A Post-It Note Definition of Instructional Design

As I was getting settled in my new desk, I came across a post-it note that I have carried with me since I began working as an Instructional Designer. One half of the post-it is a lengthy definition of Instructional Design. The other half contains brief inspirational thoughts or basic reminders on how to be a good Instructional Designer. Every now and then I come across it and see something in a new light.


For my first post, I’ll break down the definition piece by piece. I have to admit up front, however, that I don’t know where the definition came from. I wrote it down on a post-it note ages ago, and I didn’t capture the author.


“Instructional Design is the process of identifying the skills, knowledge, information, and attitude gaps of a targeted audience and creating or selecting learning experiences that close this gap, based on instructional theory and best practices from the field.”


Let’s break it down.


Instructional Design is the process…

Option 1: ID is not something that you just sit down and do and then you’re done. It evolves and grows and reverts back and heads in new directions. Thinking about ID as a process means you are connecting all of the smaller procedures and repeatable tasks together as you move from the project’s inception to its implementation. In addition, if you have even a few documented processes, you can always improve on those processes and improve your end product. We’ll talk about some of those steps and procedures as we continue to break down the definition.


identifying the skills, knowledge, information…

Whether you’re converting a manual to interactive eLearning or interviewing subject matter experts to better understand a new system and its functionality, you have to identify the stuff you need to train. With each project you get better at sifting through all of the fluff and extraneous information so you can identify the important stuff.


attitude gaps…

These two words carry a lot of weight when it comes to Instructional Design. Attitude and behavior are critical to the success of an ID project. So when we meet with our SMEs to identify what skills or processes we’re training, we cannot forget to try and understand the behaviors or other less tangible factors that led to the need for training.


Think about the idea of training around an attitude gap in the following scenario. After reading through the description of a training request, you walk into a meeting with the client thinking you’ll be creating a training simulation for a new computer system. Easy enough. During the meeting, you find out the system is incredibly easy to use and has proven to increase efficiency and accuracy across the board. The employees aren’t using it and their numbers are suffering. Turns out, the employees simply preferred the old manual system and don’t see the value in using the new technology. Now you’re talking about a totally different training package. You don’t need to focus on how to use the system, you need to focus on showing the value and benefit of using the new system.


of a targeted audience

Who are you training? This is one of the main questions Instructional Designers always need to answer. Not only does the target audience help you in designing the look and feel of the  training, but it also helps answer other residual questions such as, “Where will they access the training?” or “Can the training can incorporate audio?”.


Let’s step back a bit and add the last piece of the definition: attitude gaps of a targeted audience. In the previous scenario, perhaps the managers don’t want to adopt the new system. The actual employees who would use the system actually want to take advantage of the new technology. How does that shift your focus and potentially your entire training package?


creating or selecting learning experiences that close this gap…

At this point in the process, we’re connecting everything we know about the stuff we need to train and who needs to be trained. Now we need to focus on how to present the important parts of the stuff the audience needs to know in such a way that they will learn the new process or concept. The chosen learning experience could be hands-on practice, a “choose your own adventure” styled scenario, or an engaging video. The right learning experience will be appropriate to your audience, teach the stuff you need to teach, and even change the audience’s behavior.


based on instructional theory

This part of the definition is where a little education comes in handy. There are so many points in the process where we can and should apply actual instructional theories and learning principles. It’s always good to come back to those theories and principles if you’re ever questioning a feature of the training or how to approach a tricky spot.


and best practices from the field.

Instructional Design is no different from any other field or business. Things change – often faster than you realize. There are so many resources, forums, organizations, and conferences (like the DevLearn conference we just attended in Las Vegas) that strong Instructional Designers take full advantage of.


By collaborating, joining forums, and networking with other professionals, we can benchmark ourselves against other organizations, reach out to others when we need a creative boost, or help troubleshooting a tricky element.


How’s that for a thorough definition?! To me, it captures everything that Instructional Designers seek to accomplish. If you’re writing a simple one-page help document or designing an immersive online training course, each element of that definition will help you design with all the best intentions.

After receiving a Master’s Degree from NAU in Literacy, Technology, and Professional Writing, Sarah returned to her home town of Omaha, Nebraska where she gathered almost 10 years of experience in Instructional Design. Sarah loves utilizing technology to create training, whether to teach people how to use a computer system, improve their sales numbers, or incorporate a new process into their daily routine. Her background in English and Technical Writing helps keep her focused on writing and editing to provide clear and concise content for training. When the opportunity opened up with the Learning & Professional Development team, Sarah and her family (which consists of a bicycle-obsessed husband, two energetic daughters, and an annoying German Shepherd) jumped at the chance to move back to Flagstaff where they can ride bikes, hike, camp, ride bikes some more, and generally enjoy the outdoors without humidity or mosquitoes.

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