Six Steps for Better Instructional Design

Keeping up with ever-changing business and technical landscapes can be challenging for employees and leaders across industries. For this reason, education and training are essential in every field. However, instructional designers are often expected to deliver professional development resources on short notice, or with limited resources. Creating instructional materials under these circumstances can be daunting, but using basic instructional design principles can help you overcome these challenges and create engaging learning programs.

Whether you’re starting a learning program from scratch or taking a closer look at existing training programs, these six steps could help you improve your approach to instructional design and create more effective learning experiences:

1. Begin at the End

Begin by pinpointing, as precisely as possible, what it is that the learner will know and be able to do when the instruction is completed. This is often the hardest part in the instructional design cycle, but it’s also foundational. As Litmos Chief Learning Officer Dr. Jill Stefaniak explains it, instructional designers should “keep the end in mind,” by prioritizing the activities and resources that might elicit different learning outcomes for their intended learners.

When generating goals for your L&D program, avoid ‘soft goals’ that are imprecise, or vague verbs such as ‘will understand’. Classify your instructional objectives according to the three learning outcomes – procedural, conceptual, or conditional knowledge – and then create learning goals that include demonstrable skills and behaviors related to those outcomes.

2. Know Your Audience

Understanding your learners is crucial in instructional design. To optimize your learning materials, you should be asking yourself whether the learners you’re training will grasp the utility, relevance, and value of your training. Knowing the needs of your learners, their prior knowledge, and their comfort with the materials is also indispensable.

Creating a needs assessment can help you assess your organization’s learning needs, identify workforce skills gaps, and measure baseline learner metrics before creating courses that meet your organization’s requirements.

Depending on your workplace, you may have limited information about your learners. At the very least, you should be able to ascertain some essential facts such as approximate literacy levels, prior knowledge of the instructional content, level of comfort with the instructional technology and degrees of motivation.

3. Develop a Game Plan

Develop instructional strategies based on your analysis of both the learners and the course content. This can be a lengthy step in the process because it is so open-ended and context dependent.

Consider the diverse needs of different learners and the specific skills or behaviors you want to teach. Strategies for sales training will differ from those for training customer service representatives, for instance. The key to creating an effective L&D plan is writing down measurable goals that align to your desired learning outcomes and revisiting those goals as throughout the training process.

4. Find or Create the Instructional Materials

The game plan you created in the previous step will guide your curation and creation of instructional materials. In some cases, your existing course content might work with just a little tweaking. In other scenarios, you may need to start from scratch. So, having accurate information about your learner audience (see Step 2) and outlining a strategy to reach them (see Step 3) will be critical in helping you assess the opportunities and gaps in your existing course materials.

Revisit your needs assessment and learner analyses to identify which materials would be most effective. Above all else, do not construct a barrier to learning by choosing inappropriate or inaccessible formats.

5. Evaluate Your Learners

Assessing learning in an instructional setting can be challenging. Unless the group is small or the budget unlimited, demonstrations of learned skills are probably not feasible. Written tests with various assessment instruments can provide valuable insights. Include multiple-choice, short answer, matching, ordering, and problem-solving questions to evaluate the extent of learning.

Research in the science of learning has also shown that a spaced repetition approach – in which topics are studied over time, at increasingly longer intervals – can improve knowledge retention. With this in mind, your post-course assessments can serve two purposes: evaluating learner progress and reinforcement of key concepts for better knowledge transfer. Consider using an LMS feature that allows you to send assessment questions to learners who have completed a course, and do so at pre-determined intervals to ensure that learners continue to retain important knowledge.

6. Evaluate Your Instruction

Speaking of post-training assessment, don’t forget to evaluate the course itself after your learners have completed it! After the initial use of instructional materials, you should aim to objectively evaluate their effectiveness by identifying what worked well and what needs improvement.

Don’t be afraid to ask learners about all of the aspects of your instruction, from the mode of delivery and the setting of the instruction, to the content itself. When asking for feedback, keep the questions as open-ended as possible. Feedback forms that rely on ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses miss an opportunity to gather deeper insights from the learners being surveyed.

Follow up on your training program’s performance with surveys that measure the learner’s perception of the value of the instruction, at set periods after the instruction. This form of evaluation can take time, though, since learning is an ongoing process and sometimes the value of the instruction is not immediately apparent.

Instructional design plays a vital role in education and training. By following these six steps, you can create effective instructional materials that meet the needs of your learners and drive meaningful learning experiences. Remember to continuously evaluate and refine your instruction to ensure ongoing improvement.