Instructional design, also known as instructional systems design, is the analysis of learning needs and systematic development of instruction. Instructional designers often use Instructional technology as a method for developing instruction. Instructional design models typically specify a method, that if followed will facilitate the transfer of knowledge, skills and attitude to the recipient or acquirer of the instruction.


Much of the foundation of the field of instructional design was laid in World War Two, when the U.S. military faced the need to rapidly train large numbers of people to perform complex technical tasks, from field-stripping a carbine to navigating across the ocean to building a bomber.

Drawing on the research and theories of B.F. Skinner on stimulus-response learning, training programs focused on observable behaviors. Tasks were broken down into subtasks, and each subtask treated as a separate learning goal. Training was designed to reward correct performance and remediate incorrect performance. Mastery was assumed to be possible for every learner, given enough repetition and feedback.

After the war, the success of the wartime training model was replicated in business and industrial training, and to a lesser extent in the primary and secondary classroom. In 1955 Benjamin Bloom published an influential taxonomy of what he termed the three domains of learning: Cognitive (what we know or think), Psychomotor (what we do, physically) and Affective (what we feel, or what attitudes we have). These taxonomies still influence the design of instruction.

In the 1960's, psychologist Jean Piaget studied the cognitive development of children, identifying several discrete phases they go through as they grow. Very young children are only able to process concrete, operational information; they are incapable of thinking abstractly, reflecting on the past, or projecting into the future. Older children develop these abilities over time.

In the 1970s Seymour Papert drew on Piaget's ideas to create LOGO, a simple computer-programming language that let children control the movement of a simulated turtle by giving it simple commands such as "forward 10" and "turn right 90 degrees."

Learning theories were influenced by the growth of digital computers in the 1960s and 1970s. Many models adopted an "information-processing" approach.

In the 1980s and 1990s the growing influence of postmodernism in academic culture began to be felt in instructional design with the rise of constructivist theories. Some of the more radical theorists rejected any notion that knowledge existed apart from an individual's experience, or that it could be transmitted from a "teacher" to a "student." Others more pragmatically adopted the axiom that the learner is not a tabula rasa and comes to the lesson with a unique set of experiences, knowledge, skills, and attitudes; and that fact must influence the design of the lesson.

In the early 21st century this tension still exists, with most instructional designers rejecting extremist claims on both sides and simply adopting techniques and strategies that yield results.

Influential Researchers and Theorists:

  • B.F. Skinner - Behaviorism - 1940's
  • Benjamin Bloom - Taxonomies of the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains - 1955
  • R.F. Mager - ABCD model for instructional objectives - 1962
  • Jean Piaget - Cognitive development - 1960's
  • Seymour Papert - LOGO - 1970's
  • Robert M. Gagné - Nine Events of Instruction - 1970's
  • Jerome Bruner - Constructivism
  • Dick, W. & Carey, L. "The Systematic Design of Instruction" - 1978
  • M. David Merrill and Charles Reigeluth - Elaboration Theory / Component Display Theory / PEAnets - 1980's
  • Robert Heinich, Michael Molenda, James Russell Instructional Media and the new technologies of instruction 3rd ed. - Educational Technology - 1989
  • Roger Schank - Constructivist simulations - 1990's
  • David Jonassen - Cognitivist problem-solving strategies - 1990's

Instructional Design Models:

Perhaps the most common model used for creating instructional materials is the ADDIE Model. This acronym stands for the 5 phases contained in the model:

  1. Analysis - analyzing learner characteristics, task to be learned, etc.
  2. Design - choosing an instructional approach to addressing the task.
  3. Develop - creating instructional or training materials.
  4. Implement - delivering or distributing the instructional materials.
  5. Evaluate - making sure the materials met the desired goals.

Most of the current instructional design models are spin-offs or variations of the ADDIE model. One commonly accepted improvement to this model is the use of rapid prototyping. This is the idea of receiving continual or formative feedback while instructional materials are being created. This model attempts to save time and money by catching problems while they are still easy to fix.

Instructional theories also play an important role in the design of instructional materials. Theories such as behaviorism, constructivism, social learning and cognitivism help shape and define the outcome of instructional materials.

Currently there is a movement in the field that defines the purpose of instructional design as providing help for the users. Dr. Dillon Inoue from Brigham Young University along with others are leading this movement.