Sensing the Instructional Design: Overview, Perspective, and History

Posted: June 15, 2010 in Professional-Me
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What is Instructional Design? What are principles of learning and instruction underlying the concept of instructional design? How have instructional design been evolved? These questions are a prerequisite to explore further about the field of instructional design that serves as a basic foundation towards the values in instructional design. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to synthesize fundamental elements of the instructional design where it stands as preliminary step to gain better understanding with the holistic approach towards the model of instructional design.

Instructional design is considered as having significant impact in learning. Within the process of learning, it is important for learners to fully be aware that learning occurs within the leveling of understanding in which it involves a systematic process, even in the simplest form of learning. Furthermore, to really comprehend what instructional design is, we need to step back a little while to look at the root of by thoroughly defining what’s essential in the field of instructional design. Thereby, in addressing the first question “what is instructional design?” it is particularly clear that we have two schemes framing this field: instructional and design. Understanding the first essential part of the instructional design – instructional, what matters is step by step process where the goal instruction is the main code of conduct. A clear goal is obligatory within a set of instruction because it determines the success of the instruction. In fact, a clear goal will as well play an important role in providing the first base for the development process of learning within the instruction itself in which it will “affect learners in such a way that learning is facilitated” (Gagne, Briggs, Wager, 1992, p. 3).

In the similar fashion, the word design serves as the second essential part of the instructional design where it solidifies all the principles and ideas within a theory into directive state-of-the-art blue print. What’s more, a good design entails a methodical, systematic, and analytical process of context-specific observation that generates and takes a design into a level where it is mostly applicable and contextual that is needed as part of the problem solving and decision-making.

According to Smith and Ragen (1993), there are several important things to consider during the phase of design process:

  1. What is the intended outcome of the instruction? In other words, what is our learning goal or objective?
  2. In what environment will the learners be working?
  3. Who are the learners? What do they already know about the topic? What skills do they already possess? What is their level of readiness to learn the new material?
  4. What do they need to be taught to prepare them to learn?
  5. What interests the learners? What educational backgrounds do they have?
  6. What will the learners know, understand and be able to do as a result of the lesson?
  7. Do all learners have to reach the same goals?
  8. How will the learners demonstrate knowledge of the material at the end of instruction? How can you pre-assess their knowledge before instruction? What informal assessment will help the instructor and the learners know if they are learning along the way?

In the account of what Smith and Ragen have mapped during the phase of design process above, instructional design is obviously beneficial to the process of learning where it will lead learners along the way of their learning in identifying, observing, analyzing, synthesizing, demonstrating/applying, developing, and evaluating what they have learned specifically for maximum result with better understanding and comprehension. Adding to that, better understanding and comprehension will improve their quality of learning so that all the information, knowledge, and insight will not be just stored in the short-term memory but also long-term memory that will make learning is more sustainable. To put it another way, instructional design aims to enhance diversity among individual because its major purpose is to “help each person develop as fully as possible, in his or her own personal direction” (1992, p. 4). Overall, is the learning experience that has become the primary sense in the instructional design – manufacturing the learning experience to help learners make sense of the information they get.

To lead us through to go beyond the surface of how instructional design really is, we need to take a look at the principles of learning and instruction underlying the concept of instructional design in order to get the bigger picture of how we are. This is where we have come to the second question in this essay “What are principles of learning and instruction underlying the concept of instructional design?

As instructional design’s primary objectives is the nature of human learning experience, it will assist us in taking us closer to understand how are we supposed to learn at our best. We as humans are wired to learn and we’re always learning. There is really not a time where we’re not learning. Learning is just what we do. And we have a natural way of learning that is not dependent on taking a formal course. Learning happens through our experiences and through the things we see and hear. We learn in our quiet moments as we reflect on life. And we learn in our social interactions and conversations with others. With the development of technology, human learning has given new definition in learning – taking us altogether into global world, creating global learning network that creates immersion not just with the result of learning but also within the process of learning.

Knapper highlighted the substantial principles of learning and instruction under which learning is most effective:

“It is better for the students to be actively involved in the learning process than to be merely a passive recipient of information; learning is greatly improved by practice; Learning is nearly always oriented towards some goal, and that knowledge of this fact can be used to direct and encourage learning by provision of appropriate rewards; there are considerable individual differences in learning, both quantitative and qualitative; learning is both an affective as well as cognitive process, therefore student motivation is a vitally important matter to consider in any learning situation” (1980, p. 16).

