What are the top instructional design theories?
As you can imagine, applying theories, models, and principles is a core skill for instructional designers. And today, you’ll learn all the most important theories in the industry.
Want to learn more? Let’s get started.
Let’s start from the beginning:
Instructional designers create engaging and effective learning experiences. The science behind how these learning experiences are created is based on psychology, learning theory, instructional design models, systems theory, and more.
Yes, there are lots of theories, models, and principles out there.
But don’t be intimidated. In this video, you’ll get a brief introduction and overview so that these abstract ideas are easier to remember and apply:
But why are they ultimately so important? Here’s what you need to know.
Instructional design theory is critical to understanding learners and developing instruction that can have the biggest impact.
Remember: lessons fall flat if they don’t align with how students learn.
If you don’t adhere to the science and proven principles, you leave people feeling confused and bored – and they won’t accomplish their learning goals.
Models also help you manage projects, ensure you get all the information you need, and not miss any steps in the process.
In this video, I discuss why all instructional designers should understand adult learning theories:
However, it’s not enough to just know the foundational ideas. You also have to understand how to build your instructional design skills by applying instructional design theory. Ultimately, that’s how you stand out in the job market and make an impact.
In fact, instructional design theory is a core skill for all instructional designers. According to my hiring manager survey, 61.4% of hiring managers say applying ID theory is a core skill. And 24.8% think there’s room for improvement among ID applicants.
How do you do that, though? That’s what you’ll learn here:
And in this article, you’ll get the foundations you need to understand theory.
Let’s start by understanding learning theory and then jump into the most common ID theories.
There are three main bodies of knowledge in ID theory (behavioral, cognitive, and constructivist) that help explain how individuals understand new information – and, therefore, guide instructional design.
Let’s start by looking at the three bodies of knowledge.
John B. Watson is seen as the father of behaviorism. Basically, the behavioral learning theory looks at what motivates individuals to learn and it’s grounded in how individuals behave in relation to their environment.
A common example of behaviorism? Positive reinforcement, which rewards students for grasping a concept or performing well on an assignment. The reward is then associated with doing well and encourages the student to continue down that path of success.
There are three types of behavioral theory: Classical Conditioning (learning through association), Operant Conditioning (learning through consequences), and Observation Conditioning (learning through observation).
Jean Piaget developed the first cognitive learning theory, which focuses on mental processes and how learners think to understand new concepts. It asks students to think about their thinking to better understand complex topics. The approach can be broken down further into social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioral theory.
The constructivist learning theory was also developed by Jean Piaget. It’s based on the idea that individuals actively construct their own knowledge from their previous experiences, and each student brings these experiences to instruction.
So, there are four approaches to teaching within the constructivist learning theory:
There’s also a newer theory that we won’t go into as much detail: Connectivism. This learning theory is a reaction to how we use our phones and learn via external networks like books, courses, and other people.
Now that you understand learning theory, it’s time to look at ID theory. We’ll then follow up with principles and models.
Instructional design theory guides how instructional designers create learning experiences. And here below are the most important theories you need to know as an instructional designer:
Origin: Developed by M. David Merrill, Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction is a problem-based theory. The goal? To show the learner what will be learned – rather than telling them about it. So, the focus is on using real-world problems to engage students and promote learning.
Concepts: The theory has five phases: Demonstrate, Apply, Activate, Integrate, and Engage, which do not need to be performed in any specific order.
Origin: Developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Backward Design is a three-step process that focuses on the desired end results of instruction. So, it considers learners first and begins the design process by asking what learners should be able to understand and do following the provided instruction.
Concepts: The three steps are as follows:
Origin: Developed by John Bransford, Anchored Instruction Mode combines rich, meaningful contexts with technology-based learning. Learning and teaching activities using anchored instruction mode should be designed around an “anchor." This is acase study or problem situation.
Concepts: The approach highlights the need to give learners opportunities to think about and work on problems and emphasizes group or collaborative problem-solving.
Origin: Developed by Allan Collins and John Seely Brown, Cognitive Apprenticeship focuses on the importance of a process when someone who has mastered a skill teaches it to an apprentice. “Masters” coach and model behavior in a real-world context to the person learning a new skill.
