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Thinking about instructional design

I’ve been working with a client doing some heavy duty instructional design work (three courses to be developed in a short period of time). This is working with a writers over different disciplines and has me thinking about instructional design… and why I love it!

So for our monthly webinar, I took the opportunity to reflect on some simple strategies I use. I’ve written this blog a little differently than usual… this is a reflection of I usually do when working with clients, so it’s a dynamic set of strategies that I customise over my projects.

If you are developing your own courses and don’t have an instructional designer to work with, here are some simple instructional design techniques to apply to your course development. These aren’t specifically for online learning development, they will work regardless of what type of training and assessment methodologies you use.

1. Have with a process

Often when people think of instructional design, they think of models like ADDIE model (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate), AGILE development (there are three excellent articles on the topic; here, here and here) and SAM. However, I’m not looking at replacing these models, which have strengths and weaknesses. Nor am I talking about the project management processes that I use when working with clients who outsource their development to us.

I’m talking about putting into plain language what I do when I am working on a project. This is my logical place to start and finish. I do this regardless of whether the content is to be f2f, online, blended – for course development as well as learning object development – and I weave it into my project management/ADDIE/AGILE processes. Further, I am working closely with the client during this time.

As you read this, note that this is not done in the absence of users (this normally follows an analysis of the users/learners and environment) nor is it about writing a storyboard and having one set of client changes before sign-off.

For me, this process is about developing the best learning experience (for the users/resourcing/time available) in a way that it becomes easier the next time we are working together.

Step 1: Develop an outline: The outline tells me what I am doing, what I am working on; a course with a number of units, a module with a number of learning activities, a learning object, an f2f session or a webinar. The outline tells me what the objectives this piece of learning and assessment is going to meet. It is something that I can measure success on in the future. At this stage, we would start to get an idea of the technologies involved.

Step 2: Design the learning experience (what the user is going to do when and how long it’s going to take them): The learning experience is a high-level design. I ask questions like, what is the learning path, what will the user do/read/watch/experience and how long will they be doing this for. It is critical to have a good understanding of the users/learners you are developing for as well as the environment they are working in and any restrictions (technical, LLN etc).

Step 3: Design the learning and assessment strategies: From the learning experience, then I start to make decisions about the learning and assessment strategies. The learning and assessment strategies are bound to the mode of delivery and it is at this point I think about f2f/online (synchronous or asynchronous)/1:1/1: .group as well as make decisions related to the amount of resourcing that is available. This is also the stage I am thinking about the technologies we will be using or have access to.

Step 4: Design and develop the assessments: Always start with the end in mind. What will the assessment (or tracking) look lik? This may be refined as we go along, but it starts here.

Step 5: Design your content: Now, I have enough information to start to work with the content. The content might be working with writers or subject matter experts. It may be putting together what the f2f session looks like, writing that learning guide, developing the checklists and performance aids or storyboarding the learning object.

Step 6: Develop materials: There is always some development while we are in the ‘design’ phase, this is because we want to see how things work, how they fit and it gives us a chance to apply our curiosity – if we do this, what will happen. At some stage, you need to get the design built!

Step 7: Evaluate and test: Again, we are evaluating and testing as we go along, but this is a little more formal at the end of the development.

Step 8: Go live: After it is live, keep notes on what works and what doesn’t work. As users how they feel about it, use this time to see what works and what doesn’t work. A little reflection-in-action is useful to supplement the formal evaluation.

Step 9: Improve on it: From our experiences, we can now improve on what we have. The time horizon on this depends on the nature of the project. This is a great time to implement the additional strategies that you wanted to trial in the first run and may form the part of another project.

2. Start with your outcomes

By starting with your outcome, you have the opportunity to see what a ‘picture of competence’ looks like, or what you want the user to be able to do.


I think of it this way if the outcome is to…

  • Be able to read the document = provide the document to read and test that it has been read
  • Find the document = provide instructions where to find it and test that it can be found
  • Apply the policy to your role = provide examples of how to apply and test that it can be applied

There are lots of examples of word docs and PDFs uploaded into learning management systems and touted as ‘learning’. If the outcome is to read through the policies and procedures, then I can’t think of a better way to do it. However, if your outcome is to apply policies or produces sustained behavioural change, then you are going to have to do more than just provide a word document to read.

During this time it’s important to work to identify the explicit and implicit outcomes. I have worked on projects where the implicit outcomes are more important than the explicit ones (eg users need to understand the new changes (explicit), but they need to know that they are supported through the change (implicit).

