instructional design best practices

Instructional design is truly an art form. While there is no one-size-fits-all formula that will guarantee a perfect course in all circumstances, there are handy guidelines to follow that will usually lead to good design choices. Here are a few reminders to keep in mind the next time you design an eLearning course.

Teach to the test and test what you teach

There’s nothing more annoying than an instructor who gets a sick sort of thrill from surprising their learners with out-of-the-blue questions that they conspicuously neglected to include in the original lesson. You’ll be chugging along on the exam, answering questions about the Civil War like a champ. You’ve studied your socks off and triple checked your notebook until the material has become second nature. You’ve got this. But suddenly a rogue question rears its ugly head and blindsides you with its absolute esoteric absurdity: “What was Rober E. Lee’s favorite drink for a summer Sunday afternoon?”
Your heart begins to race and a cold sweat covers your body. Your pencil falls with a clack to the floor as you drop to your knees and unleash a primal scream to the heavens, futilely cursing the injustice of the world.

Don’t be that teacher. Testing your students is a measure of the knowledge and skills you helped them develop. It’s not an opportunity for you to show off the obscure and useless facts you know about historical figures. Make sure test questions come from the material and not from thin air. It not only makes sense, but it also shows respect for your learners’ time and effort.

Segment information into appropriately sized modules

This is the segmenting principle in action. While education and training are meant to challenge the learner and help them grow by getting them out of their comfort zone, learning needs a degree of flexibility. It can be difficult to sit through 6 hours of training material, especially if each section blends seamlessly into the next, blurring the lines between them. In such a case, there is no natural resting spot for the learner to pause and take a breather before soldiering forward.

Try your best to break a course into smaller chunks. Every topic has a host of subtopics branching out from it, each of which can be turned into its own segment of the course. If for instance you were designing a course about the amazing world of…um…fruit? In that case, you wouldn’t just do one giant module explaining all there is to know about fruit. You could, but it would be overlong and cumbersome. Try breaking it down into a bunch of smaller modules discussing the different aspects of fruit: an “apple” module, a “citrus” module, etc.

Identify what you want your learners to know

Really think about the course objectives before you sit down and plan a course. This will dictate every other choice you make in the instructional design. What are you trying to teach people? If the course needed to teach learners how to make an omelette, you would tailor all of your design decisions to that end. You might have a section detailing the proper kitchen safety required, such as the safe operation of a stove-top burner, avoiding food poisoning, etc. Then the next section could be about prepping the ingredients, or proper flipping technique until all aspects of omelette-craft are brought to light.

Provide good feedback

Picture yourself in a traditional school environment. Now imagine that your teacher is giving you an oral exam and for every answer given, she will either say, “Good!” if your are correct and “Wrong answer, bub!” if you are incorrect, no explanation provided for either. This may give you a little bit of direction because now you can figure out the right answer through process of elimination, but it could be so much more helpful than that. Now imagine that your teacher is giving you the same exam except now when you answer a question, she explains why you got it right or wrong. This opens all sorts of doors for you because it paints a much broader picture of things. Now instead of trying to deduce the answer through yes/no questions, you can actually look at the evidence and make an informed decision with that feedback. Going back to our Civil War example from earlier, if a learner were to wrongly answer that Jefferson Davis was the President of the Union, it would be less help to tell them “Nope” and just end it there than it would be to say, “Incorrect. During the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America.” In the latter case, the learner actually knows what they did wrong instead of just having a general sense of wrongness which can be difficult to use as a learning moment.

What are your instructional design best practices? Share with us in the comments!

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