Concepts: The theory is broken into six teaching methods that can be sorted into three groups (traditional apprenticeship models, problem-solving strategies, and autonomy in both problem-solving and problem-formulation). The teaching methods are modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration.
Origin: Developed by Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory asserts that observation and modeling are fundamental in how and why people learn. Essentially, people imitate the behavior they see around them. That's especially true if that behavior is reinforced in others.
Concepts: The theory proposes five essential steps for learning to take place: observation, attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.
Origin: Developed by Malcolm Knowles, Andragogy is synonymous with adult education.
Concepts: Knowles made five assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners surrounding self-concept, the adult learner experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation to learn.
Origin: Developed by Jean Piaget, the Stages of Cognitive Development suggest that children move through four different stages of learning. Piaget also believed that children take an active role in the learning process.
Concepts: Piaget’s four stages are the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years), preoperational stage (ages 2 to 7), concrete operational stage (ages 7 to 11), and formal operational stage (ages 12 and up).
Origin: Developed by John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, Situated Cognition Theory is the idea that learning occurs when doing something. Also, that knowledge is ingrained in the situation (acitivity, culture...) in which it was learned.
Concepts: Benefits are considered active learning, the inseparability of knowledge and action, realistic challenges for learners, and social activities to share knowledge.
Origin: Developed by Lev Vygotsky, Sociocultural Learning Theory is based on the idea that learning is a social process where knowledge comes from our interactions with those “more skilled” around us. The theory focuses on how mentors and peers influence individual learning. It also gives attention to how attitudes and culture affects the way we learn.
Concepts: There are three key themes in the learning process – lannguage, culture, and the “zone of proximal development.”
Origin: Developed by Jerome Bruner, Discovery-Based Learning is about helping learners to build on past experiences and knowledge. They are encouraged to use their intuition, imagination, and creativity. They also search for new information to discover facts, correlations, and new truths. So, learning doesn’t equal absorbing what was said or read but actively seeking answers and solutions.
Concepts: The most common principles are problem-solving, learner management, integrating and connecting, information analysis and interpretation, and failure and feedback.
Origin: Developed by John Dewey, Inquiry-Based Learning engages students by making real-world connections through exploration and high-level questioning.
Concepts: There are four types of inquiry-based learning: confirmation, structured, guided, and open inquiry. There are also five characteristics: process focus, investigation, group learning, discussion monitoring, and real-life application.
Origin: Developed by Charlie Reigeluth, Elaboration Theory asserts that for content to be learned, it should be organized from simple to complex. At the same time, it should provide a meaningful context so that subsequent ideas can be integrated. So, using this approach means starting with the big picture and getting more granular or elaborating on the initial premise.
Concepts: The theory proposes seven major strategy components:
Origin: Developed by Fred Keller and J. Gilmour Sherman, Individualized Instruction is the idea that learning should be tailored to fit the educational needs and skills of an individual learner. This involves changing the pace of the information delivered, the methods through which the content is offered, and the materials distributed.
Concepts: There are four main principles:
Origin: Developed by Lev Vygotsky, the Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding holds that students need to be engaged in activities that they excel at andin activities that are slightly outside their comfort zone. Regarding children specifically, tasks need to take place in this "Zone" for children to learn. The Zone of Proximal Development is the area in which a child can do things with some assistance.
Concepts: One concept that goes hand in hand with the Zone of Proximal Development is scaffolding – or the idea that new information and skills are more easily learned when building on previous experiences and with support from teachers.
Okay, now let’s look at the most popular instructional design principle.
There’s actually just one principle on my list, which I’m describing here below. But this is an important one, so don’t overlook it:
Origin: Developed by Richard Mayer, Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning explains how best to structure multimedia learning experiences to maximize learner retention and engagement.
Concepts: Mayer presented the following 12 principles:
Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning are critical for instructional designers. That’s why I have a few videos on the subject. First, there’s my basic overview of Mayer's Principles of Multimedia Learning:
…And an explanation of each principle:
And here you’ll learn why it’s important for instructional designers to learn Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning:
I also quickly cover the top four visual design principles (contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity) which go hand and hand with Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning in this video:
Now, let’s talk about instructional design models.
Finally, we have the top instructional design models. These are frameworks for instructional designers – and many of them are fundamental for creating engaging learning experiences. For example, as my hiring manager report shows, 69.3% of hiring managers want candidates to understand the ADDIE model.
