Designing Instruction

Designing instruction is a lot like writing. You must take into account a topic, an audience, and a purpose to construct a work of art with the right language. When the elements are orchestrated well, the audience walks away changed. Such a task requires empathy, foresight, resourcefulness, organization, a passion for learning, and a strong understanding of how people learn.

In order to meet the needs of a learner, you must understand the learner and see where the learner is coming from. Empathy allows you to place yourself in the learner’s shoes, so that you can reduce the chances of boredom or miscommunication. Instruction with forced audio and no skip button, for example, may frustrate learners who already know the material and want to skip forward to a more unfamiliar section. Multiple-choice questions are too often written with no empathy. Take this example provided by Vanderbilt University. The writer considers answer choice D to be correct, but answer choices A, B, and C could also be considered correct by some since a cell with 46 chromosomes also contains 12, 18, and 32 chromosomes.

Foresight is required to prepare for the unexpected. Technology may fail during a lesson, or an activity may be too simple for a particular audience. Having the foresight to incorporate flexibility can prevent wasted time and money. Resourcefulness is another time and money saver. With projects commonly having tight deadlines and budgets, instructional designers must be able to use what they are given to create the maximum effect.

Although pictures, audio, and videos can enliven a piece of instruction, they can be distracting and nonsensical as well. An organized approach to designing instruction ensures that all of the necessary elements (e.g., the content, the practice activities, and the feedback) are there and aligned with the goal(s).

A passion for learning enables instructional designers to gain the knowledge and skill themselves, and a strong understanding of how people learn enables them to pass them on.  I have worked with writers and instructional designers who do not take the time to learn the process themselves, and the result is an inaccurate product of no use that can only be resolved with several more rounds of feedback and revisions (and several more rounds of frustration and waste).  As Herbert A. Milliken states in his paper on “The State Certification of Music-Teachers,” “one cannot teach without knowledge, but many cannot teach who have it.”

Let us salute all of the instructional designers out there who manage to constantly learn new things and create effective learning with empathy, foresight, resourcefulness, and organization. Corporate America needs you!


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