, and common sense overview of what instructional design is and what instructional designers do. Once you sort through some of the noise, instructional design is really all about designing and developing engaging and effective training experiences. And to create those experiences, you need a solid understanding and application of good learning theories, along with solid processes.

As you continue learning more about instructional design, it’s also important to remember that it’s all contextual to the organization you work for, the types of learners you’re working with, the types of training experiences you’re creating, and the type of learning content you’re working with. And whether you hear others talk about instructional design from a theory standpoint or a process standpoint, it’s your job to remember that’s a little bit of both!

So, what do you think? How do you define what instructional design is and what instructional designers do? Share your thoughts by commenting below!

Tim Slade

Hi, I’m Tim Slade, and I’m a speaker, author, and founder of The eLearning Designer's Academy. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, I have been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for my creative and innovative design aesthetics. I’m also a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook.

One Comment

  • Shickhan says:

    Hi Tim,
    I am Shickhan, an undergrad, elementary school teacher, and aspiring instructional designer.
    Your blog post is informative, especially since I am new to instructional design.
    Defining Instructional Design (ID) was confusing for me. And when I was asked about my course (MS in Instructional Design and Technology), I needed to figure out how to say what Instructional design was and what Instructional designers do. It took much thought to explain. And since I am fairly new to ID and being a teacher, I can relate more with what I am familiar with; a definition from the theoretical perspective.
    However, your post has widened my scope to a more comprehensive definition of instructional design.
    But you asked; how I would define Instructional Design. What does an instructional designer do? The word instruction is the key for me as a teacher who delivers instruction daily in my classroom. This explains how something should be done; like I tell my students, the instruction tells you what to do. Instruction is a guide (sometimes step by step) to exploring materials/content to achieve a learning outcome(s). Hence Instructional Design is creating or developing a step-by-step guide toward learning experiences, with the framework being a knowledge of learning theories and of the learners’ previous experience, with information on how to apply strategies for optimal learning.
    Additionally, an Instructional Designer both plans for and delivers instructions. This can be done in different modalities, settings, and for different groups of people for various reasons, but with a common purpose; a learning outcome.
    But, reading your post “Getting Started with the eLearning and Development Process,” I learned so much about Instructional design from the process side, as you outline five steps to creating eLearning projects. This information will help not only me in the future as an instructional Designer but in other courses that may require applying these five steps: Plan the project (this is where I may apply ADDIE OR SAM), Draft a storyboard, Develop the course, make it interactive, and finally Implement the course.
    I have gained clarity and a sense of confidence in my knowledge of Instructional Design from your blog posts.
    Thank you

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