Instructional Design 101

Before we plunge into instructional design, let’s step back. What does it mean to design? Here’s the definition, according to Merriam-Webster:


1. to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan: devise, contrive

2. a: to conceive and plan out in the mind

b: to have as a purpose: intend

c: to devise for a specific function or end

Design is applied in many fields. Engineers design, construct, test, and refine solutions to problems. Fashion designers bring art to life in clothing, jewelry, and accessories. And then there’s user interface design, video and film design, marketing, and even publishing. In educational publishing, design often refers to graphic design—envisioning and creating the visual look and feel of a book or product. However, graphic design is just one small part of another field of design essential to creating educational materials—instructional design.

Instructional Design Models

Over the years, numerous instructional design models have been developed that serve as frameworks for modules or lessons, by:

  • increasing and/or enhancing the possibility of learning, and
  • encouraging the engagement of learners so that they learn faster and gain deeper levels of understanding.

Instructional design is the systemic process by which instructional materials are designed, developed, and delivered. Instructional design creates a learning environment that is focused on the learner, with an organized structure for content and activities designed to achieve specific learning objectives. This involves applying educational research and teaching practice to craft curriculum and instructional materials aligned to those objectives, thereby improving learning outcomes.

You often hear about instructional design in the context of technology—specifically, digital learning experiences. But the primary goal of instructional design is not the use of technology—it’s good instruction. Technology is just one tool that can be employed to achieve the larger goal: to improve learning outcomes.

The ADDIE Model

One of the earliest instructional design models, ADDIE, includes these five phases:

  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Development
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

The ADDIE model was derived from systems design, which was used in World War II to coordinate the Normandy landings. The ADDIE model is still used widely, in part because it works well for complex learning systems. Many of the current instructional design models were developed by making improvements to the ADDIE model.

The fundamental tenet of ADDIE is that all planned activities focus on guiding the student to construct knowledge and skills during episodes of guided learning. In guided learning, the student tries to achieve outcomes mutually agreed upon with the teacher. ADDIE is applied when it is evident that instruction is needed to address a performance gap—for example, one caused by a lack of knowledge and/or skills (Branch, 11).

What occurs during each phase in the model? The following are typical sub-steps of the ADDIE model, as outlined by Branch (3):

 The analysis phase determines the issues that are going to be addressed by the model. This includes:

  • clarifying the instructional problem or problems
  • establishing instructional goals and objectives
  • identifying the learning environment and the learners’ existing knowledge and skills

 The systematic design phase deals with identifying the following and the specific relationships among them:

  • data from subject matter analysis
  • learning objectives
  • assessment instruments
  • exercises
  • content
  • lesson planning and media/technology selection

 In the development phase, the content assets that were blueprinted in the design phase are created and assembled by instructional designers and developers:

  • creating storyboards or wireframes
  • writing content
  • designing graphics
  • developing and/or integrating any educational technologies, if used

 The implementation phase determines what needs to be done to prepare facilitators and learners for the guided learning activities:

  • developing procedures for training facilitators and learners
  • creating facilitator training that covers course curriculum, learning outcomes, method of delivery, and testing procedures

 In the evaluation phase, two types of assessment are used to evaluate what has been developed:

  • Part 1: Formative assessment used during each stage of the ADDIE process
  • Part 2: Summative assessments that test domain-specific knowledge and skills using criterion-referenced questions or performance tasks and feedback from pilot-study users

Weaknesses of the ADDIE Model

The original ADDIE model is what is known as a classic design, or waterfall model. This is a linear approach that follows a very specific process to reach a predetermined end state, like a waterfall that spills from point A to point D, passing in linear fashion through points B and C. These are the steps that would be followed in a waterfall model to create multimedia content (Kearsley and Culatta):

“Classic Design (Waterfall) Model

  1. concept definition
  2. requirements definition
  3. preliminary design
  4. detailed design
  5. code implementation
  6. test and acceptance
  7. [griping because you now realize that there was something that got left out back in step 2]”

The linear approach used in the waterfall model works well for static content, but it doesn’t work for user-generated content or learning outcomes that do not have a predetermined end state; it’s too restrictive. As step 7 shows, the model assumes that all the requirements can be known before the content has been developed. For digital learning experiences, that often isn’t the case.

