Instructional Design Principles

Now that I have been exposed to instructional design in some detail, have had an opportunity to explore a variety of models, and have gone through the design process with a partner, I feel like I am ready to develop a set of my own design principles.  The intention of these principles is guide my design process and to remind myself of the elements I have recently grown to value.

1. Outcomes Come First

In order to develop an instructional artifact that accomplishes its goal of providing learners with a specific skill or knowledge, a designer should always begin with a focus on the learning outcomes.  Curry et al. (2020) pointed out that outcomes can be categorized into a series of five domains, including cognitive strategies and motor skills, amongst others, and that each require their own approach in terms of instruction.  Considering that concept, it would be wise to begin with an understanding of the learning outcomes in mind, the domain in which they fall, and to ensure that the pedagogy aligns with the outcomes.  Looking back, I believe I have often approached instructional design in this manner, but without intentionality.  I have also only designed instruction associated with the topic of my expertise.  If I am to pursue instructional design as a profession, a more grounded understanding of learning domains would be beneficial.

2. Know Your Audience

Analysis of the learners who will make use of an instructional artifact is crucial to ensure that the content is curated and presented in a manner that is suitable for them.  Stefaniak and Baaki (2013) asserted that “a learner analysis should include a description of the learners’ entry behaviours, attitudes, motivation, learning preferences, and group characteristics” (p. 6).  Through such an analysis, the designer positions themselves well to increase the suitability of content, assignments, and delivery method to the specific needs of the learners.  As a marketer, I have long understood that a deep understanding of the audience with whom you are communicating is essential for the development of a compelling message that motivates them into action.  Instruction, I have learned, is no different.

3. Teach Less to Learn More

Two of the hallmarks of good design, as indicated by Mathur (2018), are simplicity and clarity.  Both of these qualities are applicable to instructional design when employed to increase focus in the course material and a reduction of cognitive load.  Jenkins et al. (2013) indicated that “when designing learning materials, extraneous cognitive load should be minimized so that learning can occur” (p. 62).  They went on to argue that overcomplicated presentations can “expend users’ working memory”, which can reduce the likelihood of achieving the objectives of the course (p.62).  On a similar subject, Peterson et al. (2020) recommended identifying the “core competencies” that are the foundation of the curriculum and allow the rest to be dropped (p. 3).  The benefit of this approach is a more focused course, and the educator can spend more time on the meaning-making of the required learning objectives.  I now recognize that I have had a history of including too much content in my courses.  I find the subject that I teach fascinating, and I often feel the need to share as much as possible with my students.  Looking back, I see the result was a series of courses that lacked focus and efficiency.  This is something I look to correct in the future.

4. Technology is Supportive

Technology’s continued inclusion in instructional design seems like a foregone conclusion.  Having said that, it is important to remember its place in education, which is in a supportive capacity to other instructional methods.  It was Clark’s (1994) position that media was not the driving force in learning methods, but rather that it could increase the accessibility or efficiency of those methods.  As a result, technology should be chosen to increase the effectiveness and cost of instruction but should not replace methods as the central theme.  Additionally, Morris (2018) recommended a figurative return to the foundational decision-making that took place to include technology in instruction to ensure that when we do include it, we do so with intentionality.  This principle is included to remind me that I should not choose to include a piece of technology to entertain myself or my students, but rather for what it brings to the instructional artifact and how it improves learning in a cost effective and accessible manner.

5. Present the Problem

In order to improve motivation and increase engagement in course content, learners need to have an understanding of why they are being taught a certain skill or concept.  The first of Merrill’s Principles of Instruction is the presentation of the problem.  In his own words, Merrill (2002) asserted that “learning is promoted when learners are shown the task that they will be able to do or the problem they will be able to solve as a result of completing a module or course” (p. 45).  In my own practice, I have occasionally overlooked this critical step.  I include this design principle here to decrease the likelihood that I will do so again.

