For a layman, a simple characterization about instructional design would be:
it is a process for designing, developing and implementing learning material and courses.
But that would be an oversimplification of the process of instructional design and the work that goes into designing and developing learning experiences.
If learning was indeed that simple then we all could possibly be self-learners, or autodidacts, from reading Wikipedia articles.
The science and art that goes into building conducive learning environments and experiences so that information is not only distributed appropriately but also, retained in memory has more method to it.
This article explores the underlying theories of instructional design, how these were formed, and touches in part upon ‘what is the role of an instructional designer’.
This article is part of zipBoard’s series on instructional design, the previous article of which you can see here:
The Basics of Instructional Design Processes
Certain concepts and steps that are essential to instructional design are:
Almost all learning theories today incorporate these elements into their process for developing instructional design, whether that is the ADDIE model, Successive Approximation Model (SAM), ASSURE model, or rapid prototyping.
Since instructional design ultimately aims to modify learner behavior in some way, there are certain theories that guide how this can be achieved.
This theory operates on the principle that external stimuli trigger certain behavior and that becomes automatic if repeated sufficient times. It is one of the most important principles kept in mind when designing instruction.
This is the reason that many vocational courses will have repetitive actions as part of their curriculum so that behavioral patterns can be refined with each repetition.
B.F. Skinner’s book, Science and Human Behavior advocated the application of this theory via the use of positive and negative reinforcement to modify behavior for educational and training purposes. One application of behaviorism is classical conditioning, made popular by the work of Ivan Pavlov.
Pavlov worked with dogs, experimenting with light and food — the aim being that after sufficient repetitions, dogs would salivate simply by seeing the light. Essentially, the dogs were trained to see the light as stimuli rather than food. However, there was also the downside that as repetitions increased and food remained absent, salivation also started decreasing.
Cognitivism focuses on the inner workings of the brain to modify behavior. By examining cognitive aspects like memory, thinking, how we learn and imbibe knowledge, and how we approach problem-solving, instruction can be created that changes behavior appropriately.
This model is more individualistic in nature and does not generalize like behaviorism. It looks at knowledge as a schema, that is organized within the brain.
This organization owes to relationships inside the brain, based on various cognitive aspects. For example, our brain is able to pick up on relationships and hierarchies in typography based on proximity and spatial arrangements of elements, which is Gestalt’s theory.
This is because the knowledge to perceive shapes and spaces in a certain way has been stored in our brain as a schema.
Our brain’s information processing is based on a number of cognitive functions such as sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Schemas come under long-term memory. Continuously repeating a task commits the knowledge to our working memory. It is important to remember that information is constantly being processed in our brain across all these memory functions.
The belief in constructionist theory is that knowledge is constructed or built upon past experiences and ideas. This takes into account the personal motivations and learning that an individual has had, acknowledging their uniqueness.
This means that every person has a different process for constructing schemas in their brain and a different interpretation about it.
The role of an instructor in such a case is more of a facilitator, rather than a direct supplier of knowledge. This places the learner at the center of the learning model. The idea that knowledge is not directly absorbed differs from the objective notion of simply transferring learning.
In such an environment, how the trainer facilitates knowledge becomes very important, as does the nature of knowledge being imparted. There need to be open-ended questions and the opportunity for learners to reflect on concepts imbibed. Typically, smaller group activities are favored in such an approach.
So which of these learning theories should influence your approach to instructional design.
The answer is, it depends.
Dale H. Schunk, in his book Learning Theories, talked about some of the questions that instructional designers and decision-makers need to look at when making such a decision:
Michael Hanley discusses this very subject in his article on aligning learning theory with instructional design, where he has a reference table for what theory can work in which scenario:
If we look at the seeds for instructional design, a structure starts to emerge in the research for the military application of instruction during the Second World War. In an effort to develop training material for a large number of troops, considerable research and study into the principles of instruction and learning were carried out.
The research focus in these studies was on leveraging human behavior by influencing their experiences via technology and learning material.
This still holds true as the main aim for online learning or e-learning today.
Edgar Dale’s cone of experience, which looks at the concreteness of instructional methods was one of the early results of a study into this area.
The levels of the cone are based on how many senses are involved in learning. So as the number of senses involved goes up, the retention of learning and knowledge also increases.
This framework also gives a glimpse into the influence that learning activities have on learning outcomes.
Benjamin Bloom and his team comprising of Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl published a framework for categorizing learning goals, which came to be known as Bloom’s Taxonomy.
This laid down a framework that emphasized not just remembering learning but inculcating the abilities to analyze and evaluate concepts picked up in learning. Bloom and his team identified three domains that influenced learning:
Over time this framework has been revised by the original authors and other researchers so that the following activities have been identified as comprising each domain:
Bloom’s Taxonomy continues to be a mainstay in the study and design of instruction even after all this time, mainly because it establishes some important relationships and concepts in the development of learning materials.
Robert Gagne’s work in developing instructional design laid the basis for many instructional design processes and models that are used today. Gagne’s principles of instructional design or nine steps of instruction are considered to be a checklist of things to cover when designing and developing learning material.
The nine steps of instruction are:
This has been an overview of what instructional design aims for and how it can be approached. Even with evolving needs for both learners and the decision-makers who commission learning material, an understanding of the underlying principles is important to design sound instructional content.
Newer instructional strategies such as blended learning and microlearning provide different and interesting challenges for instructional designers as compared to the conventional techniques that were used for PowerPoint presentations or slide-based courses. What is your approach to and thoughts about instructional design? Let us know in the comments.
If you like this article, check out this piece on the role of an instructional designer:
The Basics of Instructional Design Processes
If you want to know more about learning theories and strategies, another helpful resource can be instructionaldesign.org.
This article is part one of our series on instructional design. Check out part two of this series here, where we discuss instructional design processes and models.
If you liked this article then we highly suggest that you download this free ebook for | Complete Guide on Instructional Design
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