Guiding Principles of Effective Instructional Design

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 To help formulate an effective instructional design strategy that addresses the changing needs of business and learners, use the following guiding principles:

  • Foster a culture of learning
  • Translate expertise
  • Measure, reevaluate and measure again

These principles can form a framework to help increase workplace performance while driving business results.

Foster a Culture of Learning

Learning is a process, not an event, so a move from “delivering training” to fostering continuous learning is critical for a pervasive culture of learning. Typically, people commit to learning when they are given opportunities to learn by doing, to engage in collaborative construction of knowledge, to participate in meaningful activities, and to experience mentoring relationships. Start with these design ideas as you begin to evangelize the need for continuous learning:

  • Design rich learning environments that include challenge and the possibility of failure.
  • Avoid use of “slidejunk”: presentational material flows through learners’ minds, is retained just long enough to perform on a test, and then forgotten.
  • Allow learners to engage in participatory, memorable experiences instead of merely listening to or reading others’ materials.
  • Provide opportunities for immediate feedback and discourse via social networks.

Also consider more systemic change, including:

  • Moving Beyond Classroom Thinking
    Studies show that on average, classroom instruction does not lead to increased performance over other forms of instruction. Social learning mediated by technology can provide opportunities for continuous learning that move beyond the formal classroom setting. Much of higher level processing and learning comes from discussions and explorations in unstructured social interactions. Create opportunities for learners to seek out experts to consult with outside of their learning cohort and reward the efforts of both parties.
  • Enabling Self-Directed Learning
    Provide learners with contextually meaningful tools and resources and deliver it to them “just–in-time” based on who they are, where they are, and what they do. Leverage tools such as

    • Wikis
      Learners can use wikis to work together to build knowledge bases, synthesize research, write papers, and present project-based work.
    • Blogs
      Blogs provide learners an audience for their writing, encouraging thoughtfulness and clarity, and enable learning through online debate, peer modeling and peer review.
    • Journals
      Journals are effective tools in learning retention. Use journals to engage participants in reflective writing within their own private space.
    • Podcasts
      Mobile learning is popular at the moment, and most people have connected devices. Podcasts can facilitate learning-on-the-go by disseminating recorded lectures and supplemental course material.

Translate Expertise

Instructional designers create a bridge between the experts’ and the learners’ knowledge. Experts often don’t know how they know what they know. Work closely with experts to translate their knowledge into content “chunks” that learners can fit into their own knowledge base. Expertise is not just about “doing the job” — it is also about providing the opportunity to achieve maximum potential. Not everyone will become an expert; in fact it is not necessary or desired in a high-performing workplace. For those who can and should achieve expertise, mentoring and performance is crucial, so you will want to identify and leverage them. Consider these design techniques to help translate expertise across your organization:

  • Encourage Learners to Model Mastery
    Developing in learners the ability to use problem solving processes similar to those of experts is challenging, but provides powerful evidence that learners are gaining the skills they need.
  • Build Immediate Feedback Loops
    Instigate immediate feedback via social networks such as Twitter. Immediate feedback loops should be provided as often as possible.
  • Place Learning Technology in its Proper Context
    Many instructional designers tend to rely on learning technology (authoring tools, learning management systems, content delivery systems) as a crutch merely because of visibility, resource allocation, and convenience. Not too many years ago, a VCR was considered the latest learning technology; overhead projectors, film projectors, audio tape, even chalkboards. There is no substitute for quality instructional design, and over-reliance on technology to help solve instructional problems will only make bad instructional design more apparent. If you start with learner needs and desired outcomes, the use of technology is more likely to end up in the proper context and the learning outcomes you seek will more likely occur.

Measure, Reevaluate, and Measure Again

Measurement provides data about what the learner needs to learn and has learned. Each kind of measurement provides important information that should influence the design of the instructional material. While multiple choice, true/false and fill in the blank are typical assessment tools, they are not the only ways to measure learning, and certainly not the most effective. Simulations, portfolios and writing can be used to assess deeper understanding. The best measurement tools can actually create further learning opportunities.

  • Simulations
    Simulations dramatically raise engagement and motivation levels. With learners assuming authentic roles within the experience, learners can demonstrate successful task completion.
  • Portfolios
    Portfolios collect and display artifacts created by the learner. This provides a real look at work the learner has completed.
  • Writing
    Writing in the form of short essays, blogging or even tweeting, can focus and reinforce learning, while demonstrating mastery of the subject matter.
  • Real-Time Observation
    When possible, observe performance in real-time. Feedback at the time of performance is one of the most powerful instruments in changing behavior. You’ll need management support, but this is a powerful measurement tool.

Using the measure, reevaluate and measure again sequence allows training to be responsive to learner needs. By measuring first, with a variety of tools, reevaluating and reapplying instructional methods and material and then measuring again, it becomes a learning track rather than a series of disparate training sessions.


Learners get excited when exposed to learning experiences that go beyond teaching-by-telling. However, learning is a complex process that requires, for each learner, a repertoire of multiple types of instruction. The instructional designer’s role is to discover what motivates people to increase their knowledge and skills and improve their performance. Before and during design ask yourself: I am creating a learning experience. Experiences change people. How is my design changing people for the better? For the worse?


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