6. Feedback is Formative

Learners need to receive feedback throughout their development so they can make any necessary corrections to their behaviour or thinking.  Formative assessment is an important step in any instructional artifact and should not be dismissed.  It is beneficial for both the learner and the educator.  Lau (2016) observed that students benefit from being involved in the construction of their own education and the development of their own sense of judgement.  They can only do this if they have access to the educator’s constructive feedback.  On the other hand, in terms of the educator, Bloom (1968) pointed out that if one were to track the results of formative testing over time, they could determine the efficacy of certain instructional methods and iterate their practice accordingly.  In my own practice, I have almost exclusively engaged in summative assessment.  While I have regularly provided my students with informal feedback, I look forward to formalizing this important step in my practice with the use of formative assessment.

7. Keep Evaluations Authentic

Assessments should reflect, as closely as possible, a learner’s ability to perform the skill or solve the problem at hand in a real-world scenario.  Supportive of this idea was Koh’s (2017) assertion that “authentic assessment is an effective measure of intellectual achievement or ability because it requires students to demonstrate their deep understanding, higher-order thinking, and complex problem solving” (p. 1).  It is through these authentic assessments that students are able to demonstrate the synthesis of their new knowledge by applying it to real problems in their own context.  My previous experience with executing summative assessment has been through a requirement for my students to regurgitate my own interpretations and perspectives back to me.  This superficial and rote memorization has little value.  What really matters is the student’s ability to assimilate the information presented in the course and synthesize it with existing knowledge.  In this way it becomes a schema they can apply to new situations and from which they can benefit in their own contexts.

8. Open When Able

Finally, when the opportunity is available, the inclusion of Open Education Practices (OEP) can be used to increase learner agency and engagement.  Baran and AlZoubi (2020) observed that “the greatest value of open pedagogy is that it promotes student agency and provides open access awareness” (p. 232).  They further pointed out that students who had a higher sense of agency through exposure to OEP “were engaged and excited to act on their own goals in open pedagogy practices” (p. 239).  Student agency is something that has been absent from my previous courses.  I recognize that my attempts to bring structure and objectivism to my curriculum has prevented my students from taking ownership of their learning, which results in less engagement.  If I want my students to take control of their education and learn to learn, they must be given opportunities to explore those skills.

In conclusion, my exposure to instructional design, learning theory, and the design process has been invaluable.  It has given me a new perspective on how I will approach education and design my courses.  Critical for me is a sense of intentionality, purpose, and direction as opposed to blindly throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.  I look forward to making use of these design principles in my practice when I return to teaching.


Baran, E., & AlZoubi, D. (2020). Affordances, challenges, and impact of open pedagogy: examining students’ voices. Distance Education, 41(2), 230–244.

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for Mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), 1–12.

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21–29.

Curry, J. H., Johnson, S., & Peacock, R. (2020). Robert Gagné and the systematic design of instruction. Design for Learning: Principles, Processes, and Praxis, 1–12.

Jenkins, J. L., Durcikova, A., & Burns, M. B. (2013). Simplicity is bliss: Controlling extraneous cognitive load in online security training to promote secure behavior. Journal of Organizational and End User Computing, 25(3), 52–66.

Koh, K. H. (2017). Authentic assessment. In Oxford research encyclopedia of education.

Lau, A. M. S. (2016). ‘Formative good, summative bad?’ – A review of the dichotomy in assessment literature. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 40(4), 509–525.

Mathur, G. (2018). Simplicity, clarity, and elegance in digital product design. Myntra UX Design.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43–59.

Morris, S. M. (2018). Critical instructional design. An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Design Pedagogy, 1–14.

Petersen, C. I., Baepler, P., Beitz, A., Ching, P., Gorman, K. S., Neudauer, C. L., Rozaitis, W., Walker, J. D., & Wingert, D. (2020). The tyranny of content: “content coverage” as a barrier to evidence-based teaching approaches and ways to overcome it. CBE Life Sciences Education, 19(2), 1–10.

Stefaniak, J. E., & Baaki, J. (2013). A layered approach to understanding your audience. Performance Improvement, 52(6), 5–10.

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