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Principles of Instructional Design

Bob Little 

June 12, 2015

Instructional design (ID) is based on three psychological principles of learning: behavioral, cognitive and constructivist. Behavioral psychology advocates repetition and reinforcement in learning material to create a “behavior” in the learner. Cognitive psychology focuses on engaging the learner’s senses to create a learning process, while constructivism emphasizes the learner’s own experience and personal interpretation.

To create a solid foundation for delivering these principles, learning materials should:

  • Present content.
  • Guide the learner in practice.
  • Provide for independent practice by the learner.
  • Assess how well the learner is doing.

And be supported by interactivity between learner and program, and the motivation of the learner.

Skilled instructional designers know that the learning content shouldn’t become secondary to the technology that delivers it. They also activate prior learning, demonstrate what’s new, give learners opportunities to apply their new learning, and integrate current with previous learning.

In my previous post, I introduced Frank Troha’s eight-question approach to ID. Now let’s look at some more models.

1. Robert Gagné‘s nine instructional events, or steps, outline the processes needed for effective learning:

  • Gain attention.
  • Inform learner of objectives.
  • Stimulate recall of prior learning.
  • Present stimulus material.
  • Provide learner guidance.
  • Elicit performance.
  • Provide feedback.
  • Assess performance.
  • Enhance retention and transfer.

They highlight that the transfer of learning is key to delivering a return on investment (ROI) and to producing an improvement in performance. Gagné provides a way of mapping the logical flow of information – but using these steps rigidly will bore learners.

2. In the “Learn and apply” model, anyone can join in at the “apply and try” stage. They continue only if they get it wrong. This helps maximize the ROI from learning, because not everyone has to study the entire learning program.

3. Roger Schank’s goal-based learning is an immersive approach based on the principle of “learning by failure.” It focuses on critical mistakes and works with a range of content types, including case-based simulations. The designer produces a scenario and allows the learner to make a mistake. The learner can’t continue with the program before receiving tutoring or mentoring. When he or she goes back, he hopefully doesn’t make the same mistake again, and so progresses through the scenario. This approach works well for independent learners and can provide a quick way to gain learning, since the learner is only checked when he makes a mistake.

4. The work of Robert Mager and Peter Pipe, along with the Dick & Carey model, is based on the view that the purpose of learning depends on the context but that what makes people perform can be summed up by five verbs:
•     “I know” what to do.
•     “I have” what I need to do it.
•     “I may” – or “I have authority to do it.”
•     “I will” – or “I want to do it.”
•     “I can” do it.

By breaking down instruction into smaller components, you target the specific skills and knowledge to be taught and aim to supply the optimum conditions and resources for learning these outcomes. The model builds on the idea that there’s a predictable and reliable link between a stimulus – learning materials – and the response that it produces in a learner. It presumes that learning is based on mastering a set of predictable and reliable behaviors.

5. There’s also a hybrid ID model – based on the work of Gagné and Malcolm Knowles – and known by the mnemonic PETER HASSLE:

  • Prepare – remembering that getting people prepared and motivated to learn can happen outside of a formal learning program.
  • Engage – remembering that the one thing that bores learners is learning content that’s too “low level.”
  • Tutor.
  • Explore – remembering that learners need to try out things for themselves.
  • Review, and, for online learning:
    • Help.
    • Assess.
    • Study.
    • Share.
    • Learn.
    • Enter.

Frank Troha comments, “Gagné’s nine steps don’t address the bigger picture of ID, such as identifying the objectives, outlining the content based on the objectives, selecting the most appropriate media, developing the evaluation strategy, and so on. But you should keep Gagné’s events in mind when focusing on what the course will entail – from introduction to conclusion and follow-up after the course.

“The steps work well for classroom-delivered learning. Yet, they can also work for online learning – even if everyone who applies these nine instructional events won’t necessarily turn out effective learning. ID is both a science and an art – and the artistic aspect of it involves knowing the difference between weaving a tapestry and simply tying knots in a rope.

“I tend to incorporate Gagné’s nine events because Gagné is all about adding value. Malcolm Knowles has done a wonderful job of explaining the principles of adult learning. The approaches taken by other learning experts have their place. What the good instructional designer uses is drawn from a knowledge of all that’s in the well – but nearly everything I design reflects Gagné to a greater extent than the others.”

The head of digital learning at Telefónica UK, Asi DeGani, says, “Instructional designers should treat the different models they rely on in the same way that a tradesman treats his tools. Not only should they select the right tool for the job but, at times, more than one tool is needed to complete a job successfully – and some tools become irrelevant as others supersede them.

“Technology continually offers us new ways of engaging and interacting with the learners. We must base what we’re building on sound psychological and learning principles – the constructivist approach being a great example of these. Having selected the models, they must be used in a way that’s relevant to the learners and their context. Obviously this needs to be done with ‘real’ models. Ones which haven’t been validated can cause real damage to the design process.”

Former head of instructional design at Tata Interactive Systems, and now its head of L&D, Dr Shwetaleena Bidyadhar picks up on the technological aspects of ID. “Once upon a time, when work and the world of learning were stable, classical ID theories were applied and certification programs/curricula designed. This is still relevant for professional courses or academic degrees but, in the corporate world, we cater for learners who’re interested in ‘just-in-time’ information that fulfills their immediate need. Add to this the millennial generation with their 90-second attention spans. So, content accessibility becomes ever more critical in this rapidly changing world – necessitating greater emphasis on user experience from a design point of view.

“Well-designed learning now has to deal with smaller screens and shorter attention spans. It must present key concepts in easily digestible, ‘device-agnostic’ knowledge chunks. In this landscape, designers of online learning must exploit the possibilities of technology to transform their learning solutions into engaging formats.”

Which model do you find most helpful in designing learning materials? Share your thoughts below.

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