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Instructional design is the process through which an educator determines the best teaching methods for specific learners in a specific context, attempting to obtain a specific goal. This reference guide is designed to help you apply sound principles of design to the creation of your courses. The overview presented here is based on the model developed by Walter Dick and Lou Carey (PDF, 22 KB), which provides a systematic, step-by-step approach to designing, and effective and objectives-based instruction.
Content is presented here in a linear manner, but there will always be movement between and among phases. Also, remember that not all of these phases may apply to your situation.


Assess instructional needs

Assess Instructional Needs 

Assessing instructional needs is the first phase of instructional design.

To begin designing instruction:

Ask yourself:

  • Who is affected by this need? Who are your potential learners?
  • What prerequisite knowledge, skills, or understanding do your learners need?
  • What is and what needs to be? What is the instructional goal?

Begin with the student:

  • If possible, solicit input from your potential students. Consider using e-mail, a survey, a focus group, informal or formal observation, or discussion.
  • If you use or develop online learning, what kind of access to technology do your learners have?
  • Are there language considerations? Are there students who speak English as a second language?

Consider the learning environment:

  • If applicable, determine whether there are existing curricula or certification requirements your course must satisfy.
  • If your course is media-dependent, determine the availability of required media. If you use or develop online learning, what are minimum technical requirements?
  • Find out what facilities are available.


If you decide to conduct a needs assessment, the following resources may help you with the process:


If you decide to conduct a needs assessment, here are some online materials that may help you work through this phase.

Georgia Tech
This website includes links to tools for use in assessing instructional needs. The tools presented here are specifically written for multimedia products, but the methodologies may be adapted for all instructional assessment needs.

University of Idaho
Instructional Development for Distance Education. (This was developed by Engineering Outreach at the University of Idaho.) For needs assessment, see particularly "The Need for Instructional Development" and "The Design Stage."

Needs Assessment: A Systematic Approach for Successful Distance Education. This is an online article that outlines the needs assessment process for effectively implementing distance education.


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Analyze learners

Analyze Learners

Although not always possible, it's good practice to spend some time thinking about and researching your potential learners or your target population.

Usually, it's best to create instruction around a particular audience, rather than designing content and then searching for an audience.

It's important to consider:

  • cognitive characteristics, such as learning aptitude, learning styles, prior knowledge of topic;
  • psychosocial characteristics, such as motivation, attitudes, socioeconomics;
  • physiological characteristics, such as age, race, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic background.

Be aware that we now live, work, and learn in environments that are increasingly culturally diverse. Remember that some cultures may not encourage classroom participation, so some students may be hesitant to speak up or volunteer information. Nuances of body language and nonverbal communication may vary widely from culture to culture. All of these factors carry implications for selecting your instructional strategy and developing your instructional materials.


If you have the opportunity to analyze your potential learners, the following documents may guide you through the process.

What are some important questions to ask learners?
What learner characteristics do I need to consider?
How do I analyze the learning context?


Guiding Principles for Faculty in Distance Learning. Guidelines developed by the Working Group of the Indiana Partnership for Strategic Education. Specifically, see "Principle 1: Faculty Benchmarks and Principles: Course Design."

Adult Education in Practice. Adult education "tipsheet" from Waycross College.

Strategies for Learning at a Distance. Developed by Engineering Outreach at the University of Idaho. Profiles the distance education learner.

Kolb Learning Styles
Provides an overview of Kolb's learning theory and includes a link to Gardner's multiple intelligences.


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Write learning objectives

A learning objective is a clear, concise, objective description of what your learners will be able to do at the end of a given instructional unit. Of all the activities involved in the instructional design process, developing objectives is one of the most critical.


  • Learning objectives tell learners what they will know, understand or be able to do at the end of a block of instruction (section, topic, lesson, or workshop).
  • Objectives should be clear, honest, complete, and correct.
  • Well-written objectives should serve as the basis for test items. Well-written objectives tell learners how their performance will be assessed.


