Josh Lund

Instructional Design Models

You may not know what an instructional designer is, but there are lots of us out there. You may have worked with one before, or you might even be one. We are known for being a sort of technology multi-tool; most of the people we work with come to assume that we have a magical solution for many problems just waiting on our utility belts that can be handed out to anyone in need. Some of the time, this is indeed true. They are called “Best practices” for a reason. They become that way because they have repeatedly worked to solve common instructional problems effectively. However, just as often, we are given problems that might not have an immediately obvious solution, or might have several possibilities that need to be evaluated for their efficacy in a given situation.

In situations like these, we must move beyond the technology at play and focus on what is really important: designing activities and assessments that are functional, that are useful to and tailored to the learner, and that accomplish the goal set out beforehand. In these times, we turn to instructional design models to provide a framework for our thought process as we design something new.

This article will give you a background on four of the classic methodologies, and then highlight some similarities and differences between them. Finally, I’ll provide a “cheat sheet” to help you keep them straight and to simplify the design process for you, should you undertake it yourself, or at least you will be able to “talk shop” with your friendly neighborhood instructional designer.

Classics of Instructional Design Theory

The ADDIE model

This is the big one, the model that gets thrown around the most. And for good reason. It’s simple, effective, and easy to remember. It is a linear process with five stages: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. As the acronym implies, it moves through the process of analyzing a problem, designing and developing a proposed solution, putting it into practice, and then evaluating the results of the implementation.

Goal(s) at this stage
  • Identify the instructional problem at hand and goals
  • Identify the audience and the preferred approach to learning
  • Create a timeline for completing the work.
  • Identify strategies to attain goals
  • Create learning objectives
  • Design exercises or assessments to meet learning objectives
  • Create exercises or assessments.
  • Develop and integrate technologies
  • Test, review and revise assessments and technologies as necessary.
  • Create training materials as necessary for learners and instructors.
  • Deploy exercises/assessments.
  • Gather information on the outcomes of the assessments.
  • Perform summative assessments of the data collected.
  • Collect and analyze feedback from learners.
  • Identify areas for improvement or re-design of resources.
  • Evaluate the feasibility of reusing resources.


Backward Design

Wiggins and McTighe came up with the idea of backward design, which suggests that the final outcomes should be in mind before planning the rest of a learning experience. In effect, instructors design a learning experience with the end result in mind and then work backward to develop instructional materials focused on attaining it.

Stage 1
Identify Desired Results
Stage 2
Determine Acceptable Evidence of Learning
Stage 3
Design Learning Experience and Instruction


Criterion Referenced Instruction

The Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) framework developed by Robert Mager provides a set of four steps to design and deliver assessments. It puts the production phase last, after all other meaningful objectives and outcomes are analyzed. It is particularly useful in the development of self-paced training.

Goal/Task Analysis
Identify what must be learned
Performance Objectives
Exact specification of the outcomes to be accomplished and how to evaluate them
Criterion Referenced Testing
Evaluation of learning in terms of the knowledge/skills specified in objectives
Development of Learning Modules tied to specific objectives
Development of Learning Modules tied to specific objectives


Dick and Carey model

The model developed by Dick and Carey includes a 9-stage process for continuous development, improvement and analysis of learning objectives, materials and activities. This model is unique in that it builds evaluation and revision into every step of the process. It is a non-linear model, so it also should be shown in a diagram:


The nine stages in order are:

Stage 1: Identify Instructional Goals
Identify outcomes and desired goals of instruction.
Stage 2. Conduct Instructional Analysis
Analyze the methods used to deliver instruction and how they will affect the outcomes of instruction.
Stage 3. Identify Entry Behaviors and Learner Characteristics
Analyze the learners and the audience; determine if  knowledge, skills and abilities match the proposed instruction.
Stage 4: Write Performance Objectives
Write measurable objectives that can be accomplished by the specified instruction.
Stage 5: Develop Criterion-Referenced Test Items
Develop assessments that reference the criteria of the performance objectives.
Stage 6: Develop Instructional Strategy
Create a strategy to deliver the proposed assessments.
Stage 7: Develop and Select Instructional Materials
Select and develop, if necessary, materials for assessing student performance on objectives.
Stage 8: Develop and Conduct Formative Evaluation
At each stage of the process, analyze the effectiveness, successes and failures of the current approach.
Stage 9: Develop and Conduct Summative Evaluation
Conduct a final evaluation of the efficacy of the instruction as delivered.

All these methods have some similarities, after seeing them one after another. All of them have as a goal to create learning outcomes that meet predetermined learning objectives. All of them provide some mechanism for developing instruction, testing and implementing the instruction, and then evaluating the end results. Now here are two secrets of instructional design theory as practiced by instructional designers:

  1. Do we all use a particular model all the time? No, we don’t.
  2. Is there one model that is the “best”? No, because at their most basic level, they are really all the same.

As you’ve been reading, you may have noticed that much of this looks familiar. Anyone who has ever been in a lab science class remembers the Scientific Method, which looks something like this:

Observe a phenomena or a problem.
Develop research questions about the situation.
Form one or more hypotheses to test for answers to research questions.
Test the hypotheses.
Collect and share results of the experiment.
Evaluate results and form conclusions about the process and the hypotheses.

In fact, although this is not often acknowledged, the principles of the Scientific Method are present in the progression of all of these instructional design models. To answer the questions above now, we don’t use a particular model specifically because they all boil down to the same process.  It is useful to study these models when learning about instructional design, because they acquaint the designer with important strategies for systematically designing, testing and deploying.

But I never say to myself, “Hmm.  I think I’m going to use the Dick and Carey model to design a solution to this assignment from Professor X.” Once you know the strategy, it is ingrained to the point that we don’t choose one, we just do it. It’s also a matter of personal preference as to which model we like the most, but as demonstrated above, they all sort of blend together once you look at them from a higher level.

Here’s a “cheat sheet” to demonstrate what I’m talking about:

cheat sheet
Click here to view the image full size

All of these methods have at their core the same outcomes and objectives, and as you can see, the alignment of stages is quite similar. This is one of the real secrets I have found when thinking about instructional design in general: it’s really just the scientific method applied to education. The one exception here is the theory of Backward Design, which does follow the same steps, but stops short of the actual implementation and evaluation stages. (And presumably, if one were to add a couple more steps to the process, it would include those steps.) Without a formal, exacting, and dare I say, scientific, process for analyzing instructional problems, developing solutions and evaluating the results, it’s all just a shot in the dark, crossing fingers and hoping for desirable outcomes rather than planning for and ensuring they will happen.

Instructional design theories and methodologies help us do what we do every day, and helps us ensure a consistent standard in our work. Hopefully this information will prove useful to you as you forge ahead with your own design projects. It really pays to take a scientific approach!

Josh Lund

About Josh Lund

Josh Lund is an Instructional Technology Consultant at DePaul, and a former teacher turned mad scientist. After completing a B.M. in Music Theory/Composition at St. Olaf College and an M.M. in Composition at Northern Illinois University, he spent six years teaching instrumental music at Elgin Academy, William Penn University, and Central College. He also worked as an active performer and clinician before returning to Illinois to complete a second master’s degree in Instructional Technology at Northern Illinois. A life straddling two different disciplines, technology and the fine arts, has led him to researching teaching technology in the collaborative arts, multimedia and recording technologies, and user interface design . He is really enjoying the fact that his job lets him play with technology tools all day and then teach others to use them. Josh still writes and performs on occasion, teaches the occasional wayward bass or guitar student, and is an avid gardener and disc golfer. He enjoys cooking, traveling, and the outdoors, particularly when his family is also involved.

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