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Community Team
Community Team

Instructional design theories

Let's say you are at the very start of a new course design project.

  • What instructional design theories and resources would you draw upon to guide your overarching approach to the structure of the course?
  • Once you've decided upon a design approach or amalgamation of design theories, which theory or theories would you then use to support your module design? Your page design? Your quiz design?

In your response, specify whether you are building a face-to-face, blended/hybrid, or fully online (distance) course.

This open-ended discussion is intended to be a shared space replete with links to your favorite resources (blogs, papers, presentations, videos, and so forth). Please provide those links freely and liberally!

29 Replies


This is a good question, and you will probably get varied answers on what theory is the best or most applicable and why. To me, the theories are just guidelines - ideas/concepts created by scientists/researchers/people interested in an area of learning and development that were designed, implemented and tested showing "positive" results over time. I found this link that goes over the different THEORIES, which may be useful to gloss over for instructional/course/cirriculum designers.

To me, it is less about the theory and more about the content and the intended audience. Now, we all know that people learn differently (at different levels, speeds, etc), so I think the first question to answer is: who are my intended learners.

The second question to ask is: What do we want them to learn? (Depending on the subject matter, the design will be altered accordingly.)

Followed by: How will we get them there? (This is where design and implementation comes in -- i.e., will you use videos, Powerpoints, Adobe Captivate/Articulate to make modules, quizzes, etc.)

Finally: How can we measure that they have learned or how do we measure that they have reached "the goal" (whatever that may be). (In other words, how do you know the students have learned? To me, this is always the hardest one. For example, many people use multiple choice quizzes because they are easy to grade - and automatically graded, they are simple to develop and don't really need personalized grading... But, in the grand scheme of things they don't really get at deeper levels of learning -- unless you know how to word them, which is a whole thing of its own Smiley Happy)

I know this doesn't answer the question directly, but I just thought I would throw my 2 cents in on it. What I am trying to say is even before you think about the design, you should think about your learners, what level they are at, and design from there. So, to me, the learners is the first thing to think about and then the design.

However, as an example I will use my Capstone project I did during my Master's program at the University of Utah in the Educational Psychology department with an emphasis in Instructional Design and Educational Technology (phew -- that was long winded).

We were working with a Law professor that wanted to take an Legal Archeology class and put it fully online with minimal effort in grading and moderation.

We didn't really use a theory or certain way to do things, instead we tried to take ALL the information she provided us with and set up a mock module where they learned about a specific law called NAGPRA. Now, we focused on our learners at first: graduate level law students and archeology students. (This last part was hard because the course wanted to be extended to all individuals (professionals out in the field, and continuing education individuals), but we just stuck with the graduate law students and archeology students.

We separated it into different sections:

Refresher of law texts and understanding the law:

This is where we refreshed on how to read law texts and things like that (for our archeology students and law students that wanted a quick refresher).

Introduction to NAGPRA:

This is where we provided them with an overview of this specific law and tested them on certain things (using Adobe Articulate for one thing in particular - a Drag and Drop type of deal, with feedback on getting it correct or not - yay)

Application of the Law:

This is where we had them read a document, which we uploaded into a Creativist document - basically an online document that you can insert files into, links and make it more interactive than just reading a document - where we put in an article by the original teacher of how this law was implemented in real life.

Then we had a discussion post where they would either agree with the actual ruling or disagree and provide evidence and support on their stance.


We gave them a hypothetical situation where they would apply the law on their own and make a ruling in a hypothetical situation.

Along the way as they move through these modules, we would provide readings, discussions, videos, and little assignments (like drag and drops) to keep them engaged and help with their learning.

Okay, I will stop now, cause I feel like I have written a lot, hopefully it wasn't all over the place or too "up in the clouds"

Smiley Happy

-Justin Hill

L1 Support Engineer


I absolutely adore breaking the "rules" of instructional design when I teach. The majority of my experience is in teaching fully online courses, though I've done a fair bit of face-to-face and hybrid as well. And each time I approach the LMS, I try to think about how I can hack it to create a better learning experience, and support greater student agency for learners. I ask questions like: "How can I get students to self-organize?" and "How can I get students to think and produce metacognitively?"

These sorts of questions led me and my colleague Jesse Stommel to design MOOC MOOC, a mini-, meta-MOOC about MOOCs (and, incidentally, the first MOOC offered on Canvas). We essentially threw out everything we both knew about "best practices' with online learning and opened the course up to a variety of different experiences, most of which were largely determined by the participants. Similarly, I created Digital Writing Month, which in its earliest iteration was very focused not on the content I could create or curate, but on what participants created.

