The Right Instructional Design Makes a Difference

Your tools don’t matter if the process is wrong. Having good software to create our learning is key, but even more so is creating good content. Sound instructional design is the key to creating good content.

It’s a sure bet that if you simply start creating a course without planning it out you won’t like the results. We need to make sure we get the best ROI on our training. It is an investment that is worthwhile when done right.

The learning community uses a variety of learning and instructional design models to make sure the investment is worth it. Here are some of the top models and how we use them.

Instructional Design and Learning Models


The revised ADDIE model of instructional designInitially developed in the 1970’s at Florida State University, the ADDIE model is actually a derivation of design models used by the military as far back as the 1950’s. The name is actually an acronym of its instructional design process. Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate.

ADDIE is the most widely used instructional design model in place today. The U.S. Military still uses it, or at least a form of it, and most corporate training offices do as well. Why? Because it works!

The model defines the process of ANALYZING the need to determine if training is the solution. After that, analyzing the process, the people, and the environment. Doing that allows you to DESIGN the best solution and plan it out. Following the plan, you DEVELOP the solution fully and then IMPLEMENT the solution. Once implemented, you then EVALUATE the effectiveness.

It’s a process that takes time to do it right. And in some circles that is one of the biggest complaints about ADDIE. They say that the process is rigid, too linear, and not “agile” enough for today’s fast-paced world.

If taken straight up, it’s a valid point. Yet what most people have done is create variations of the ADDIE model to suit their need. As such, it actually is very agile and flexible.


The iterative process of SAM for instructional designThe Successive Approximation Model, popularly known simply as SAM, was intended to be the more contemporary model. SAM is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Allen, the founder of Allen Interactions and creator of Authorware, a now-defunct courseware authoring tool.

Allen was one of the first to claim that existing models, like ADDIE, didn’t really suffice when applied to e-learning. They weren’t agile enough and took longer to get to completion. In addition, you would often get almost to the end of the process before deciding on an interface.

What Allen developed was model that allegedly addressed those issues. It includes what he calls Savvy Start, Rapid Prototyping of the learner interface, and an iterative process of developing and evaluating in smaller segments. The intent is to be more flexible and collaborative, producing results more in line with “real-life” application.

One of the primary criticisms of SAM is that the process kind of glosses over real analysis and as such it’s harder to make sure that the final product maximizes the solution. In other words, is it really the best learning experience?

Other issues are that the iterative process in a collaborative environment desensitizes teams to true evaluation. There is a danger of “group think” taking over. Also, it could waste time and money running through iterations; either because they are unnecessary or because the real solution is elusive. It also is not really an ideal model for anything but e-learning.

Gagne’s Hierarchy

gagne's hierarchy for instructional designThis is an example of a model that becomes useful to us in other ways. In 1956, Psychologist Robert Gagne was a pioneer in learning design. In line with that, he thought that we could basically categorize learning into three areas of knowledge. From that, there were five categories of learning. He also thought that there were eight different ways we learn, ranging from simple conditioning to being able to creatively solve problems.

What that lead to was his developing a process for how we train or teach others. We get their attention, establish the objective of the learning, stimulate recall of prior knowledge, present the new learning. After that we provide guidance, motivate performance, provide feedback, assess performance, and enhance their retention.

Okay, that was a mouthful. Yet what those nine steps taught us was a method for how we help someone learn. So while we wouldn’t use Gagne’s model for our entire design process, we use it to guide how we lead the learner through the experience.

Blooms Taxonomy

blooms taxonomyLike Gagne’s model, we would not generally use Bloom’s Taxonomy for the actual instructional design model. Benjamin Bloom thought that learning fell into three domains: knowledge and understanding, emotional response, and physical skill. Within each was levels of complexity. For example, remembering what you have learned before would be the lowest level of the Cognitive Domain.

So how do we use Bloom’s work in instructional design? Remember that with Gagne’s model we mentioned establishing objectives. The objectives describe exactly what the results of the learning should be. In other words, they describe what the learner should be able to do when the training is completed successfully. For objectives to work, we have to be able to very specifically describe the level of competency we expect.

Part of Bloom’s Taxonomy is a list of verbs associated with each level of each domain. We use those verbs when we write our course objectives. So if you write an objective that says the learner will be able to “Identify the three domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy” you are simply asking them to recall something they learned. They don’t have to explain it or apply it, just remember it. The verb identify defines the level of competency. Therefore, we cannot expect them to analyze or apply the knowledge. And that’s the value of what Benjamin Bloom provided us.

What’s the best choice?

Ask five instructional designers and you still may not get a consensus on which is the best model. There are those that are tried and true ADDIE devotees. Others feel they need the benefits provided by SAM. With either of those, you will likely use elements of both Gagne’s Hierarchy and Bloom’s Taxonomy as you design and develop the learning solution.

Here’s a basic guideline. Admittedly, it is partially driven by bias. If you need to develop learning that may be delivered in various mediums and content is king, then the ADDIE model may be your best option.

If you only plan to develop e-learning and time is limited, then SAM may be a better choice. It’s also good if you have a tendency to suffer from paralysis of analysis. ADDIE would tend to feed the impulse to have every single fact in place and to constantly perfect what you are doing. SAM will push you to production faster.

Trying to figure out your best design approach? Need help moving forward in the development process? Get help by contacting JCA Solutions (


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