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Top 3 characteristics of great instructional designers

The work of instructional designers presents many challenges.

Sometimes they need to draw up training material for people who are not fully aware of what they need to learn. This means having to dwell quite a bit on gaining engagement and keeping it throughout the course to achieve successful completion. In other instances, the modules address learners of different ages, expectations and learning preferences. Having something for everyone is quite difficult but absolutely necessary.

Textbooks say that e-learning should have a personal approach, yet reach a lot of people.

It sounds like a contradiction in terms but in reality this is one of the many up-sides of e-learning: the options are very varied and technological advances make more and more things possible all the time.

Great instructional designers share a few common characteristics. Here are just three:

Make course objectives and expectations very clear

The key to efficient learning is learner engagement. This is easily achieved when people know for sure what the material is about and what is expected of them once the program is completed. Instructional designers need a very good grasp of vocabulary and the ability to distill it into short yet including statements.

A good learning objective is one that describes in specific and measurable terms elements that learners will master by the end of the module. The specificity and measurability are of the utmost importance.

Luckily, there is an already tested, bullet-proof method of checking if a learning objective is good enough and this is Bloom’s taxonomy. What it stipulates is that any valid objective should check at least one of the human cognitive processes that make-up learning.

From the simplest to the most complex, these processes are:

  • Knowledge — learners must be able to remember the information.
  • Comprehension — learners must be able to understand the information.
  • Application — learners must be able to use the information they have learned in real-life situations.
  • Analysis — learners must be able to analyze the information, by identifying its different components.
  • Synthesis — learners must be able to create something new using what they have learned.
  • Evaluation — learners must be able to formulate opinions, explain decisions, and talk about the acquired knowledge.

Know that a modular structure is most effective

In the process of designing a course, it is easy to get very excited and a little carried away with all the interesting information and many methods of presenting it.

However, it’s best to keep in mind that learners’ time and attention span are rather limited. Instead of having a long, continuous course, it is advisable to divide the content into smaller, more manageable pieces that hold only the most important information with useful links at the end so those who are interested in learning more can easily dig deeper.

Apart from the fact that this kind of structure helps retain learner attention, it’s also easy to track progress and once a module is completed there is a sense of accomplishment.

Probably one of the hardest tasks an instructional designer faces is not getting people to take a certain course but the ability to keep them motivated throughout it so they reach completion. Chunking up the content into fun-size portions requires great restraint and excellent synthesizing skills on the part of the designers.

It’s easier when they keep in mind not every participant needs to turn out a subject matter expert on the topic. Information is vital but also easily accessible these days so giving the learners just enough to get a grasp on the subject and know how to go about searching if they need a deeper knowledge is what great e-learning material is all about.

Provide a varied learning experience

E-learning allows for a very wide range of training techniques to be incorporated in the material. Although this in itself is a big plus, it mainly means more work for designers who need to be master of all the possibilities, know how to combine them and constantly stay connected to new developments in the field.

In the past, good research skills and a firm grasp on knowledge transfer and information structure were enough. Today, being a social media wiz, a gamification enthusiast and knowing quite a bit about employing technology are prerequisites to landing a job in the learning design field.

Courses need to be attractive and interactive. Learners demand to see applicability in their daily lives and jobs so taking the immersive approach and mimicking real-life situations and challenges becomes compulsory.

It’s the same with game mechanics as the new generations respond best to this type of structure and dynamics. Videos, demonstrations, interviews with subject matter experts, quizzes and contests need to come together in the same course (sometimes even in the same module) to ensure a positive and pleasant learning experience.

So how can instructional designers master all these skills and do it all? It’s actually easy with so much great e-learning material available.

Over to you

What other skills do you consider to be a must-have for today's professional instructional designers? Do share your opinions in the comments section below.