Instructional Design Overview#

Instructional Design#

What is instructional Design?#

Instructional design is a combination of educational psychology, communications and user experience design. Instructional design in its most basic term is the creation of materials used to teach. However, instructional design goes beyond just the creation of materials to considering the best approaches and tools for teaching depending on the learner and the educational platform. Today, instructional design has become synonymous with online learning.

An Introduction to the ADDIE Model#

The ADDIE model is a process used by instructional designers. It was developed in 1975 and is widely accepted worldwide. Various revisions have been made over time and most instructional designers have their own approach to the model.

There are five phases in the ADDIE model: analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate. Each phase results in an output that feeds into the following step. However, the process is not linear. There is often multiple iterations that require an ID to return to the previous step.

In each phase there are guiding questions and important points to consider. Below are some of the items discussed in each step.

  • Analyze: clarify the problem, decide on the learning outcomes and objectives, consider the audience and set scope and timeline for the project.

  • Design: create the structure for the course, determine assessment methods, create content storyboards, and plan lessons.

  • Develop: build the course by creating or collecting the content and assessments in the LMS.

  • Implement: the delivery of the course which may require some instructor and/or student training and redesigns based on feedback from learners and instructors

  • Evaluate: use formative and summative feedback throughout the process and during delivery of the course to determine if the goals (learning outcomes) are being met.

The approach below is a revision of the ADDIE model that will be discussed in more details in The Course Development Process section.

An ADDIE Model Diagram

The Role of an Instructional Designer#

An Instructional Designer is generally responsible for understanding the capabilities of the learning system and can advise on effective course design, assessments and development of content within the platform. That instructional designer may operate on a very small team–sometimes as small as a team of one–or a much larger team made up of video producers, designers, developers and more. But a useful distinction to make is between the instructional designer and the content expert, also known as the subject matter expert. The role of the instructional designer is separate and distinct from the role of the subject matter expert:

An instructional designer:

  • Guides the course design process

  • Modifies course assets for online learning (if needed)

  • Advises on assessment and other capabilities of the LMS

  • Provides ongoing support to SME using the LMS

A subject matter expert (SME):

  • Determines learning goals

  • Provides course assets (lecture recordings,written content, assessment ideas, etc.)

  • Grades submitted assignments (if applicable)

  • Provides ongoing academic support/communication during delivery

Alignment & Backwards Design#

A Backward Design Diagram - Identify Result, Determine Evidence, Plan Teaching and Learning

Backwards Design#

Backwards design in education is a process that requires an instructor to first consider the outcome of a learning interaction (ie. what will the learning know or be able to do) before they determine how they will assess that learning, and then finally consider the methods of instructing. This is different from traditional approaches which would focus first on what and how the instructor would teach, with the focus being on the teacher’s imparting of knowledge compared to the learner’s understanding.

Designing a course requires an SME and ID to work backwards.

  1. Begin the process by starting with the desired result (your learning goals).

  2. Determine what would be considered acceptable evidence that the desired result has been achieved (your learning outcomes and assessment methods).

  3. Plan for the learning activities, content and practice opportunities that will help a learner achieve the desired result.

A Constructive Alignment Diagram, a Triangle showing Learning Outcomes, Learning Activities, and Assessments all make up Constructive Alignment

Constructive Alignment#

Constructive alignment is an educational principle for designing learning interactions that makes learning organized and explicit. In this design, your learning outcomes, activities and assessment should align or match.

  • Learning outcome: what should you learner know or be able to do at the end of the module/course?

  • Learning activity: how will the learners learn content or practice?

  • Learning assessment: how will learners provide evidence that they have met the outcome?

    • For example, if you want a student to learn how to cook a soup (outcome) and you can show them a video & have them read a recipe (activities). An aligned assessment would be to have them actually cook a soup (instead of answering multiple choice questions about how to cook a soup) since that is the evidence that best shows they have achieved the outcome.

One way to double check if your course is aligned is to check your assessment against your learning outcome verb.

  • If a learning outcome says a learner should “explain” a concept, do you have a text-input or ORA assessment question?