  • Determine the goal of the learning activity (the objective).
  • Determine what learners must demonstrate to achieve that goal (the enabling objectives).
  • Write objectives based on the above skills, task, or knowledge.


As you develop your objectives, the following documents may help you through this phase.

What are appropriate verbs for learning objectives?
What are some examples of performance objectives?


Although this Web site anticipates an audience of secondary school teachers, this high-level overview works for all educators.

Writing Learning Objectives
This website was developed by Park University. It provides a very clear guidance for writing effective learning objectives. 


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Select an instructional strategy

Depending on your instructional goal and course content, you may need to test your learners' knowledge. So, as part of your instructional strategy, you may need to think about creating tests or other assessment tools. How will you and your students know when the required objectives have been achieved?

The best time to develop test items is after developing learning objectives. Your assessment instruments, then, will be more likely to actually measure what you want your learners to accomplish.

Assessment doesn't only occur at the end of an instructional unit. Think about how to integrate formative assessment during instruction. Check in with your students by frequently asking questions and soliciting feedback.


Use these tools for guidance:

How can I use Gagne's "nine events" to organize my instruction?
How do I apply instructional strategies to online material?


Benjamin Bloom's three domains fo educational activities

  • cognitive: mental skills (knowledge);
  • affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude);
  • psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills).

Strategies for Teaching at a Distance.
This guide, part of Idaho State University, discusses instructional strategies specifically related to distance education. 


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Develop materials

An instructional package usually consists of a student manual, instructional materials, pre- and post-tests, and an instructor's manual. You may choose to employ worksheets, handouts, job aids, computer-based training, the Internet, laboratory work, learning objects, learning portals, or audio/video material.

Prior to developing your instructional materials, consider your intended development and delivery mode. Will your delivery mode be self-paced and instructor-independent, such as online learning? Will your delivery be a combination of instructor presentation and use of materials? Think about how you will cover all required instructional events. Consider, too, the resources and budget you have available.

Also, consider whether you wish to create your own instructional materials or whether you want to use materials that already exist. Remember, though, to avoid using material just because it's available; make sure the material is appropriate for your instructional goals.

When developing your instructional material, think about using the following steps:

  1. Review your instructional strategy.
  2. Research existing literature or fellow subject matter experts; determine what material is available.
  3. Consider how you can adapt existing material.
  4. Determine whether you need to design new materials.
  5. Consider the best media for presentation. How can you best monitor practice and feedback, evaluate learner learning, and guide student learning?
  6. Based on your instructional strategy, build your instructional material.
  7. Review each completed instructional unit for flow, clarity, and information-chunking. Keep your learner analysis in mind.
  8. Develop a student manual or student instructions; provide a syllabus or outline that informs learners of objectives and assignments.


As you develop your instructional materials, the following may help you work through this phase:

I am considering using educational technology in my course. What factors do I need to consider?
How can I assess my own instructional materials?


Take a look at some online materials that may help you work through the Develop Materials stage.

A primer on instructional design
Provides an overview of the instructional design process, describing how all stages impact the development of instructional materials.

Media development
Increasingly, instructors are turning to the Web as an educational method. Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when developing Web-based instructional materials.

Advanced Distributed Learning
This initiative provides information on Shareable Object Reference Model (SCORM). If you are developing Internet resources, this is useful information. 


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Evaluate instruction

It may help to use tables or questionnaires to gather valuable data from your test audience, whether your audience consists of potential students, fellow subject matter experts, or learning specialists.


If you have the time and opportunity to evaluate your instruction, the following documents may help you work through this phase:

Consider giving this checklist to your test audience or peers.
For reference, I'd like a quick outline of evaluation strategies and tips


If you have the time and opportunity to evaluate your instruction, the following online materials may help you work through this phase:

Georgia Tech
This site provides a number of useful evaluation tools; although they are specifically designed for multimedia projects, the tools may be adapted for use in any instructional design project.

Continuing education units
Learn how to get continuing education units.

International Association for Continuing Education and Training
Provides guidelines for maintaining quality in distance education offerings. 


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