With that, let’s dig in:
Origin: Developed by Florida State University, the ADDIE Model is the leading approach to instructional design. Intended initially to be a linear process, the model has become more cyclical. It’s the primary instructional design model.
Why is it so successful? Because it’s simple to use, flexible, and requires alignment with business strategy.
Concepts: The model consists of five phases:
I elaborate on the ADDIE Model in this video:
Short on time? I also go over the basics of ADDIE in 45 seconds right here:
Origin: Developed by Benjamin Bloom, Bloom’s Taxonomy categorizes cognitive learning into varying levels according to complexity and richness. So, moving from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, the level of complexity increases.
Concepts: The six major categories are: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.
I explain more about how to write learning objectives with Bloom's Taxonomy in this video:
Origin: Developed by Robert Gagné, Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction includes a list of steps that are needed for learning.
Concepts: The levels of instruction are:
In this article, I explain how to apply Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction. I also go into more detail in this video:
Origin: Developed by Donald Kirkpatrick, this model evaluates the results of training programs.
Concepts: This model focused on both formal and informal training methods. It rates them against four levels of criteria: reaction, learning, behavior, and results. This article explores each level of Kirkpatrick's model and includes real-world examples to see how the model is applied.
I also explain the model in this video:
Concepts: There are four components of the model: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction.
In this video, we discuss how to make motivational design more accessible and explain how you can start applying these principles immediately on your next project:
Origin: Developed by Michael Allen, the SAM Model is a simplified version of ADDIE. The intention is to get feedback and build working models earlier in the process. It uses a recursive rather than linear process to teach.
Concepts: This model comprises three parts: Preparation, Iterative Design, and Iterative Development.
The SAM focuses heavily on prototyping and offers a strong alternative to waterfall instructional design processes like ADDIE. It’s most widely used in the tech space.
Want to learn more? Check out this video, where I go into greater detail to explain the SAM model:
Origin: Developed by Walter Dick and Lou Carey, the Dick and Carey Instructional Design Model is used for planning and designing effective learning initiatives. Basically, the model looks at different components of instructional design (including the instructor, the materials, and so on) that together help students reach learning objectives.
Concepts: The model is a nine-step process:
Origin: Developed by Heinrich and Molenda, the ASSURE Model is a guide for incorporating multimedia and technology to improve the learning environment. It’s used as a systematic approach to designing lessons.
Concepts: The model has six stages:
Origin: Developed by Jerrold Kemp, Gary Morrison, and Steven Ross, the Kemp Design Model emphasizes flexibility and adaptability. The model is circular, and any step can be used as a starting point.
Concepts: The model has nine stages:
Origin: Developed by Vernom S. Gerlach and Donald P. Ely, the Gerlach-Ely Model focuses on systemic planning. Specifically, it focuses on defining teaching goals and methods to reach the desired learning outcomes. The model mimics the ADDIE phases but in a circular cycle, like a wheel of steps.
Concepts: There are ten elements of the model:
Origin: Developed by Michael Hannafin and Kyle Peck, the Hannafin-Peck Model focuses on evaluation and revision following each instructional phase. So, it’s meant to be a continuous process of revising and tweaking to find the best approach to instruction.
Concepts: The model involves three essential phases: needs assessment, design, and development/implementation.
Origin: Developed by Frederick G. Knirk and Kent L. Gustafson, the Knirk and Gustafson Model asserts that students learn by fitting new information together with what they already know. Also, individuals learn best when they actively construct their own understanding.
Concepts: The model comprises a three-stage process, which includes problem determination, design, and development.
Origin: Developed by Roger Kaufman, the Organizational Elements Model differentiates a company’s means and ends and is used to evaluate a company, understand its competitors’ strengths, and ascertain issues. So, OEM focuses on what an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers, as well as its external contributions.
Concepts: The model consists of five parts: inputs, processes, products, outputs, and outcomes.
There you have it! Now you know what the most important instructional design theories, models, and principles are.
When you’re developing your portfolio and projects, you need to have a foundational knowledge of the primary theoretical concepts to create effective instruction.
Theories are, of course, just one aspect of instructional design. To learn how to become an instructional designer, get my free checklist for new IDs: