How to use instructional design to create a more effective learning environment.

We all want to create the best possible course to offer our learners. But with so many options available and so much material to cover, many online instructors quickly feel in over their heads. They thought they knew what they wanted to say, but now that they’ve tried organizing it into a full-blown course they’ve suddenly lost their focus.

Fortunately, there’s an entire school of thought behind creating effective course materials. Instructional design, which is rooted in cognitive and behavioral psychology and influenced by the field of systems engineering, draws from many disciplines with the goal of helping learners grasp material in a way that better matches the way our brains process and organize information.

While instructional design can be an intimidatingly broad subject, there are a few principles you can easily grasp and incorporate into your courses right away. So, if you’re having trouble organizing your online course in an intuitive way, here’s a few ideas to help you out.

1. Work on your transitions.

One of the tenants of good writing states that sentences should flow, one to the next, with concepts linking paragraphs to create a coherent thought.

Of course, plenty of writers break this for stylistic purposes, but only sparingly. If you don’t want to lose your readers, you need to include transitioning words, sentences, and paragraphs to lead them from one point to the next.

Instructional design says the same about your lesson plan. If your lessons to follow a logical order, your audience is going to lose their way. Avoid confusion by putting your inner editor to work.

Can learners follow the structure you’ve laid forth? Within the lessons, does each point and each slide flow smoothly from one to the next? If there are places where your transition seems to stick, how can you improve the flow?

2. Create a narrative.

Want to know a great way to make transitions between concepts more natural? Tie them to a narrative. If you’re working on a training program, creating a series of scenarios that relate to concrete examples that a learner is likely to encounter in the real world.

Customer service scenarios are a classic example of this kind of instruction. If you’ve just written a lesson about ways to de-escalate tension with an unhappy customer, presenting a story in which the learner must choose how to respond in a tense client interaction not only brings your principles together, it also does a better job of preparing them for that possibility.

3. Build on learning and experience.

Creating a narrative not only improves transitions, it touches on another important instructional design principle: building on previous learning.

A good course doesn’t cover a subject once and then leave it unaddressed until the final test. Instead, it reviews and builds upon previous principles so that learners can exercise their newfound knowledge and skills.

Narratives and branching scenarios are both ways to build on a learner’s previous experience, but they’re not the only method instructors can use to connect with learners. In fact, you may have your best success by encouraging learners to create their own associations through user generated content.

By encouraging learners to recall concepts from their own experience, you not only make the material more relevant to them, you also strengthen their mental connection to the subject, which helps with future recall.

4. Engage the learner to test comprehension.

Asking users to generate content is only one form of engagement. Any time a user must respond to their environment to move forward in the course is a chance to elicit a reaction and test comprehension.

Even simple tasks at the end of a lesson—such as asking learners to drag and drop information cards so that they appear in the appropriate sequence, helps learners organize those concepts in their memory so that they can better reference them in the future.

That said, practice and discussion are the best ways to improve comprehension. If you have a forum, having learners review content in a group setting can create a healthy social connection for the learner. For other subjects, such as language, short practice sessions where they can directly apply their learning are even better.

5. Offer your learners feedback.

Finally, providing your learners with immediate, relevant feedback is the best way to prevent an incorrect answer from getting lodged in their brains. In fact, the faster you can provide feedback, the better. Providing answers at the end of a short quiz is good, but providing them immediately after each question is even better. Otherwise, learners may have a harder time remembering which answers match which questions, and why they might have given the answer they did.

The one caveat to this rule is when immediate feedback might interrupt a learner’s flow of thought. Again, language practice provides a good example. One common error many fluent or native speakers make when they speak to a learner is to correct them mid-sentence. While the native speaker may believe they’re helping, they’re actually contributing to the speaker’s confusion, making it harder for them to maintain their train of thought, and increasing the likelihood of future mistakes.

Furthermore, qualitative learning—which explains why an answer was right or wrong—is more valuable to learners than a red mark. For a text that requires a sequence of related events, it can also offer more nuance. In a branching scenarios test, for instance, a learner may hit upon an answer which, while not the ideal solution, is still acceptable.

The bottom line is: feedback should be as timely as possible without interrupting the learner’s thought process, and it should offer description and explanation beyond a simple pass/fail assessment.

Still struggling to pull together a full course? Start with something smaller.

If applying these principles across an entire course seems daunting, try refining your technique on smaller courses. A micro course is a lot easier to pull together and can be a great way to test different instructional design principles.

Maybe you create a narrative, but your readers don’t relate to the scenario and you decide to choose a new one. Or perhaps your learners need more engagement and less feedback. Whatever you learn from your micro course you can then use to improve other courses. It may even provide inspiration for a whole new series!


2 responses

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This article was quite helpful as I research learning designs. How can an instructional designer create a learning experience using problem based learning in a virtual setting? I work for a virtual school and would like to develop my lessons using PBL; however, it would seem easier to do so in a brick and mortar modality rather than a digital one. Still, there has to be a successful way. Is there any advice you could offer me? Are there educator forums out there that discuss PBL in a virtual setting that I might find useful?

Avatar Durdana Shakir

Hi Durdana! That’s a good question. Other than our LearnDash Tips & Tricks group on Facebook, which is mostly about using the plugin itself, I don’t have any recommendations for educator forums for you. However, designing lessons for problem-based learning in a digital-only setting sounds like an interesting challenge. I think you’d have to consider how collaborative you wanted your lessons to be, and how you would present any educational materials to your learners. We’ve written about designing branching scenarios ( and using h5p to create interactive courses (, so those might help you get started.

Avatar Laura Lynch

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