Instructional Design Theory

Demystifying Instructional Design Theories in Learning and Development

Posted August 31st, 2023

Have you ever wondered about the importance of learning theory in instructional design? Does theory play a part in making learning effective? Or should we ignore theory and focus on practice alone?

The truth is that theory and practice go hand in hand in the development of a good learning intervention. Although often overlooked, theory is like the secret recipe behind a great dish – a methodical process that shapes how we learn and develop. But hold on – there’s more than one way to cook up a learning experience. Let’s take a quick and simple dive into some of the common instructional design theories that make learning not only efficient but also engaging and exciting.

Behaviourism: Learning by Doing

Imagine you’re training a dog. You teach them tricks, reward them for getting it right, and they learn by repetition. That’s behaviourism in action. This theory is all about shaping behaviour through reinforcement and practice. When instructional designers follow this path, they set clear goals, break down complex tasks into smaller steps, and give instant feedback. Think of those interactive quizzes or simulations that make you practice until you get it just right – that’s behaviourism at its core.

One of the issues with behaviourism as an approach to learning is that it relies heavily on rote learning and is more focused on the learner recalling facts than necessarily exploring the thinking that a learner may already have on a topic.

The key aims and reasons for using behaviourism theory are:

Precise Goals: Setting clear, measurable learning objectives to define what learners should achieve.

Reinforced Learning: Using repetition and positive feedback to strengthen desired behaviours and skills.

Mastering specific skills: Providing tools to help learners improve a defined set of skills or behaviours.

Cognitivism: Mind Over Matter

Ever heard the saying “it’s all in your head”? Well, cognitivism is all about that. Cognitivism focuses on the aspect of learning that behaviourism doesn’t, which is the thinking behind the behaviour. It shifts the focus from outward behaviour to internal mental processes. It’s like a peek into your brain – understanding how you process information, solve problems, and create your own mental maps.

Instructional designers who follow this theory focus on making sure the content clicks with your mental gears. The approach is much more learner focused and uses strategies like problem-solving challenges, mind maps, and activities that make you think. It’s like a mental workout to build those brain muscles!

Here are some of the considerations you should make if you use cognitivism in your learning design:

Mental Processes: Focus on how learners process and organise information mentally.

Problem-Solving Activities: Incorporate activities that encourage critical thinking and problem-solving.

Gradual Complexity: Design learning experiences that progress from simpler concepts to more complex ideas.

Constructivism: Building Knowledge Bricks

Imagine you’re building with LEGO blocks – you take what you know and add new pieces to create something awesome. That’s constructivism in a nutshell. This theory believes that learning isn’t just about facts but about connecting new stuff with what you already know. Instructional designers who are constructivist champs set the stage for hands-on experiences, real-world challenges, and teamwork. So, those group projects where you learn by doing? That’s constructivism in action!

Here are some of the considerations you should make if you use constructivism in your learning design:

Prior Knowledge Integration: Build on learners’ existing knowledge and experiences.

Hands-On Experiences: Create interactive tasks and real-world challenges.

Collaborative Learning: Promote group work and discussions for shared understanding.

Connectivism: Learning in a Web of Ideas

Let’s talk about the internet age – where information is everywhere, and connecting the dots matters more than memorising facts. That’s where connectivism struts its stuff. This theory says learning isn’t just about you and your teacher – it’s about how you plug into a network of knowledge. Instructional designers who wave the connectivism flag focus on online discussions, collaborative projects, and making sense of the digital jungle. It’s like learning how to be a knowledge detective!

Here are some of the considerations you should make if you use connectivism in your learning design:

Networked Learning: Embrace the wealth of online resources and connections.

Digital Literacy: Equip learners with skills to navigate and evaluate information online.

Collaborative Platforms: Foster learning through online discussions and collaborative projects.

So What?

In a nutshell, instructional design theories are like tools in a toolbox. They help designers create learning experiences that suit different tastes and needs. The beauty is, many designers mix and match these theories to whip up awesome courses. So, whether you’re mastering tricks like a dog, building knowledge like LEGO blocks, or uncovering digital secrets like a detective, instructional design theories are your trusty guides on the journey of learning and development.


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