3. Look at your sequencing and instructions

Instructions are important as they tell the user/learner what to do and what is expected of them. Regardless of the method of learning – Not enough instruction leaves users/learners disoriented and too much instruction places a cognitive load that means they may not be available to participate fully in the activities. I always try to step away to see what the instructions look like, or ask someone to review them. I ask myself, is this too much or too little – it is a fine balance sometimes. As an example, with a client, we have used analytics to identify how long users/learners stay online and used this information in our instructions so they aren’t overwhelmed.

Another area is when instructions and sequencing come together. Sequencing is a very subjective area and often it takes someone who is further away from the subject matter to untangle the order

Have a look at the text-based example below to see how a poor set of instructions with no context can be adapted.

Analyse risks (original text)

3.1 Assess likelihood of risks occurring.

3.2  Assess impact or consequence if risks occur.

3.3  Evaluate and prioritise risks for treatment.

3.1   Assess likelihood of risks occurring

The likelihood of a risk arising can be:

  • almost certain
  • likely
  • possible
  • unlikely
  • rare

Analyse risks (updated to add description)

In this section you will learn how to:

  • Assess the likelihood of risks occurring.
  • Assess impact or consequence if risks occur.
  • Evaluate and prioritise risks for treatment.

The assessment of a risk can be calculated by the looking at the likelihood of the risk occurring and the consequences of the risk.

The first step to analyse risks is to assess the likelihood of risks occurring. The likelihood of a risk arising can be:

  • almost certain
  • likely
  • possible
  • unlikely
  • rare.

Analyse risks (updated to soften outcomes and add context)

In this section, you will assess the likelihood of risks occurring in a scenario then assess impact or consequence if risks occur and evaluate and prioritise risks for treatment.

Melanie sits in a chair at work all day, Paul works in his garden. Melanie has a higher risk of getting a repetitive injury and Paul has a higher chance of hurting his back.

This is because the assessment of a risk can be calculated by the looking at the likelihood of the risk occurring and the consequences of the risk.

The first step to analyse risks is to assess the likelihood of risks occurring. The likelihood of a risk arising can be:

  • almost certain
  • likely
  • possible
  • unlikely
  • rare

Moving forward, I’d add images, flesh out the case study and add more context to the job role.

4. Be consistent (templates are your friend)

I’ve worked with many writers and not many of them can start with a blank page.

Why should writers and subject matter experts spend all their time working out how to display the information when they can be spending their time developing interesting and engaging learning paths and sequences. Templates can assist with this.

Before I start a project, I will collate my templates ready to adapt for the next client. These may include:

  • Style guides
  • Session plan template (f2f or webinars)
  • Online content template
  • Storyboard template
  • PPT template

Templates aren’t there to stifle creativity, rather allow it to be funnelled.

5. Use the research and your imagination

Balancing research and imagination allows you to find out what others are doing and imagine what can work in your context. Here are a few pieces of research that have really influenced my practice.

Reading patterns: When people are reading online, they read in an F shape. So what you place on the top left and left-hand side should be critical and important information. Don’t waste this space with redundant information. This article has more information.

Give up control: Give your user/learner the opportunity to control their learning. Research shows that text-based user/learner-paced content is more effective than controlled and synchronised audio. (See this blog and these two papers, here and here)

Break your content up with contrast: According to research, hard to read fonts can aid in comprehension! Read the short article here or access the original research.

There are a number of go-to educational theories that I refer to for ideas about how to address learning issues:

Blooms taxonomy is great when thinking about outcomes. Here is a fantastic article on revisiting Blooms taxonomy.

Kolb’s learning styles to think about the application at a course level. Here is a great resource.

Gagnes nine events of instruction are useful for thinking about course level sequencing. Here is some information about application in different types of courses.

Here are some links you may find useful, I go here for inspiration and ideas

You might be interested in our previous blogs about:

Helping learners choose the wrong answer

What are performance supports and why are they important

Gamification vs games

Classroom reflections on gamification techniques

What is gamification and where do you start

Rapid e-learning: Go beyond good looks

If you are interested in seeing the webinar on this topic – email

We can work with you to provide professional development for your staff on instructional design or provide a pool of instructional designers ready to work on your projects, just ask us how!

Reader Interactions


  1. Leonie Browne says

    Thanx Melanie. I found the information about reading patterns thought provoking. Will be applying in my next project.

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