The philosophy I work with is an emergent one based on Paulo Freire's work: Critical Digital Pedagogy. Through that lens, I approach the digital as an environment in which students/participants/learners can discover their own agency, their ability to create content for their learning, etc. In some ways, this is a very student-centered learning approach, and there are some similarities between Critical Digital Pedagogy, personalized learning, and problem-based learning. But it is not a technique at all, and more of an approach, a guiding philosophy. For every assignment I set up in a course, for every "lecture", for every discussion, I ask myself whether what I am doing is helping participants learn to trust themselves, and feel empowered to explore the digital world in which all online, hybrid, and on-ground courses take place.

I wrote once that "the core of digital pedagogy [is] an acknowledgement that the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on." So, when I go to plan a course, I go into it with the full knowledge that my theories and practices must not as much try to contain learning as to free it.

Love this, " theories and practices must not as much try to contain learning as to free it."

Community Member

It really depends what aspect of a course you are looking at when talking about a course.

  • We adopted as a theory of student learning in distance courses the Community of Inquiry model for the college.  We use it in a very general sense with a heavy focus on the collaborative nature of the model.
  • As to individual course design models, it depends on the content and the ID and faculty preferences.
  • For assessment of quality of individual courses (not really a theory but rather, a tool), we created our own quality rubric, heavily based on the Quality Matters Rubric of a few years ago.
  • Finally, for overall assessment of distance overall we use the OLC Scorecard (also a tool and not a theory).

Even though some of these aren't theories, I believe this is what you are asking.

This is working well for us, but how we use these is always evolving and adapting.

Thank you for this unique approach to designing for learning and also for the Critical Digital Pedagogy link - very intriguing!


Community Coach
Community Coach


Sometimes we get hung up on theories (I am as guilty as anyone) and forget our principles, practices and good old common sense. Here are some of my thoughts..........

  • I strongly subscribe to the K.I.S.S. principle - keep it simple, or as simple as it can be based on the purpose of the course. Our students need to focus on the course content and achieving the objectives, not focused on our wonderful ability to create a complex course structure.
  • Navigation should be logical and consistent. Student need to know what to do, when to do it, and most importantly where to find it.
  • Build to the lowest common denominator, and make no assumptions of the previous knowledge or experience of your students.
  • As for theories, design for everybody - Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This is incredibly important and encompasses the accessibility needs of an online classroom and more. You can learn more about UDL at the National Center for Universal Design for Learning 
  • Consistency is key. Modules should be consistently named, consistently structured (everything in the same order in each module as much as possible), and the content in modules should be consistently named and organized.
  • Echo module names in the module content. i.e., module one introduction, module one assignment, module on discussion, etc. This is very important for students using screen reader technology.
  • Keep instructional content close to their related instructional activities - in other words, if you have instructions on how to build a better widget, and an assignment for building one, then have the assignment immediately follow the instructions
  • All instructional materials and activities for a module should be in that module. Do not create  a Week Two module with just the instructional materials, then house the assignments in a different module, the quizzes in another module, and additional references in another module. One-stop shopping rules!
  • I also subscribe to the ADDIE model for Instructional design

That's a nice start, and if you want a list of the supporting theories and research for these suggestions, I have them. Here is a great web resource: Instructional Design.

I hope all of this helps, and that my smart-alec approach did not create insult or injury.

Community Coach
Community Coach

I wanted to add one more thing that I forgot - the Quality Matters Rubric for Online Course Design.

This is a very valuable instructional design tool structured as 8 general standards and 43 sub-standards.

Community Member

Hi Stefanie:

When I build a course, first, I check how my students learn?, for this I check the inventory as Felder and Silverman to answer the following questions:

  • What kind of information preferably students perceive? Dimension of the type of information: sensitive - Intuitive
  • What through which sensory modality is actually received cognitive information?
  • Dimension of the type of preferential stimuli: visual - verbal
  • What kind of organization of information is more convenient when student work?
  • Dimension on how to organize information: inductive - deductive
  • How student`s progress in their learning? Dimension on how to process and understand information: sequential - Global
  • What kind of organization of information is more convenient when student work? Dimension on how to work with information: active - reflective.

And to make the instructional design I check the cognitive processes that support the course (highest score), this determines the activities that must take the course.

this determines the activities that encourage my students.

Any error in translation is google :smileyconfused:


Your points/process are rock solid! Not only do we need to design for what students need to learn, but we also need to design for the students - this is what the "A" in the ADDIE model is all about. Thank you for fleshing that out, and providing more detail!