Talent Development Glossary Terms
Sign up for the Instructional Design Newsletter!
Section Map

What Is Instructional Design?

Instructional design, also known as instructional systems design or instructional systems development (ISD), is the practice of creating learning experiences to support learning. It is a systems approach to analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating any instructional experience based on the belief that training is most effective when it gives learners a clear statement of what they must be able to do after training and how their performance will be evaluated. (This definition and more information on ISD can be found in the Talent Development Body of Knowledge.)

In the context of workplace learning, instructional design provides a practical and systematic process for designing effective training and is one of the 23 capabilities in the Talent Development Capability Model™.

What Is an Instructional Designer?

An instructional designer applies learning theory and a systemic approach to design and develop content, learning activities, training, and other solutions to support the acquisition of new knowledge or real world skills. Instructional designers develop all instructional materials of a training program, including presentation materials, participant guides, handouts, and job aids or other resources. They are also responsible for evaluating training, including assessing what was learned and whether the learning solution led to measurable behavior change.

Prior to course design and development, an instructional designer conducts a needs assessment to determine stakeholder goals, if the training is necessary, and the needs of the learning event. A needs assessment will determine:

  • Organizational goals and needs
  • Knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for tasks and competencies
  • What the learner should know and be able to do because of training
  • Learner needs and characteristics

One way to determine learner needs and course objectives is by using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a system used to define and distinguish different levels of learning. The three domains include cognitive (mental), affective (emotional) and psychomotor (physical). Once an instructional designer collects and analyzes this information and understands the outcome and learning objectives of the learning event, the course creation process can begin. Instructional design requires the analysis and selection of the most appropriate strategies, methodologies, learning activities, and technologies to maximize the learning experience and knowledge transfer.


Adult Learning Theories in Learning Design

Instructional designers can use adult learning theories to identify learner characteristics and appropriate instructional design methods to create effective and appropriate learning solutions.

Common adult learning theories include:

  • Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy: Malcolm Knowles is credited with developing this theory in the 1970s. Andragogy differs from pedagogy in that adult learners bring their experiences with them to guide their learning journeys and have more choice and control over how they learn. Andragogy is the cornerstone of all adult learning theories.
  • Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction: Is a widely known and systematic approach to creating effective learning design. When completed in order, the nine events lead to better engagement and improved retention.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow categorizes human needs into five categories: physiological, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. According to this theory, optimal learning requires that psychological and safety needs are met.
  • Meier’s Accelerated Learning: This theory includes seven guiding principles and is a system that enhances and the design and learning processes. An understanding of cognitive science and how the brain works can assist designers in selecting the correct strategies to augment learning.

Common instructional design models include:

  • ADDIE   This model Is one of the most well-recognized instructional design models. Founded in the 1970s at Florida State University, ADDIE represents the five phases of this model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. The steps are considered foundational for almost any learning design activity. A primary advantage of ADDIE is consistently producing training that results in learners acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for effective job performance. ADDIE’s primary disadvantage is that it is highly systematic. This can cause talent development professionals to overlook other considerations that fall outside of the ADDIE framework.

  • SAM (Successive Approximation Model). This model encourages the evolution of requirements and learning solutions through stakeholder collaboration. The iterative and incremental development nature of SAM lends support to this process. By using repeated steps, or iterations, to continuously improve and move closer to the best possible product, SAM allows designers to work within real project constraints, including limited time and cost. On the other hand, the collaborative nature of SAM requires input from many individuals, which can lead to delays.
  • Seels and Glasgow Model. This model uses the context of project management as the basis for design. Like SAM, this model is iterative and relies on feedback and interactions that occur during the process.
  • Agile or rapid prototyping. With its roots in software development, Agile uses cross-functional teams to support collaborative efforts. Agile uses an iterative and incremental design approach to encourage the evolution of requirements and learning solutions through stakeholder collaboration. As a result, Agile is often used to maximize customer value.

Free Instructional Design Starter Guide

Instructional designers are responsible for creating the course design and developing all instructional materials, including presentation materials, participant guides, handouts, and job aids or other materials. Instructional designers are commonly also responsible for evaluating training, including assessing what was learned and whether the learning solution led to measurable behavior change.

How ATD Can Help You With Instructional Design?

Since our founding in 1943, ATD’s focus has been to help talent development professionals succeed in their roles, applying best practices and improving organizational outcomes. With instructional design, ATD curates the best content from the world’s leading experts in the field, providing opportunities for designers to learn the latest techniques using the latest technologies. Because we look at talent development holistically, we understand how instructional design fits with evaluation, training, evaluation and other aspects of workplace learning. In addition, we are the leading organization that defines standards for the field in instructional design and talent development as a whole.

For access to even more resources, including practical tools and templates, research, and insights, you’re invited to become an ATD member.Learn more.

For more information on Instructional Design, visit the following:

Additional Instructional Design Resources


Browse our newest instructional design titles, collections, bestsellers, and limited-time only book bundles.

Instructional Design Courses

Find the right instructional design offering for you.

Instructional Design Events

Our instructional design conferences and workshops provide you with the education and peer-to-peer connections that empower you to be successful.

Instructional Design Resource Center

Classroom facilitators get the opportunity to engage with content that helps them become more effective, share information, connect with other industry peers, and much more.

Instructional Design Videos & Podcasts

Webcasts, recordings from past ATD conference sessions and short, practical, how-to videos from peer practitioners and ATD subject matter experts on a variety of topic areas.

Instructional Design Job Aids & Tools

Assessments, templates, maps and checklists that guide you through how to perform a variety of tasks.

Connect with ATD