Instructional Design

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See also: Learning in the Information Age | New Model Learning | Learning Theories and Styles
Educational Technology - an Introduction for Teachers and Learners | Learning Technology: the Myths and Facts
Learning and the Impact of Technology

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Learning Objectives, Learning Outcomes

tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em (and why!)

Learning objectives (learning outcomes) describe the purpose of a piece of learning by specifying what learners will be able to after successfully completing it. They should focus on the learner, not the teaching; ie they should describe how the learner will benefit rather than what topics will be taught.

Learning objectives are usually expressed by statements including action verbs and refer to learners' anticipated knowledge, skills or attitudes on successful completion of the learning. Some suggested action verbs for:

  • Knowledge objectives - analyze, classify, compare, define, describe, give examples of, identify, list, solve...
  • Skills objectives - adjust, assemble, demonstrate, locate, maintain, measure, modify, operate, use...
  • Attitude objectives - assess, challenge, choose, criticize, defend, evaluate, formulate, justify, persuade, recommend...

Learning objectives should be precise and measurable. Learning objectives form the basis for the design of the learning experience and also how it is assessed.

Learning objectives provide learners with an expectation of what they will gain from the learning. They also help learners make informed choices about whether a particular course of study is appropriate for their particular purposes.

Recommended reading

Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction Robert F. Mager. Describes the characteristics of well-stated objectives, how to derive suitable objectives, and how to write objectives to match the instructional results you are seeking to achieve.

Web resources

Determining Learning Objectives This chapter from Florida State University's online instructional handbook helps instructors identify the goals and objectives they want students to reach, and provides guidelines for using these objectives in course design. (284k PDF, free online reader available from Adobe).

Writing Learning Outcomes from the American Association of Law Libraries.

Some Instructional Techniques

Experiential Learning

The term experiential learning relates to the idea that learners learn best by doing. Experiential learning has particular relevance to practical, skills-based learning. The most direct form of experiential learning is "on the job" training, however it is also applicable to observing an expert at work, learning through simulations etc.

A model of experiential learning was set out by Kolb and Fry. This model describes a learning "cycle" consisting of concrete experience, observation and reflection, generalization / formation of abstract concepts and testing these concepts in new situations (leading to further concrete experience etc etc).

The key to experiential learning is reflection. Unless the learner undertakes reflection on his/her experiences s/he will not experience true understanding.

Instruction designed according to the principles of experiential learning will provide opportunity for experience, encourage reflection and generalization (eg asking things like, "why do you think such and such happened?"), followed by opportunity for more refined experience.

Recommended reading

Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development David A. Kolb.

For more information on Kolb's model see david a. kolb, which describes experiential learning, sets out the model and examines its possibilities and problems.

Learning as Conversation

The idea of learning as a teacher-student conversation dates back to Socrates (470-399 BC), ie the Socratic method. More recently the approach was extended by cyberneticist Gordon Pask's Conversation Theory.

Pask's theory attempts to provide a comprehensive description of learning in all systems from machines through to humans. A fundamental feature of Pask's theory is teachback in which learners teach back what they have learned to their teachers in order that the teacher might discover gaps or misunderstandings in the learner's internal model. For more information, see Reflections on the Conversation Theory of Gordon Pask by Gary McI. Boyd; Centre for Systems Research & Knowledge Engineering; Education Dept, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

Laurillard's Conversational Framework (Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies 2nd ed) describes learning as a conversation occurring simultaneously with a process of task setting (by teachers) and completion (by learners), with ongoing two-way interaction between both teacher and learner and conversation and task. Gradually, through the process of interaction with teacher and environment, learners become inducted into the discipline. Laurillard's model has been used widely in the design of technology mediated learning.

Presentation, Practice, Production

Presentation, practice, production is a technique often employed in language teaching but is applicable to most forms of instruction. New material is presented, explained and clarified to the learner, eg the differentiation of polynomials. The material is then practiced under controlled conditions, often in isolation, eg the numerous polynomials are differentiated. Finally it is produced authentically, eg a real world problem involving, among other things, a polynomial differential, is solved.

Guided discovery

Rather than merely presenting material "on a plate" retention and understanding is increased if learners are encouraged to find out for themselves. This may take the form of directed reading, experimentation, project work etc. Sometimes referred to by the vulgar acronym FOFO (F*** Off and Find Out).


It is often beneficial to include variety in the learning delivery process. If instruction becomes too formulaic there is a risk that learners may switch to "auto mode" without really understanding the concepts presented. The introduction of variety helps to stimulate the learner and promotes greater consideration of material.

Positive phrasing

Where possible instruction should be expressed in positive rather than negative terms, eg, "always close Windows before turning the computer off", rather than, "never turn the computer off without closing Windows".


Mnemonics are techniques used to aid long-term retention of seemingly arbitrary facts, eg, "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain", for the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).


Further Information

Recommended reading

Designing Effective Instruction Gary R. Morrison, Steven M. Ross, Jerrold E. Kemp. This valuable resource provides instructional designers with the guidance they need to meet the challenge of creating effective and efficient instruction.

Rapid Instructional Design : Learning ID Fast and Right George M. Piskurich. Presents a basic understanding of what instructional design is and a hands-on, to-the-point method of ensuring that the training and performance interventions you put into place meet the needs of your staff and organization.

The Systematic Design of Instruction Walter O Dick, Lou Carey, James O Carey. This classic text introduces students to the fundamentals of instructional design and helps them learn the concepts and procedures for designing, developing, and evaluating instruction for all delivery formats.

More Instructional Design books

Web resources

A Guide to Teaching & Learning Practices Florida State University's online instructional handbook.

infed The informal education homepage is a resource for community education, informal adult education, lifelong learning, community work, youth work, youth development, animation and informal educators everywhere. Features the encyclopaedia of informal education providing a comprehensive survey of informal education and lifelong learning with over 100 articles and original pieces.

Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database The database contains brief summaries of 50 major theories of learning and instruction. These theories can also be accessed by learning domains and concepts.

IEEE Reference Guide for Instructional Design and Development (PDF, free online reader available from Adobe) This guide is designed to help instructors apply sound principles of design to the creation of courses.

Instructional Design & Learning Theory This paper by Brenda Mergel addresses the questions of why it seems so difficult to differentiate between three basic theories of learning, why the names of theorists appear connected to more than one theory, and why terms and strategies of each theory overlap.

Instructional Technology Connections An extensive, well organized hypertext index on the theory and philosophy of technology for learning and instruction.

All links last accessed June 2005.

See also: Learning in the Information Age | New Model Learning | Learning Theories and Styles
Educational Technology - an Introduction for Teachers and Learners | Learning Technology: the Myths and Facts
Learning and the Impact of Technology

© ( 2005