The field of instructional design has gotten a lot of attention lately, especially in the world of higher education. But even some experienced instructional designers have a hard time explaining exactly what it is they do. In this part of our Instructional Design 101 series, we’ll take a look at how instructional designers approach course development.

Instructional Design Supports Learning

Generally speaking, an instructional designer’s job is to help ensure that students walk away from a course with a specific set of knowledge and skills.
In terms of what the ID does in the course development process, this typically includes the following:

• Identifying and/or creating learning outcomes (LOs)
• Ensuring that LOs, both at the course and unit level, are clearly stated, achievable, relevant, and measurable
• Assembling, and sometimes creating, course content that fully supports these outcomes
• Organizing course content in a logical and pedagogically effective sequence
• Confirming that assessment is appropriate to, and fully supports, outcomes

This is a high-level overview of what the instructional designer does. Let’s dive into a little more detail.

Learning Outcomes

The ID’s first task in the course development process is to identify or create learning outcomes. In addition, the ID will make sure that LOs are clearly stated, achievable, relevant, and measurable.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine you have enrolled in an American history class about the Depression era, and your syllabus includes the following LOs:

• Understand the causes of the Great Depression.
• Learn about the socioeconomic forces that led to the crash.
• State whether the Great Depression could have been avoided.

You may have some sense of what was expected of you based on these outcomes, but what does it mean to “understand” the Great Depression? How specifically would you show that you’ve “learned” about socioeconomic forces? Could you satisfy the final LO by simply saying, “Yes, it could have been avoided”?

An ID will revise existing LOs or create new ones that communicate exactly what is expected of him or her:

• List the primary causes of the Great Depression in sequential order.
• Identify the socioeconomic forces that contributed to the Great Crash of 1929.
• Write a five-page essay in which you argue for or against the statement, “The Great Depression could have been avoided.”

As you can see, these revised LOs give students a much better idea of what they need to do.

Creating the Course

Once an ID has a set of good LOs to work with, the next task is to make sure there is content available to support them. This usually involves a thorough survey of the support materials available, including textbooks, test banks, assignments, instructor-created content, and so on.

If there are topics identified in the outcomes that are not adequately supported by these materials, the ID will work with the instructor or a subject matter expert (SME) to find, curate, or create new content.

The ID will also cut any content that does not support the outcomes. For example, if there’s a section in the text dedicated to the Works Progress Administration, but this entity is not addressed in the outcomes, that section will not be included in the course.

Removing Obstacles to Learning

One key function of the ID is to create a learning path that’s easy to follow, that doesn’t overwhelm, and that doesn’t put up cognitive “roadblocks” that interfere with learning.

What is an obstacle to learning? We’ve already looked at vague, poorly written objectives. But there are plenty of potential roadblocks for students that originate in the course design process. These include:

• Unclear or confusing instructions (or no instructions)
• Assignments and readings that don’t support outcomes
• Disorganized content
• Assignments for which the student is not prepared
• Assessments addressing knowledge the student hasn’t covered yet

One important way IDs remove obstacles to learning is to create discrete “chunks” of content that are organized around a single, clearly stated topic. To see how this works, take a look at the following list:

• Spider
• King
• Hermit
• Horseshoe
• Fiddler

Does this mean anything to you? Would you remember this list if you had 10 seconds to memorize it? Now take a second look:

Types of crabs:

• Spider
• King
• Hermit
• Horseshoe
• Fiddler

Adding “types of crabs” creates a frame that allows you to make sense of information that may otherwise have seemed random. Using this principle to create discrete, contextualized “chunks” of learning helps the student to better comprehend and internalize content. (All in support of the outcomes, of course.)

So, Why Use an Instructional Designer?

Instructional designers can have a significant, positive impact on student learning. Specifically, IDs can make sure that:

• Students understand what is expected of them.
• The path to learning is not obstructed by distracting, irrelevant, or confusing material.
• Content is organized and presented in a way that optimizes comprehension and increases the likelihood of student success in the course.
• Instructors have a clear framework for evaluating student performance, and assessments specifically target clearly stated LOs.

Check back for additional posts in the Instructional Design 101 series, where we’ll delve deeper into topics including the ID process, how instructional design can improve a course, and how a typical ID project unfolds.

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