Based on ample generated ideas in the principles of learning and instruction by Knapper, instructional design has been considered as favorable vehicle to facilitate human learning at its best – the word best as described in this context refers to the versatility and flexibility of instructional design to be customizable and personalized based on the characteristics of learners and their environment in which it can be the best reflection of learning that exists in a variety of dimension. This is where the role of instructional designers reaches its peak in assisting learners to learn and understand better where it can improves their quality of learning.

Without instructional design, the learner might or might not get the information they need. Because of instructional design, you can get the learners to cut through a lot of extraneous information and get right to the important issues. What is more, what you do as an instructional designer is take the information and expertise of a tenured subject matter expert and deliver it to the learner. And in doing so, you compress the learning process saving time and money. The key point is that instructional designers provide value when they’re able to pull the content together to craft learning process and experience that are focused and meaningful.

The third question “How have instructional design been evolved?” has another dynamic – it is more about the brief history of instructional design. Following through the history of instructional design, it had been pioneered by names such as Robert Gagne, Leslie Briggs, John Flanagan, Bf. Skinner, John Piaget, Vygotsky, David Ausebel, and other researchers, theorists, and practitioners.

Historically speaking, instructional design is a fairly new field. However, it can be traced to World War II when the instructional design was applied in the military where there was a need for experimental research to develop training material for military services – developing the systems approach to learning and instruction which included the three major elements of design as we know it today: analysis, design, and evaluation (Reiser, 2001).

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s BF Skinner’s studies on teaching and learning greatly influenced instructional design. Programmed instruction became popular, and learning modules that were skill-based, presented in small steps with frequent questions, and provided immediate feedback were introduced into education (Reiser and Dempsey, 2007). Because learning with these modules was measurable and easily revised if needed based on these assessments, the importance of formative assessment was introduced and implemented into the design process. Standing with this behavioristic approach to learning, it was important that instruction be guided by clear objectives.

Benjamin Bloom further refined objectives in his taxonomies of learning. He developed a hierarchical model of learning outcomes, and stressed that lessons should be designed to assure that learners are moving toward the higher levels of knowing, which include synthesis and evaluation, rather than just focusing instruction on factual recall. He provided key verbs for educators to use in writing objectives to assure that they meet the desired learning outcomes. He also stressed the importance of designing assessment that demonstrates whether the specific outcomes were met (Reiser, 2001).

One of the most important figures in the history of instructional design was Robert Gagné. As previously mentioned, he was one of the men involved in the military studies during World War II. He continued his work in instructional design and, in 1965, published The Conditions of Learning. In it, he describes the five domains or learning outcomes: verbal information, intellectual skills, psychomotor skills, attitudes, and cognitive strategies. For each of these outcomes, he determined a specific set of conditions for learning to occur. In addition, he outlined nine events of instruction, which have become the “cornerstone of instructional design (Reiser 2001).”

As this work continued to grow, instructional design models were created by various designers. Designers used others models to refine and create their own models for systematic instruction. These include models by Dick and Carey, Gagné, and others. Instructional design began to be used in many areas, including education, military training, business and industry. In the late 1970’s, graduate programs in instructional design began in universities throughout the nation (Reiser, 2007).

The fact that the emergence of technology and its development has taken human learning into a whole new level, we can no longer be satisfied with facts. In fact, teachers will have to combine their skill and ability in subject-content knowledge with digital literacy as to facilitate today’s generation way of learning. On top of that, educators nowadays need to teach their students and learners how to access and apply information effectively in their lives as well as the need to teach them to be problem solvers and to think outside the box, because in today’s world, the box changes constantly. Therefore, by having a solid understanding towards what has been learned is always be the challenge for instructional designers to create such design and blueprint that will serve as a problem solving toll to the paradox of learning:

“The Paradox of learning a really new competence is this: that a student cannot at first understand what he needs to learn, can learn it only by educating himself, and can educate himself only by beginning to do what he does not yet understand (Rigoni, 2002).”


Athens, Ohio, 2009 – Essay @ My Graduate Advance Seminar Class _ Instructional Design and Technology


Gagne, Robert. , & Briggs, Leslie. J., (Eds). (1992). Principles of instructional design. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Knapper, Christopher Kay. (1980). Evaluating instructional technology. London: Croom Helm Ltd.

Reiser, Robert A & Dempsey, John. V., (2007). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. Upper saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Reiser, Robert A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: part II: a history of instructional design ETR&D, 49 (2), 57-67.

Rigoni, David. (2002). Teaching what can’t be taught: the Shaman’s strategy. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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