The Key Principles of Instructional Design (2024)

Devlin Peck
. Updated on 
April 4, 2024
principles of instructional design thumbnail

Today, you’ll learn what the key principles of instructional design are. 

You’ll learn: 

To become a top instructional designer, you need to be able to apply these principles to create effective learning experiences. 

Let’s dive in!

What is instructional design?

Instructional designers create engaging and effective learning experiences for:

(To name a few.)

IDs draw from different industries and disciplines, such as:

One of the core skills that you need to be able to master as an instructional designer is the ability to apply instructional design theory, including principles. That’s because ID principles help you anchor your work in learning science. 

Principles, like Mayer’s Principle, have been shown to significantly improve learning outcomes. 

My own hiring manager report shows that this is one of the core skills hiring managers look for when hiring instructional designers. 71.3% say understanding ID theory one of the top three things they look for in candidates. 

I talk more about ID theory and how to apply it in this short video: 

Next, let’s take a look at the core psychological principles of instructional design. 

The three psychological principles of instructional design

Instructional design is based on the learning principles of:

Here’s more background on each of them. 


Behaviorism is the idea that behavior can change through specific reinforcements. This principle focuses on observable and measurable behaviors, and it's used to change behavior to achieve desired outcomes.

Behaviorism is based on the premise that behavior is the result of the environment and its stimuli.

For instance, you might use positive reinforcement (such as verbal praise or a reward system) to encourage a learner.

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology considers how people perceive, remember, and process information. Instructional designers then apply these findings to the design of learning experiences. This approach is focused on catering content to the needs of the learner.

By understanding how the brain works, instructional designers can create learning materials that are more effective and engaging. 

For example, using multimedia can help learners retain and recall information through visual and auditory simulation. 


Constructivism in instructional design is based on the idea that learners construct knowledge based on what they’ve learned. They bring a variety of personal experiences, knowledge, and beliefs to the learning process. 

This principle focuses on the learners’ active involvement and emphasizes that people should be encouraged to discover, explore, and construct their own understanding. 

Put simply, constructivism is a learner-centered approach to teaching and learning. 

The goal here is to create an environment that encourages learners to actively engage in the learning process by exploring and experimenting with new ideas. 

For example, you might include hands-on activities and discussions that allow learners to build on their existing knowledge and draw their own conclusions.

Now, let’s look at the nine core principles of instructional design. 

The nine principles of instructional design 

Robert Gagné proposed nine levels of instruction in 1965 as the essential events that lead to learning. These nine principles are widely used today and still solidly backed by science even if Gagné developed these levels long before eLearning was a thing.

They are: 

1) Gain attention

2) State objectives

3) Stimulate recall of prior learning

4) Present the content

5) Provide learning guidance

6) Elicit performance

7) Provide feedback

8) Assess performance

9) Enhance retention and transfer

I talk more about them in this short video: 

Let’s start with #1, gain attention.

Gain attention

Gagné's first level of learning is gaining attention. 

This event is all about drumming up interest and drawing the learner into the experience. A few ways you can do that is to: 

By implementing the first event, you catch learners’ attention and get them to want to learn more. Make the event fun and/or highly interesting to get people to attend to the learning experience. 

State objectives

The second level of learning, according to Gagné, is stating objectives. To satisfy this event, you must tell the learner what they’re going to learn.

Why is this level important? 

Because it helps learners focus on goals and provides a framework so they can measure their progress. 

However, you don’t want to present learning objectives in “instructional design” language because you’ll quickly lose your audience with that level of detail. Instead, use conversational language.   

Stimulate recall 

Gagné's third level of learning is all about connecting and applying learning. You help learners by creating activities that encourage them to recall prior knowledge.

The goal is to make it easier for learners to incorporate their knowledge into their long-term memory by drawing connections between the new information and information they already possess. 

This can be done through some form of practice, like questions, problem-solving exercises, and asking the learner to summarize their pre-existing knowledge. 

Present content

The fourth level of Gagné's nine levels of learning is to present content, which means delivering the material in an organized way. This level of instruction is focused on giving learners the information they need to move on to the next level. 

Basically, content should be structured so it’s easy to follow and understand. Your content should also be aligned with your learning objectives.

Your content can be presented as videos, text, PDFs, slideshows, and so on. 

Provide guidance 

Gagné's fifth level is to provide guidance – that is, resources to help learners understand the content better. 

A few ways to do this are to use mnemonic devices or give tips and suggestions about how to study the material. In terms of eLearning, you might give suggestions on additional reading, how often learners should return to the course, and how learners can proactively retain the information. 

Elicit performance

Elicit performance is Gagné's sixth level, and it is about offering practice opportunities. By practicing their new skills, learners retain the information much faster and encode it in their long-term memory. 

You might offer multiple-choice questions, gamified experiences, drag-and-drop interactions, simulations, and scenario-based questions. 

Provide feedback 

Gagné's seventh level is about providing feedback, which means learners need to be told how their performance compares to the desired outcome. 

What does this do? 

It helps reinforce effective behavior and identify areas for improvement. So, feedback should be timely and detailed, allowing the learner to make any necessary adjustments and keep working on their goals. 

Assess performance 

The eighth level of learning, according to Gagné, is assessing performance. This involves evaluating how well learners have achieved desired outcomes. So, this could involve using written or oral exams, practical demonstrations, or other forms of assessment. 

The results can then be used to help improve learning. This also allows instructors to assess how effective their teaching methods are and to ensure that learners are achieving the intended outcomes. 

In eLearning, you might include a scored set of questions or software simulations at the end of the experience. For larger budgets, you can create a gamified assessment. 

Enhance transfer

Gagné's ninth and final level is about enhancing transfer. This involves helping learners apply the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired during the learning experience to real-world situations. You can help them by designing activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and role-playing. 

For example, you also might provide a PDF that learners can use while they’re on the job. Or you might ask questions about how learners will use the information they’ve learned. 

Next, let’s take a look at additional instructional design principles.

Other instructional design principles and models 

There are additional instructional design principles and models that can be used to design effective learning experiences. These include Merrill's Principles of Instruction, the ADDIE model, and Bloom's Taxonomy. Let’s take a look at each of these. 

Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning

Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning explain how to use structured multimedia learning experiences to maximize learner retention and engagement. 

Some of the principles include: 

In this short video, I talk more about these principles: 


The ADDIE model is an instructional design model that stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. It’s a systematic approach to creating high-quality instructional materials that are tailored to learners’ needs. 

This model is widely used in the field of instructional design. In fact, in my report on the state of instructional design, 67.3% of hiring managers explicitly said that candidates should be familiar with ADDIE. 

One benefit of the ADDIE model? 

It’s flexible and can be adapted to fit different learning contexts to create a range of learning experiences. It’s also a helpful tool for assessing the effectiveness of instructional materials and making improvements. 

While organizations tend to use bits and pieces of ADDIE rather than rigorously apply it to learning experiences, you still want to understand all the parts of ADDIE. 

I talk more about ADDIE – and the steps – here: 

Bloom’s Taxonomy 

Bloom’s Taxonomy is used to write learning objectives for cognitive tasks. It’s created with the most basic level of understanding at the bottom and progresses to the highest form of understanding and knowledge at the top. 

The different levels are: 

However, you don’t need to use every level when using Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

Read more about how to apply this model here

Next steps

So, there you have it! These are the key principles of instructional design to know about. Plan on working in this field? Then learning the associated principles is critical to developing effective course content or learning experiences. 

Need more guidance on how to get started? I’ve got you covered. Check out my ID bootcamp here. 

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