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Instructional Design Guide: What Is It and How Does It Work? - HRDQ

Instructional Design Guide: What Is It and How Does It Work?

If you're interested in improving efficiency and performance in your workplace, one of the most effective things you can do is provide employees with consistent and relevant training. Well-designed training programs can ensure your employees develop the skills they need while fostering a learning culture in your organization.

One vital part of the training process is the training materials you choose to use. Designing and implementing the right materials can help to promote structure, clarity, and consistency among your team. When you invest in well-designed training materials, you'll likely see improved learning outcomes, increased knowledge retention, and improved efficiency.

The process of creating learning experiences and materials that are both engaging and effective is known as instructional design. 

The instructional design field incorporates information from various academic areas, including psychology, education, and communication.

Teaching your workforce how to best perform their roles takes more than a bullet-point list of instructions. The ideal for any business is to understand how individuals learn optimally and utilize this information in their training programs and materials.

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What Is Instructional Design?

In the simplest terms, instructional design is the creation of teaching and training materials. However, the field of instructional design actually goes far beyond the basic act of designing instructional materials. A central part of the field is the consideration of which methods and materials will most effectively support students in reaching their academic goals.

In short, instructional design is a systems approach to analyzing, designing, creating, initiating, and evaluating a student's instructional experience. The idea behind this concept is that the training will be most effective when the learner is given a clear sense of what they will accomplish after training and how their success will be evaluated.

Team Creating Teaching and Training Materials

The primary principles of instructional design focus on determining the best possible design, creation, and delivery methods of educational tools. This is the case for any group of individuals that is striving to reach a learning goal, whether they be grade school students or adult employees in a business setting.

Do your employees seem to struggle to focus during your training sessions? Take a look at our guide for how to keep employees engaged and motivated during training.

How Does Instructional Design Work?

Instructional design is an iterative process. This means that each stage of the instructional design process will inform and influence the other stages. The goal is to constantly improve training materials, meaning that feedback and evaluation data can be used to inform improvements and revisions in subsequent iterations.

Instructional materials can be continuously enhanced and refined as more information becomes available. Beyond responding to feedback, instructional design incorporates emerging technologies, the evolving needs of learners, and the most recent scientific research.

Creating and Improving Training Materials

There are many different frameworks or models that can be used depending on the specific context. For example, an instructional designer might choose to use the SAM (Successive Approximation Model) model for smaller, discrete learning modules or micro-learning content. On the other hand, they might use the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation) model for larger, well-defined projects with stable and fixed requirements.

The History of Instructional Design

The roots of instructional design lie in cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology historically; however, the educational theory of constructivism has been quite influential in the field in recent years.

Some experts believe that it is fair to say that instructional design can be traced even further back than when the behaviorist paradigm dominated the field of American psychology and can actually be linked to systems engineering.

Various Training Materials

It was during World War II that the foundations for this field were first built. During this time, hundreds of thousands of individuals needed to gain new knowledge and learn how to perform very specific tasks as quickly as possible. To help soldiers build a greater comprehension and understanding of each step in a process, complex tasks and projects were broken down into bite-size pieces.

Psychologists started to see training as a system after seeing the success of military training during the war. At this time, they started to analyze and evaluate the methods used, with Edgar Dale creating a hierarchy of instructional methods in 1946.

The original framework that underlies modern instructional design first moved to the industrial sector as a way to train employees. After that, it eventually migrated to the field of education.

Instructional Design and Adult Learning Theories

Instructional designers will design and develop content, training, learning activities, and other training to help learners acquire real-world skills or new information. An instructional designer will create all of the instructional materials of a training program, including participant guides, job aids, handouts, presentation materials, and other vital resources.

Beyond that, they also evaluate the success of the training after the fact. This includes clearly assessing whether measurable behavior change resulted from the learning solution.

Teaching Adults New Skills

When teaching a group of adults new skills or knowledge– whether as a part of workplace training or adult education– instructional designers can use adult learning theories as they design their materials.

Some of the most common adult learning theories include the following:

  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Abraham Maslow proposed this idea initially in 1943 and extended the concept over the rest of his career. The simplified version of his tiered, hierarchical pyramid is broken down into five categories of human needs: physiological needs, safety needs, belonging and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization. When using this theory as a part of instructional design, one must recognize that an individual will learn best if their basic needs are met.
  • Knowles' Theory of Andragogy: Developed in the 1970s by Malcolm Knowles, the Theory of Andragogy provides six key characteristics related to adult learning. These are need-to-know, foundation, self-concept, readiness, orientation, and motivation.
  • Meier's Accelerated Learning: This system intends to enhance and strengthen the design and learning process by applying seven guiding principles. With a greater comprehension of cognitive science and the brain's inner workings, instructional designers will be better able to select the proper learning strategies for a particular individual or group.
  • Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction: Robert Gagne's work was cited more than one hundred times in prominent instructional design journals in the five years between 1985 and 1990. With the application of the clear template he designed, which synthesized ideas from both cognitivism and behaviorism, instruction is often efficient and tightly focused. He proposed that there were nine events during the learning process: gaining attention, informing learners of objectives, stimulating recall of prior learning, presenting the stimulus, providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, providing feedback, assessing performance, and enhancing retention and transfer.

