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  • Writer's pictureZubia Mughal

Have a Clue or Clueless? Which Instruction Design Theory Do I Choose?

Updated: Jun 14, 2021



ADDIE + Design Thinking = LX Design (read this article here)

Congratulations! You nailed it!

The best bidder and the best portfolio (yours) won the contract. You have successfully built a great rapport with the client. They are very excited to see the first draft of the program. It’s a 20-course program, each with 10 modules.

You have about 600 pages of PDF files sitting at your desk.

And you do have a complete learner profile from the client.

You begin planning your next steps. And then get the familiar “blank out” moment. You dismiss the blanking out with a “we will see how it goes”.

Ok, let's pause here.

Before we (Instruction Designers) attempt any project, we need to decide which Instruction Design Theory to select and follow.

This is a step that most of us dread. It is also a step that is the most talked about in most ID- role position interviews: “What instruction design theory do you choose for a given project?”

Your response:

A. Depends on my mood.

B. Model X – it seems to work well every time.

C. Depends.

Feedback: C

It truly depends. Not on your mood or what has been working in the past though! It depends on the learner analysis and organizational expectations.

The best bet is to begin assessing the organization and the prospective learner the minute you begin your first client meeting. Do a quick Needs and Gap Analysis in your mind (I will cover both in my upcoming articles).

So yes, go ahead and determine (in a bulleted list format, preferably):

  • The organization’s expectations

  • The employee/learner performance analysis (skill, attitude, behavior analysis)

  • The current performance versus the expected performance

Get these answers. Do not blank them out!

These will give you a clue on what instruction design theories to select.

Still clueless? No worries. Read on:

Which Instruction Design Theory Do I Choose?

In a perfect situation (usually in theory – far from practice!), the Instruction Design Theory you choose would align nicely with the needs of the learners and the client’s KPIs’. And don’t forget the subject matter expert. They have an important role in the program evaluation. Factoring in the needs and wants of these three primary stakeholders and fitting them through a single instruction design theory funnel would not be effective (or practical either!).

Here are some common situations that can help point you towards the most desirable instruction design theory to select for your project:

1. Problem-based training: In this situation, the client expects the learner to be able to solve problems. Such eLearning programs require the application and synthesis of subject matter concepts. Acquiring the right knowledge is the main goal here. Merrill’s Principles of Instruction would fit nicely:

Merill's theory is based on four core phases of learning: demonstration, activation of previous knowledge, application, integration into real-world challenges. The approach is problem-centered. This theory also involves "scaffolding", or teaching at the zone of proximal development. In this teaching style, the learners are gradually introduced to more complex ideas and concepts as the lesson progresses.

2. Personalized/Branched Learning Paths: In this learning situation, the learner is an advanced knowledge seeker. Think CEOs, CIOs’ and the rest of the chiefs in the company! The learner here is smart and wants more control over their learning. They want to be able to skip the content they are familiar with. But don’t worry, the learning they consume would still be organized with the aid of a theory: Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI):

a. Determine the material to be covered in the course.

b. Divide the material into self-contained modules (segments).

c. Create methods of evaluating the degree to which the learner has conquered the material in a given module.

d. Allow learners to move from module to module at their own pace.

3. Clueless Client: Yes, we still get them all the time! These clients need greater consulting time to help them decide what they are really trying to achieve through the instructional design process. I am not trying to say, we need to use any model for a client who just wants instruction built for e-learning or instructor-led training. The ADDIE Model offers a great “bird’s eye” view of the instruction to be designed. The ADDIE model tackles mostly ID projects for e-learning rather than learning behaviors (as compared above). It also provides for a more content-focused design that implements the CCAF rule in instruction (context, challenge, activity, feedback).

This acronym stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. The ADDIE model was first designed in 1975 by the U.S. Army by the Centre for Educational Technology at Florida State University. It is comprised of the five factors listed above, which help Instructional Design professionals tackle eLearning projects in stages.

Here's a great comparison between ADDIE and Backward Planning, published on the the E-Learning Industry Blog:



4. The Client in a Rush: This situation is usually a “911” situation, where the client desires a learning solution (online or traditional or blended) literally in a jiffy! And they are not ready to compromise on quality. They require a standard instruction design service that yields a concise and complete course. And did I mention, they need it fast? The SAM Model is usually selected for this situation:

Successive Approximation Model (SAM) is an Agile Instructional Systems Design model that has been introduced as an alternative to ADDIE that also emphasizes collaboration, efficiency, and repetition. BTW, it has been adopted by the ASTD, the American Society for Training and Development.

5. The International Client: This learning situation is increasingly becoming common as businesses are seeking a global presence. Naturally, they expect to have multiple offices in each continent. Developing instruction for such clients comes with the expectation that the learning content would be acclimatized to the learner. The Socio-Cultural Theory developed by Leo Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. His quote that “through others, we become ourselves” supports the idea that learning is a social process. There are 3 key themes of the socio-cultural learning theory:

i. Culture

ii. Language

iii. ZPD (zone of proximal development)

Although we have more instruction design theories than listed here, these are the most commonly used ones. Some situations would require you to mix them up to meet the learner and the organization's expectations. So, don’t be afraid and use them all liberally!

What instruction design theory is your favorite? Do share with me. I could learn a few tips from you!


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