  • If a learning outcome says a learner should “identify”, do you have a checkbox or multiple choice question about that topic?

  • If a learning outcome says a learner should “discuss”, do you have a discussion forum? A peer-graded assessment?

Defining Goals, Objectives and Outcomes#

Learning Goals above Learning Objectives above Learning Outcomes

Learning Goals, Objectives and Outcomes are three course design terms that are often used interchangeably. But they are in fact meaningfully different terms.

  • Learning Goals: are big picture focused. Learning goals are often about the purpose of your course and how it fits into your organization’s plan. This is something that you hope to achieve.

  • Learning Objectives: are instructor focused. Objectives are the things that the instructor wants to teach or accomplish in the course. Objectives are translated into outcomes.

  • Learning Outcomes: are learner focused. Learning outcomes are statements that provide clarity about what a learner should know or be able to do at the end of a course.

Learning Goals#

Learning goals are often defined at the organizational level.

Some questions to ask when determining goals:

  • What knowledge is needed and why?

  • Who needs that knowledge and why?

  • Why might someone want or be required to have this knowledge?

  • Does this course/program help meet an organizational goal? Which one(s)? How?

Examples of learning goals:

  • Provide training to new employees

  • Share expert knowledge and research about a topic

  • Educate the general public

> An ‘Audience Analysis’ template [[LINK]](/docs/templates/template_audience_analysis) can help you think through who your audience will be and why they might be interested in (motivated or required to) take your course.

Learning Objectives#

Learning Objectives are defined by the course creators or instructor(s).

Learning objectives are teacher or instructor-focused. Objectives are often displayed as a list of topics that are to be covered in a course, lecture, on a course page, etc.

Learning objectives help an instructor create lesson plans and ensure they are providing the information and skills training needed for learners to achieve the learning outcomes

The terms ‘learning objectives’ and ‘learning outcomes’ are often used interchangeably and for many instructors and learners, achieve the same goal of providing information to learners.

Some questions to ask when determining learning objectives:

  • What are the major topics that need to be covered to help learners meet the learning outcome?

  • What are the key terms, definitions, concepts, theories, and/or examples that need to be presented?

Examples of learning objectives:

  • Provide context for rise in information manipulation in political campaigns

  • Present 3 case studies as examples of information manipulation

  • Explain the four main tactics used in information manipulation campaigns; provide examples.

Learning Outcomes#

Learning outcomes are written by the course creators or instructors for learners. Learning outcomes are learner-focused

Learning outcomes should give learners an idea of what they are expected to learn and how they will provide evidence of their learning.

A learning outcome is something that is achievable and measurable within the parameters of the course.

Learning outcomes begin with a measurable or observable action verb. Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning is used to help course instructors pinpoint the level of learning that can be achieved within their course.

The table below provides some examples of measurable learning verbs that can be used in learning outcomes.


Many instructors write learning outcomes that begin with the verb ‘understand’. Keep in mind that ‘understand’ is not something that can be directly observed or measured. It is often measured by defining, listing, identifying, explaining, etc. Being more specific about how you plan to measure understanding helps your learners process and review information to the appropriate level.

























Some questions to ask when determining learning outcomes:

  • What will my learner know or be able to do at the end of this section, unit, course?

  • How will my learner provide evidence of their learning? How can I assess their achievement of the learning outcome?

Steps for writing learning outcomes:

  1. Begin with a verb (use bloom’s taxonomy)

  2. State something that is observable

  3. State something that can be assessed in the platform

Examples of learning outcomes

  • Define information manipulation

  • Identify the threat actors, tactics, content and vectors co-opted by information manipulation campaigns

  • Discuss emerging challenges as information manipulation adapts to new media platforms

> [[Link to Outcome & Alignment template]](/docs/templates/template_outcomes)

Learning Theories#

Instructional designers and subject matter experts will use various learning theories. Knowing these theories helps an ID understand how people retain and recall information and how they stay motivated or engaged in learning. There are multiple learning theories that can influence the design of a course. A few are introduced below.

