Instructional Design

Functional Equivalence in Instructional Design: The Pencil Holder Test

By Zachary Fruhling

Years ago I decided to make myself a pencil holder for my work desk. Having always enjoyed building things out of LEGO bricks, I decided to take myself to the local LEGO Store and pick up some loose bricks that I could use, finding the perfect shapes, sizes, and colors to make a pencil holder that I would enjoy having on my desk in front of me every day. Here is a photograph of that very pencil holder, which remains on my desk to this day:

LEGO Pencil Holder by Zachary Fruhling

When I took my completed pencil holder to work, my then-boss noticed it and said, “That looks like something you would make.” This struck me as rather insightful, but I hadn’t really thought of something as simple as a pencil holder being representative of one’s personality or aesthetic/pragmatic sensibilities. So I asked, in response, about what kind of pencil holder he would make for himself if he were inclined to make one. He replied, “Oh, probably something with found objects.” I had to admit, knowing him as I did, that this reply made perfect sense, and the resulting found-objects pencil holder would have been equally representative of his personality and sensibilities. This got me thinking that the task of creating one’s own pencil holder is perhaps an interesting indicator of how someone thinks, solves problems, and combines his or her own individuality with a pragmatic need. What I came to call “The Pencil Holder Test” became a type of low-stakes and fun problem-solving and creativity litmus test.

Functional equivalence is an important concept in any form of design, whether instructional design, industrial design, or even software design. The heart of functional equivalence is that there is more than one way to solve a problem. Different solutions are functionally equivalent if they fill the same role (i.e., they perform the same function), even if they differ in other respects. Two programmers working on the same problem may come up with very different pieces of computer code that are still functionally equivalent, even interchangeable (having the same inputs and outputs), but reflective of their own unique approaches to solving the problem. The same is true of my LEGO pencil holder versus my former boss’s hypothetical found-objects pencil holder: the two very different pencil holders are still functionally equivalent (i.e., they both hold pencils), even if they would differ in almost every other respect (materials, construction methods, aesthetic ideals, and so on).

So what role does functional equivalence play in education and instructional design? Just as there is more than one way to make a pencil holder and more than one way to solve a programming problem, there is likewise more than one way to teach any particular topic or concept. In the classroom, different instructors can’t help but incorporate their own personality, experiences, and educational sensibilities into the learning experiences they create for their students. While different instructors’ teaching methods on any particular topic or concept may vary, those methods may still be functionally equivalent in terms of their pedagogical effectiveness and their students’ learning outcomes.

The lesson seems to me that we should be hesitant to be too prescriptive about the supposed “best” or “ideal” way to teach or learn any particular thing. Adequate wiggle room should be made for instructors to create learning experiences that are functionally equivalent from the standpoint of effectiveness and outcomes, but reflective of their own personalities, teaching styles, and creative visions.

Applying the concept of functional equivalence to online course design, the lesson seems to me that the goal should not be to create a radically uniform learning experience from course to course from a design standpoint, say as a student progresses through an academic program. Instead, each course in a sequence fills a functional role in the overall program, just as modules of code in programming may serve a functional role in relation to an overall software program. However, as long as the course successfully serves its functional purpose (say, in terms of which learning outcomes are addressed for accreditation purposes), individual course writers and instructional designers should have the wiggle room and the freedom to develop courses that are reflective of their own unique approaches to teaching and learning the material, as long as the functional needs of the course and program are genuinely being met, and within the bounds of sound pedagogy.

Too often the design of online courses focuses on superficial structural elements, such as how many assignments or discussion forum posts to include each week, instead of focusing on pedagogical adequacy and functional equivalence of different approaches to learning the material. “Consistency” can be used as an excuse not to explore the creation of a more engaging learning experience that is still functionally equivalent but deviates from some arbitrary structural norm or standard.

This leads to an interesting conceptual distinction between structural equivalence and functional equivalence. An emphasis on structural equivalence, while creating the seemingly positive quality of structural consistency, also tends to create rigidity and inflexibility while restricting creativity in course design. In contrast, an emphasis on functional equivalence over structural equivalence can ensure an online course meets various functional requirements of the educational institution or academic program while allowing flexibility in terms of the course’s structure and how exactly the course goes about meeting those functional requirements.

What a boring world (or at least a boring desk!) it would be if all pencil holders were exactly the same. And what a boring educational experience it is if consistency in structure prevents pedagogical creativity within the bounds of functional equivalence of different approaches to teaching and learning. When creating a learning experience as a content developer or instructional designer, don’t be afraid to create something uniquely yours, something beautiful and interesting with your own personality and flair; just be sure that the end result is functionally and pedagogically adequate.

This very article is a great example: Perhaps only I would be audacious enough to write an article on the instructional design lessons of pencil holders, which may or may not be functionally equivalent to any other article you may find on balancing creativity and consistency in your work as an instructional designer.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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