Example Instructional Design Models

There are many different models that are commonly used as a part of the instructional design process. Let's look at some of the most well-known models and frameworks.


Standing for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation, this is a linear instructional design model. One of the most well-known models, ADDIE was first developed at Florida State University in the 1970s.

The ADDIE Model

One of the significant benefits of utilizing this model is that it can consistently produce training that leads to positive learning outcomes for employees. When learners participate in ADDIE-based instructional design programs, they will typically end up acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills for performing their roles.

On the other hand, the main drawback of this model is that it is linear and systematic. That can lead to blindspots among talent development professionals when they are using this framework, as they can be unaware of or overlook considerations outside the scope of the ADDIE model.

Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

The Successive Approximation Model is an iterative and incremental model that allows designers to operate with the very real constraints of a project, such as the budget and timeline.

The SAM Model

A significant part of SAM is that it encourages stakeholder collaboration and the evolution of learning solutions and requirements. Though this provides many benefits, one drawback of the model is that the highly collaborative nature can lead to delays.


If you're familiar with the field of software development, you've probably heard of Agile or rapid prototyping.

The Agile Model

Another collaborative model, Agile uses an incremental and iterative design approach that aims to continuously evolve learning solutions and requirements. This model is commonly used as a means to maximize value for the customer.

Kemp Model

The Kemp model emphasizes adaptability and flexibility. A cyclical instruction design model, there are nine core elements that are viewed as interdependent in the circular structure.

The Kemp Model

Instructional designers can start the design process at any of the nine stages instead of having to follow a linear path.

Instructional Design Best Practices

As you can see, a wide variety of approaches to instructional design can be used depending on the context and specific needs of your learners.

Team Designing Training Material

Let's take a look at some of the best practices for instructional design as you begin to create your own strategy.

Create Consistency

To ensure that your employees are able to learn as quickly and effectively as possible, consistency is key.

Trainees Reviewing Course Material

This is the case when it comes to your style guide– such as using the same icons, color palette, and fonts– but also in terms of establishing a hierarchy of information.

Design a Multimedia Experience

In our digital age, creating a multimedia experience for learners is easier than ever. This might mean incorporating videos, group activities, discussion boards, and lectures to help increase engagement.

Designing a Multimedia Experience

On the other hand, if your trainees are simply reading page after page of dense text, you'll likely find that they struggle to connect with the material.

Make the Material Easy-to-Digest

An essential part of instructional design is making sure that you utilize course layout best practices.

Trainees Reading Easy-to-Digest Material

Most learners these days will start to disengage when they run into a wall of text. That doesn't mean you can't use that wonderful overview you wrote for your employees, but it does mean that you should break it up into bite-sized chunks using subheadings, bullet points, and other design tactics that help make the material easier to digest.

Provide Connection Opportunities

Whether you're training employees through an online course or in a classroom, providing connection opportunities can be beneficial.

A Virtual Training Session

In a virtual setting, you can utilize breakout rooms on video conferencing software or organize larger groups into smaller learning sessions.

Revise For Effectiveness

When you first design a course for your employees, it can be challenging to make changes down the road. After all, you put so much time and energy into creating the perfect course– why should you go back and make revisions now?

Revising a Training Course

The reality is that your training materials should evolve with your workforce, the industry, technology, and other factors. That is why collecting feedback is so important so you can continuously work to improve your materials. With a critical examination, you can always find ways to make your training materials even more effective for the next session.

Effective Training For Your Employees

Training your employees isn't just a matter of giving one dry presentation regarding the expected tasks and outcomes. During the 20th century, it became clear that there are ways that you can design learning and training material that helps ensure that individuals learn quickly and can put their new skills to work right away.

Through the formation and evolution of instructional design, businesses worldwide are implementing more effective training methods that help their organizations thrive.

Effective Employee Training

At the same time, designing your training material can be time-consuming and expensive. That's why we've created our Reproducible Training Library, which allows you to customize 90 soft-skill training courses to suit your business's needs and brand.

The Reproducible Training Library from HRDQ is an instructionally designed and research-based course series. Each course has versions for in-person instructor-led training, virtual instructor-led training, and online self-study learning.

Many other training programs will simply provide you with an outline. That isn't the case with our instructionally-designed courses. Complete with PowerPoint presentations, step-by-step instructions, and comprehensive Participant Guides; the Reproducible Training Library is a complete library of course materials ready for your next training event.

To learn more about our Reproducible Training Library, request a free preview today.

Do you have any questions about instructional design, how it works, or anything else we mentioned in this article? If so, be sure to leave us a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We pride ourselves on replying to every comment we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you.

Recommended Training
Reproducible Training Library
  • Downloadable & customizable
  • Both virtual and classroom classes
  • 90 half-day courses
Learn more
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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.