  • Adult learning theory recognizes that children and adults learn differently, mostly due to the fact that adults have more pre-existing knowledge and biases due to having more life experience. Adult learning theories suggest that adults have more internal motivation tied to personal goals. In most cases learners and teachers are seen as equals or as able of teaching other, and learning is much more self-directed.

  • Self-directed learning suggests that learners have an internal drive or motivation to gain new knowledge or skills. In self-directed learning environments learners have control over what and when they learn materials; choice in the knowledge they wish to gain is an important factor.

  • Lifelong learning suggests that adults can engage in personalized learning to fill in gaps created by traditional learning systems.

  • Collaborative learning approaches combine multiple other learning theories, but ultimately suggest that learners can create meaning through interactions with peers. Discussions, peer feedback, conversations and shared experiences create learning.

  • The constructivist approach to learning assumes that learners build knowledge from experience. Learners add new information and experiences to their existing knowledge through reflection. Peer to peer learning is used in constructivism where learners can share experiences to add to their knowledge.

  • Cognitive learning focuses on learners analyzing their own thoughts to gain new knowledge. A cognitive perspective encourages learners to apply their new knowledge and to engage in active learning to deepen their understanding.

  • Transformative learning is about changing ideas or beliefs. Reflection is a key component of transformative learning and is employed when a learner encounters a dilemma or controversy that challenges their world view.

  • Behavioral Learning theory is based in behaviorism and suggests that people learn by interacting with stimuli in their environment. Positive reinforcement is a component of this theory which can be used to change behaviours.Behaviorism is often considered a more passive approach to learning, but can be made more active by including confirmation of knowledge assessments to encourage learning behaviors (through positive reinforcement).

  • Connectivism is one of the most recent learning theories that takes the digital age into consideration. In this theory a learner’s ability or capacity to learn is more important than the information itself since information is constantly changing and readily available. This theory suggests that social learning and technology play an important role in a person’s current understanding.

Active Learning#

Why is active learning important? Active Learning through interaction with material creates lasting, deeper learning. Research shows that when learners apply more active approaches to learning that they form a deeper understanding of material and it improves their recall, recognition and application of course material.


Surface learning is often associated with memorization without understanding, while deep learning is associated with understanding, connection and application. Depending on the goals of your course/program, both surface and deep learning can be important goals, but most instructors are aiming for deep learning.*

Active learning approaches can be employed by the learner alone, but can also be encouraged by course instructors through course design, structure, opportunities for feedback, and assessment types.

Providing opportunities for learners to connect with each other, their instructors and their prior knowledge can improve the learning experience leading to higher satisfaction as well as deeper learning.

Below is a list of engagement trigger examples that can be built into your course to encourage active learning:

  • Create a concept map.

  • Reflect on a video.

  • Check your understanding quiz.

  • Polling questions.

  • Informal pre-class quiz.

  • Consider a case study.

  • Interactive exercises (create graphs, drag & drop, etc.).

  • Choose your own adventure exercises.

  • Interpret a graph.

  • Share a relevant news headline.

  • Point-on-image assessment.

  • Discuss a visual (cartoon, news headline, meme, etc.).

  • Predict the topic.

  • Peer Reviewed Assignments (ORA).

  • Annotate an image or text.

  • Use a padlet board for sharing ideas.


Why assess?#

There are three main reasons why outcomes are assessed:

  1. For learning: assessment for learning can lead to increased motivation, building confidence, to help learners self-assess and to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement.

  2. For certification: to provide a grade, rank, certification or degree, to complete training or job performance requirements, and to meet governing body regulations.

  3. For quality assurance: to assess the achievement of course/program aims (learning goals), to track learning achievement over time, and to protect the profession and the public.

How to Assess?#

There are different types of assessment, all of which can be graded or ungraded and can be built a wide variety of ways.

  • Formative assessment: these assessments are meant to support learning. These are often ‘low stakes’ or ungraded assessments. These assessments should always include feedback.

  • Summative assessment: these assessments are meant to evaluate learning at the end of a unit/module/course. These assessments are graded. Ideally, feedback should also been given to students following a summative assessment.

