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Instructional Design Models Demystified

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Instructional design models are one of the most interesting aspects of instructional system design (ISD), and they are learning design’s most misunderstood element. Some think of these as theoretical models, and others see them as a roadmap to thinking about workflow. There is something for everyone in ISD models.

Instructional design models have evolved over the last 75 years as a byproduct of learning design’s formalization and the acceptance of ISD as a science. ADDIE and almost every other model is the result of research into cognition and how the instructional design process moves learners to mastery. They are also a common sense, easily understood representation of why a system’s approach to designing learning works. It isn’t someone’s best guess; it is researched and validated by professionals.

The 1950s through the 1970s was the Golden Era of ISD. David Merrill offered Principals of Instruction, Gagne gave us ADDIE and the Nine Events of Instruction, Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy displayed the complexity of cognition, B. F. Skinner wrote about Operant Conditioning, and visionaries like J. Marvin Cook brought ISD into the academic arena with graduate programs.

ADDIE is the most well-known and utilized ISD model, and Florida State University and Robert Gagne were responsible for showing there is a “proven” way to design learning. However, it wasn’t so much ADDIE as a model as ISD as a science moving this to prominence. There are now hundreds of ISD models, and Agile, Kemp, Dick, Carey, and others have all enhanced and improved the learning and practitioner learning design landscape.

ADDIE is an acronym for the five elements of the model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. One of the main reasons ADDIE is the unchallenged leader in ISD models is that it contains almost every aspect of the work instructional designers perform. Some mistakenly think the elements are linear and followed from analysis to evaluation without modification. While it is possible to use ADDIE or any model as a workflow process map, that isn’t a model’s overriding purpose. Models are meant to illustrate the complexity and associated processes of designing learning. Experienced designers will likely touch on all these elements in most design projects, but the extent of use and order is optional.


As ISD has matured as a professional field, the models have also evolved to reflect accrued best practices and updated research on the learning process. SAM, or Successive Approximation Model, is a perfect example. Efficiency and utilizing course elements more than once have driven models like SAM, AGILE, and Rapid Prototyping to revisit the one-and-done mentality. However, there is no reason we can’t utilize templates and boilerplate course design elements in a just-in-time manner. This is especially true in online learning, where learning management systems (LMS) course shells and other required standard features are already in place, and a designer can focus on content and other core design elements.

All the successive models after ADDIE, like SAM, Agile, and Rapid Prototyping, are examples of how instructional design has matured to be more adaptable to present-day realities in the field. In much the same way as GPS equipment has replaced printed maps for navigation, these new adaptations of ADDIE have streamlined and modernized the instructional design process in ways that work in many design environments. These are well-reasoned adaptations of ADDIE at the practitioner level of learning design, not a replacement of the foundational ISD elements of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.


As you think about ISD models and their role in your instructional design work, focus on the elements best fitting your specific design variables. It is the case with most instructional designers that an ISD model or two is the foundation of how they approach each design with real-world issues like budget, deadlines, and implementation choices being placed in the appropriate boxes.

Take the time to get to know as many of these models as possible and begin the process of deciding which elements resonate with you and how you view the design process. You don’t have to pick just one and are more than free to jump around as needed.

About the Author

Chuck Hodell has been writing, practicing, and teaching instructional systems design for many years. His books and articles have earned him the title of "The Man Who Wrote the Book on ISD." His bestselling four editions of ISD From the Ground Up and his SMEs From the Ground Up books are used internationally both in academic settings and in the practice of instructional design. He is also the author of many ATD Infolines, TD magazine articles, Best on ISD and is an ASTD Handbook contributor. He has appeared in ATD videos and participated in numerous online and ATD international conferences, including teaching preconference programs in ISD.
Hodell has designed thousands of training programs for the White House, major corporations, nonprofits, numerous apprenticeship programs as well as assisting clients in Egypt, Africa, Europe, and other locations around the world.
He presently serves as affiliate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and associate director and faculty of the Learning and Performance Technology master's program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Hodell served as deputy provost at the National Labor College and has held faculty positions at Antioch University and other institutions. He presently serves as the academic advisor for the Instructor Certification Program at the International Masonry Training and Education Foundation.
Hodell holds a PhD in language, literacy and culture from UMBC, a master’s degree in ISD from UMBC, and an undergraduate degree from Antioch University.

1 Comment
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Most people are familiar with the ADDIE model and its variants. However, I am like the idea of trying on the various approaches to see which fits your style and produce the best outcome. I personally like SAM or the Agile approaches because of the ease of application plus the fact that the iterations enable you to reproduce the cycle in a drill down manner.
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