Teaching Careers and Professional Development

Jargon-Free Instructional Design

By Zachary Fruhling

Instructional design (ID) can sometimes be an overly complicated and diverse field with various instructional design models and complicated terminology. But I’ve always found that instructional design can be simplified if you stick to a few important principles and ask yourself a small number of intuitive questions.

Instructional design: What does it mean?

Simply put: Instructional design is the process of creating effective and engaging learning experiences. ID practitioners rely on an array of sound pedagogical methods and accepted user-experience principles to inform how content and information is structured and presented.

Pedagogy: Will students learn?

You should always question the effectiveness of the educational materials you are producing.

  • Do the materials demystify difficult-to-understand concepts?
  • Do they provide step-by-step walk-throughs of complex reasoning processes or activities?
  • Are there sufficient opportunities for students to practice and apply concepts learned?
  • Will students be able to receive instant feedback and a chance to learn from their mistakes?
  • Are there incentives for students to put in extra effort and extend their learning beyond what’s provided in class?
  • Have you factored in different learning styles, and are there opportunities for differentiated instruction?

Educational content varies by topic, by grade level, and so on. But the general principles behind these questions are broadly applicable and can be asked of almost any materials at any grade level.

Creativity: How innovative is the material?

Part of the joys and challenges of education is finding innovative and creative ways to teach the material and keep students engaged, without sacrificing educational rigor. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Will these materials engage a variety of students?
  • Are they innovative and/or fun in some way?
  • Have you created a memorable learning experience?
  • Have you included helpful visuals and examples that bring the material to life?
  • Do your learning objectives still shine through, even given the creativity and innovation?

Precision: Are your objectives clear?

Students must know precisely what’s expected of them.

  • Are the assignment instructions, expectations, and learning outcomes free of vagueness and ambiguity?
  • Have you clearly explained all of the important steps?
  • Are your objectives, instructional strategies, and assessments aligned with your expectations?
  • Do you use instructional scaffolding?

Usability and design: Is the material appealing?

The material you produce should conform to usability and design standards for the medium in which you are working:

  • Are the materials well-structured and easy to navigate?
  • Do the materials have a unified visual design theme?
  • Is the formatting (font, line spacing, use of bold, italics, white space, etc.) ideal for the medium (print, online, etc.)?
  • Has the layout been assessed for readability, and does it aid in reading comprehension for different types of learners (such as English learners)?
  • Is the content accessible to people with learning disabilities or impairments (visual or hearing impairments, etc.)?

Repurposing material for a new medium

Think of instructional design as a type of translation process: translating the best of what you do in the classroom—examples, visuals, things you would draw on the whiteboard, Socratic questions, pedagogically helpful explanations, and so on—into a different medium, such as online course materials.

Although many instructors are brilliant, inspiring teachers in their classrooms, instructional designers can help instructors and course writers translate what works well in their classrooms and use it to create professional quality, online course materials, interactive media, and valuable learning experiences.

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 www.zacharyfruhling.com.

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