In response to these shortcomings, the ADDIE model has continued to change and instructional designers now use it mainly in an iterative way, with evaluation leading to new analysis and further design and development modifications. You may have seen diagrams that show the five phases of ADDIE in a continuously repeating cycle:

ADDIE model of Instructional Design

Rapid Prototyping

The rapid prototyping instructional design model was created to address the weaknesses of the original ADDIE model. This model develops learning experiences in a continual design-evaluation cycle that is ongoing throughout the life of the project. This iterative cycle improves products continuously. The steps typically followed are outlined below (Kearsley and Culatta):

“Rapid Prototyping (Spiral) Model

  1. concept definition
  2. implementation of a skeletal system
  3. user evaluation and concept refinement
  4. implementation of refined requirement
  5. user evaluation and concept refinement
  6. implementation of refined requirements
  7. [etc., etc., in a continuous cycle]”

In rapid prototyping, the focus is on getting feedback from learners early in the design process without spending much time or money on the early prototypes. The benefit is clear: you protect sufficient resources (again, time and money) to enable executing a product plan after you know it will work!

Wireframes are one way to develop a rapid prototype. In software design, a wireframe is usually made with rectangles or other shapes on a page, with words to show what each shape represents, and more words to show how each shape relates to the other shapes. If you have ever worked with wireframes, try to remember the first time you saw one. You may have wondered, “Is this what it will look like?” And the answer was, “No, it’s too soon to worry about that yet! Let’s first focus on what it should do.”

I was curious about the term wireframe, and discovered it was used in 3D animation because the points and lines could be drawn quickly and leave enough CPU memory for other “labor intensive” tasks used to render 3D motion.

Even before wireframing, you can work with paper-and-pencil prototypes. I did this, long before I had heard of rapid prototyping, in a project to develop an online fraction-addition game. We made a prototype with cards that students picked and played. Right off the bat, we had to make a choice about which denominators to allow. We ultimately limited the game to multiples of 1/12, 1/6, 1/4, 1/3, and 1/2. We learned a lot by watching students—realizing, for example, that the game was much more interesting if they could see the cards in their opponent’s hand. This allowed for “blocking strategies” to prevent a good play by your opponent. We also saw the benefit of adding a visual model of the fraction on each card, in part for pedagogical reasons, but even more so because it increased the speed of play. By the time we got around to programming (the most expensive part of the project), we knew we had a game kids would want to play.

Understanding by Design® (UbD™)

The Understanding by Design (UbD) framework contains some of the same elements as the ADDIE and Rapid Prototyping models, but it’s a very different approach because it takes design to the curriculum level. It was developed by nationally recognized educators Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, and published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Understanding by Design is an iterative model that reflects a continual-improvement approach to student achievement and teacher craft. The results of the designs—student performance—maximize student learning by informing needed adjustments in curriculum and instruction. Like the ADDIE Model, activities are designed or revised to address a performance gap. This ensures that student understanding is being deepened and that a transfer of learning is taking place, as demonstrated by a student’s ability to effectively use content knowledge and skills.

There are two key ideas at the core of UbD:

  1. Focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and learning transfer, and
  2. Design curriculum “backward” from the assessment that traditionally occurs at the end of a learning cycle.

Backward Design

Understanding by Design is part of a broader approach known as Backward Design, which starts by focusing on the end of the process: assessment. A traditional planning process began with thinking through how to teach content. Backward Design starts with the desired results of that teaching, delaying the planning of classroom activities until goals have been clarified and assessments designed. McTighe and Wiggins explain that you have to know exactly what you want your students to learn before you start planning how you’re going to teach.

It might seem paradoxical, but starting with assessment helps avoid the common problem of “teaching to the test.” Why? Because there is little value in have students regurgitate what they read in a textbook. The assessments that drive Backward Design answer to a higher-level demand, which is to prove that students can apply what they learned in a new context. Only then do you know they’ve really learned it.

Backward Design also avoids the pitfall of active learning just for the sake of active learning. “Activity-oriented” teaching may seem like it’s always a good idea, but to be effective, it has to be done with clear priorities and purposes—exactly where Backward Design is pushing (or pulling) us.

A Word of Encouragement

The three instructional design models outlined in this blog post all have their strengths and weaknesses. There are many other models you may come across. According to Michael Allen, there are four criteria to consider when evaluating an instructional design model (Freifeld):

The process must

  1. be iterative,
  2. support collaboration,
  3. be efficient and effective, and
  4. be manageable.

Of course, these criteria are not set in stone. Keep in mind that whatever model you choose will have its strengths and weaknesses. Your challenge will be to play to its strengths and find ways to minimize the impact of its weaknesses.


Works Cited

Branch, Robert Maribe. (2009). Instructional Design: The ADDIE Approach. New York: Springer Science+Business Media. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

Freifeld, Lorri. Criteria for the Ideal Instructional Design Process Model; Excerpt from “Leaving ADDIE for SAM (the Successive Approximation Model)” by Michael W. Allen. ASTD, September 2012. Web. 4 March, 2016. < >

“design.” Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 4 March 2016.<>

Kearsley, Gary, and Richard Culatta. “Rapid Prototyping.” 2013. Web. 4 March 2016. <>

McTighe, Jay, and Grant Wiggins. Understanding by Design Framework. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Web. 2011. <>

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