The Best Instructional Design Models for Creating Great Learning Experiences

Updated on 
August 5, 2022
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The goal of instructional design is to create learning experiences.

These learning experiences need to keep the audience engaged, cover the necessary information, and give the learners opportunities to practice new skills.

In this article, we will break down what a good learning experience looks like, and three instructional design models you can use to design them.

Let’s get started.  

What is a Learning Experience?

A learning experience is any event that moves you from not knowing something, to knowing it.

How to Design Learning Experiences?

If you want to design good learning experiences, they must have two components:

Active Thinking

Let’s imagine two situations: A child touching a hot stove for the first time, or a person trying to buy a train ticket in a foreign language.

In both of these cases, the brain is fully focused and trying to process the information it is receiving. Because of this active processing, the person is going to walk away with new knowledge or skills.

Now compare those experiences to an information-heavy eLearning course.  The audience is just clicking through slides as quickly as possible. They barely look up from their phones during the quiz sections.

Good learning experiences require active thinking from the audience. Learning only occurs when someone is deeply engaged in the information they are receiving.

Real-World Preparation

Imagine two firefighters show up at a burning building.

One of them scored a 98% on the ‘principles of fire containment’ exam. The other trained for two months by entering burning buildings the fire department built for real-world simulation.

Which one do you think will be more helpful?

In instructional design, good learning experiences prepare you for the real world.

The three instructional design models in this article will give you a framework for creating impactful and effective learning experiences. Using the best elements of all three will make you an amazing instructional designer.  

A Caveat

You only use learning experiences in instructional design if you know that training is the best solution.

If you don’t know how to tell if training is the best solution, you might want to check out this article that covers ADDIE, SAM, and Action Mapping, then return here afterward.

Gagne's 9 Events

Gagne’s events are nine different experiences that lead to learning.

New instructional designers can follow Gagne's nine events in order. When you have more experience, you can use Gagne’s nine events in whatever order best fits the material that you are teaching.

Gagne's Nine events focus on drawing an individual's attention and giving them information in an order that maximizes learning.

1. Gain attention

Do something to make the audience focus on the learning experience. If they never fully look up from their phones, they probably won’t learn.

2. State Objectives

Tell the audience what they will get out of the experience, what they will learn, or what they will be able to do.  

3. Stimulate Recall

We learn by connecting new information to things we already understand. Include activities that help bring the relevant information to the audience’s mind so they can build off that base.

4. Present content

This is the actual teaching part. It's where you tell the audience the information they need.

5. Provide guidance

These are the hints, tips, and structures that you give the audience so that they can absorb the information.

This guidance presents rules and information the audience can use during practice. It doesn't give the audience the answer but it points them in the right direction.

For example, telling the audience that there are only three causes for printer jams still requires them to actively think and learn about how to fix the printer, but it helps them narrow their focus.

6. Elicit performance

Give the audience opportunities to practice what they learned.

7. Provide Feedback

As the audience practices, tell them what they are doing well and what they still need to work on.

8. Assess Performance

Evaluate, with activities or quizzes, whether learning happened.

9. Enhance Transfer and Retention

Connect the learning experience to the actual world by:

Advanced points

As you gain experience you can adjust these events based on the project and the audiences.

For example, some learners might know more about a topic. In an eLearning experience, you can give them the option to test out of the learning experience.

Some learners might only need to learn a specific piece of information. You can elicit performance before you present content. When you present the content you only give them the information they didn’t know.

If you would like to learn more about Gagne’s 9 events and see examples of them used in an eLearning project, check out this article.

Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction

Merrill has five principles of instruction that work together to create learning experiences.

You facilitate learning when:

1. Learning is centered around solving problems

2. The first activity helps the learner remember what they already know about the subject.

3. The second activity demonstrates the knowledge, instead of just explaining it.

4. The third activity lets the learner apply the new knowledge.

5. The final activity lets the learner integrate what they have learned into their lives.

Merrill’s principles focus on breaking down real-world problems into achievable steps.

The Pebble in the Pond Model

Merrill went further and developed a model for creating learning experiences.

His Pebble in the Pond model is based on his first principles.

The Pebble in the Pond model works around the idea that you build the learning experiences around the actual problem the learner you want the learner to solve in the real world.

Then, design a series of problems that go from easy to difficult. The goal is that by the time the learner has completed all of the problems, they will have all the skills they need to finish the final problem or task.

The process of instruction breaks down into several steps.

1. Show the learner an example of what they will learn by the end of the training.

2. Show how to complete the task.

3. Have the learner complete the task

4. Final task

For simple tasks, this would be the whole process. However, if the task has multiple parts, each part is treated as its own goal.

1. Break the component tasks into their own units

2. For each widget piece, repeat the three steps above.

As you can see, the learner is consistently receiving new information and reviewing old information. Every step is built around a necessary skill they would need on the job.

Action Mapping

Action Mapping focuses on copying an experience a learner would face in the real world. The instructional designer gives the learner several choices for what to do. The learner has to use their best judgment in each scenario.

The goal is to replicate the decisions the learner would make in real life. In Action Mapping, the learner has to actively think about the problem they are trying to solve.

Let's look at an example:

You are a new teacher for a large class of high school students. All of the small tables in the classroom are positioned so that the students are facing each other in two large groups. They often pay more attention to each other than you.

The class has become extremely difficult to manage.

What do you do?

  1. Put in a new system of punishment. If students don’t pay attention during class, then you will take points from the final exam.
  2. If two students are talking, make them switch places with other students.
  3. Separate all the tables and position them so that the students are facing you.
  4. Tell the students to cover their mouths if you say “Shshshshshshshsh.”

The learner then uses logic to choose the best option. Once they choose, you tell them what the results of their choice would be in the real world.

For example:

You tell the students to cover their mouths when you say shshshshshsh. The students are annoyed and ask, “Do you think we’re kids? Why do you want us to cover our mouths?”

You then provide information about why this choice was incorrect.

While asking younger children to cover their mouths works well. Most teenagers will see this as patronizing.

Final Thoughts

Each one of these three instructional design models has different strengths. Gagne’s Nine Events provides a structure for presenting information that works with how our minds function.

Merrill’s Pebble in the Pond Model provides a great structure for building interconnected skills that you need to solve intricate problems. The constant revision at each stage is great for active thinking.

Action Mapping focuses on putting the learner in a real-world environment where the learner has to make decisions just like they would on the job.

Our Recommendation

We recommend using action mapping as a base. Action Mapping puts the goals of organizations at the center of all learning experience design decisions. This means that it is the most likely to benefit the learner.

You can definitely enhance the effects of Action Mapping by including elements from the other two systems.

For example, use Gagne's first event to capture your learner's attention. Then stage the multiple-choice scenarios of Action Mapping so that the problems start easy and get more complicated like the Pebble in the Pond model.

This will give the learner confidence at the beginning and make them more interested in completing the learning experience.

If you want to dive deeper into how Action Mapping works, then check out this talk.

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