It is important to provide hints, explanations and feedback for all formative assessments (and it is encouraged for summative assessments).

Examples of assessments#

  • Multiple choice, check box questions

  • Mathematical problems

  • Text and number input questions

  • Drag & drop assessments

  • Open-response assessments

  • Self, Staff and Peer-graded assessments

  • Reflection questions

  • Peer Instruction assessments

  • External assessments such as javascript problems

Motivation & Communication#

What is motivation?#

Motivation is the force that encourages a learning to persist even when they meet challenges or obstacles. In adult learning, it is assumed that most learners are motivated by personal goals. Motivation is a predictor of success, retention and completion in learning environments. Interest can play an important role in motivation, with people generally more motivated to pursue learning topics that hold personal interest for them.

  • Internal motivation: comes from within and is tied to personal goals and values. Interest can play a vital role in internal motivation.

  • External motivation: comes from outside of yourself to reach a goal. Usually this motivation comes from someone else (an employer, a parent, etc.)

Many learners are primarily motivated (or moved to engage in learning behaviours) by external factors which can include requirements from an employer, the opportunity for payment/advancement in their career, to meet the expectations of others, or by deadlines. Timelines and deadlines are motivators because failing to meet those deadlines can have negative consequences that results in either more effort required (repeating a course or training program) or being unable to progress (get a promotion, be approved to engage in certain tasks, etc.).

ARCS Model of Motivation#

ARCS Model of Motivation showing Attention, Relevance, Satisfaction, Confidence

The ARCS model of motivation is widely used in eLearning which focuses on creating and maintaining motivation through a course. There are four components to the ARCS model of motivation:

  • Attention: This refers to capturing and maintaining the learner’s attention. This can be done through providing variety in the methods of presenting information, using real-world examples or creating conflict within their knowledge and encouraging active participation and inquiry.

  • Relevance: This refers to helping learners bridge the gap between what they are being taught and how they will use this information ‘in the real world’. Connecting to current or future goals, understand and meeting the needs of the learners, allowing choice, modeling and linking to previous experiences are ways to create relevance.

  • Confidence: This refers to developing an expectation of success among learners. This is achieved by clear communication of learning outcomes, providing feedback and opportunities for practice and allowing learners to have control of their own learning.

  • Satisfaction: This refers to the direct connection between satisfaction and motivation. Encouraging intrinsic enjoyment of learning, ensuring equal standards across the course, and provide feedback and ‘rewards’ to boost satisfaction.

Additional Motivation Factors#

Learners can also be motivated by factors such as praise, a sense of accomplishment, a love of learning, or curiosity. There are many ways to encourage learners in an online course.

How do you make this work in an online environment?

  • For learners who are curious and have a love of learning, it is important for your content to be entertaining. Connecting concepts to a learner’s existing knowledge or something that they can readily connect to can increase their interest.

  • For learners who are motivated by requirements or a sense of accomplishment, including opportunities for formative assessments and confirmation of knowledge can encourage learners to continue to engage in behaviours that have been confirmed to increase their knowledge or skills.

One really important aspect of motivating learners is providing clear, explicit goals and instructions. Communication is key to letting learners know what they are expected to learn, how they are expected to learn it, and how they will show evidence of their learning. This explicit road map makes it easier for learners to create a plan for their learning and engage in behaviours that will result in the intended learning outcomes.

Providing clear instructions, articulating expectations and providing feedback are ways that an instructional designer can help learners gain motivation. Understanding why something is being taught or assessed can help learners tap into the strategies and skills needed to complete a learning task. Of course, communication is key to ensuring that learners complete tasks on time and to the level of effort that is expected.

Online Learning Best Practices#

As you get started building your online course in Open EdX, here are five important principles to keep in mind:

  1. Clearly define the learning goals and outcomes.

  2. Match your learning outcomes to the content you present and the ways you assess learning.

  3. Create opportunities for learners to engage with a) what they’ve learned, b) their peers, c) the course instructor.

  4. Think about the needs and motivations of different learners.

  5. Create a course outline before you start building.