The Full History of Instructional Design

Devlin Peck
. Updated on 
June 29, 2024
history of instructional design thumbnail

Want to discover the history of instructional design?

You’re in the right place.

Here we explore everything, from the formation during the 1940s to how instructional design looks in the present day. We also look at the most important instructional design models.

Read on to learn more!

Overview of the history of instructional design

The history of instructional design goes back several decades.

During World War Two thousands of soldiers – often people without any military training – needed to be trained fast. Instructional design was created as a way to train them more effectively.

Over the years, the emphasis has shifted from skills development and knowledge acquisition to personalized learning experiences. Technology such as social media, AI, and cloud-based services continue to shape the industry.

Next, let’s look at the specific timeline of how instructional design has evolved.

A brief history of instructional design

Here we look more closely at how instructional design has transformed through the decades.


The US once used a behaviorist model of teaching in which students were seen as passive recipients of knowledge. But when World War II hit and troops had to be trained quickly, it became clear this approach wouldn’t work.

Huge amounts of training materials were subsequently developed for soldiers based on theories of human behavior, instruction, and learning. Psychologists started to view training as a system with various stages and assessment methods to screen candidates.

In 1946, Edgar Dale laid out his visual model, the 'Cone of Experience', which demonstrates the relationship between concreteness and abstraction of learning experiences. In this learning model, you break down a learner's progression into doing, observing, listening, reading, and visualizing.


The notion of breaking down complex topics into smaller, more manageable pieces was built upon in 1954 in an article by B. F. Skinner titled 'The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching'.

Here, Skinner proposed that effective instructional materials should include self-pacing, smaller steps, plenty of questions to the learner, and immediate feedback.

And in 1956, Benjamin Bloom led a committee of colleges to publish a highly influential classification system. This was the first to break down learning into three domains, which are still used today in instructional design: cognitive (knowledge and mental skills), affective (attitude and feelings), and psychomotor (manual and physical skills).


Before his contributions to the Instructional Design field, the Human Performance Psychologist Bob F. Mager was drafted during World War II and served as a company clerk. This role, which saw him interacting with new recruits, showed him the discrepancies in performance due to a lack of information.

Building upon Skinner's work in the 1950s, his 1962 article 'Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction' popularized a concept now used in nearly every classroom worldwide: 'learning objectives'.

He detailed how to create learning objectives including desired behaviors, learning conditions, and assessment methods.

Many of the concepts of the previous decades were then tied together when Robert Gagne released his hugely impactful 'Conditions of Learning' in 1965. Gagne outlined five learning outcomes (verbal, intellectual, cognitive, attitude, and motor skills).

He also described nine 'events of instruction':

In 1967, Michael Scriven produced a monograph suggesting formative assessment to analyze the effectiveness of materials before finalizing them.

These key works provide the basis of the instructional design as it exists today.


Instructional design rapidly expanded throughout the seventies, being used in everything from academia, to the military, and the corporate world.

Under contract from the National Science Foundation, Dr. David Merrill led a team of scientists to develop TICCIT, the first instance of technology in the field.

This Two-Way Interactive Computer Controlled Television worked as a very early computer-based instructional system. Merrill also developed Component Display Theory, highlighting the importance of how you present instructional materials.


The University of Illinois' PLATO computer system was one of the first widespread cases of integrating computers into instruction. It offered coursework materials across a huge range of subjects to university students.

The system was the first to introduce multiple facets of online learning. It included text overlaying graphics, feedback for different answers, and contextual assessment of free-text answers through keyword detection.


Learning & Development teams began integrating Piaget's Constructivist Theory, which describes learning as a dynamic process rather than a passive one, into learning experiences. This placed more of an emphasis on creating engaging environments where students actively construct their own understanding.

At the same time, computer-based training through CD-ROMs became more common, and instructional designers experimented with rapid prototyping to efficiently test and adjust content.


With the dawn of mass adoption of the internet, online learning platforms finally became commonplace. Advances in technology meant that highly effective simulations and truly personalized learning experiences could be created.

These saw widespread adoption in every industry from the corporate world, to engineering and academia. With gaming becoming widespread and recognized as a powerful learning tool, the introduction of gamification techniques was blended with technology.

2010s and beyond

Learning Design and Technology majors began to be offered spaces at universities. Meanwhile, emerging software made it possible for those not from an IT or development background to create engaging instructional design content.

Informal learning is still rising in popularity as companies start to invest more time and resources into knowledge platforms for self-led learning.

Important instructional design models

As you would imagine from a field with an 80 year history, the range of instructional design theory and models out there is diverse, with many containing elements and borrowing ideas from each other.

However, there are three primary models you should familiarize yourself with if you're looking into how to become an instructional designer.

These are:


The ADDIE model of instructional design was originally designed in 1975 by Florida State University for the United States Army. It was later rolled out across all branches of the US military and remains a popular and effective model to this day.

Each letter in the ADDIE acronym stands for a different phase of creating effective instructional design content:

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom's 1956 'Taxonomy of Educational Objectives' is a framework for writing objectives for cognitive tasks.

The framework is broken down into six main categories:

The theory was revised in 2001 by a team of curriculum designers, instructional researchers, and cognitive psychologists to become 'A Taxonomy for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment' which includes more dynamic classifications of each stage.

Dick and Carey Instructional Design Model

The Dick and Carey instructional design model acts as a big-picture framework for successfully implementing learning initiatives. It considers both the learners as well as the instructor and the materials themselves.

It's broken down into nine key steps:

Next steps

And that’s it. That’s our brief overview of the history of instructional design.

Instructional design is constantly evolving thanks to new technologies – something that makes this industry extremely versatile and interesting.

Want to learn how to become an instructional designer?

Sign up for my free checklist to find out how you can build your career as an instructional designer:

Devlin Peck
Devlin Peck
Devlin Peck is the founder of, where he helps people build instructional design skills and break into the industry. He previously worked as a freelance instructional designer and graduated from Florida State University.
Learn More about
Devlin Peck

Explore more content

Explore by tag