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4 Instructional design theories every course creator needs to know

Most learning platforms offer user-friendly templates and make instruction design seem very easy to do. 

While very valuable, these ready-made outlines are based on many decades of learning science. For example, we know that dividing knowledge into smaller steps enhances learning because it enables learners to focus on each objective at a time, which in turn promotes retention. 

So,  it's crucial for course creators to understand these learning theories as they provide the foundation for effective online courses and motivated learners. They also help you choose instructional structures that have predictable effectiveness, as they are strategies for better online learning with positive (and measurable) learning outcomes. 

Here are the four instructional design theories every course creator needs to know: 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that help instructors teach effectively. 

The model organizes learning objectives into three main areas: Cognitive, Affective, and Sensory/Psychomotor.  Initially, Bloom developed the taxonomy to promote higher forms of thinking in education, such as analyzing and evaluating concepts, processes, procedures, and principles instead of simply memorizing facts. 

Each higher level depends on the lower one and you can think of it as a pyramid. It includes six levels, each with their own objectives, starting with Remember (the first stage of learning) which then leads to the development of the other key elements such as understand and apply, going to the highest one: create.  

The model itself is more complex, but this is a good visual representation: 

Bloom’s Taxonomy, Vanderbilt

Source: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Vanderbilt University

Bloom’s taxonomy is useful for:

  • formulating clear and measurable learning objectives; 
  • designing quizzes that follow learning objectives; 
  • planning modules that are centered around achieving the learning objectives. 

Read more: 5 Tips for avoiding cognitive overload in your e-learning modules

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instructions

Robert Gagné’s The Conditions of Learning, published in 1965, was groundbreaking. The author identified five significant learning categories: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes.

The model shows an effective learning framework and helps instructors develop strategies and activities for engaging and informative courses. Gagné also identified the nine events that are instrumental to the learning process: 

  1. Gaining attention - helps learners find the relevant parts of the module;
  2. Informing learners of lesson objective(s) - make learners aware of what they are going to learn in each module; 
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning - help learners achieve their learning objectives by using their previous knowledge; 
  4. Presenting stimuli with distinctive features - expose learners to information that they will be learning;
  5. Providing learning guidance - offer hints that are going to help them learn better; 
  6. Elicit performance - make sure that learners demonstrate what they’ve learned before moving on to a new module; 
  7. Provide feedback - Give students information about the adequacy of their responses in the "elicit performance" event;
  8. Assessing performance - assess whether or not learners have achieved the objectives at the end of a module or online course; 
  9. Enhance retention and transfer - give learners opportunities to practice what they’ve learned. 

While not all events are applicable to an online course, gaining attention, informing learners of lesson objective(s) and assessing performance should always be a part of your strategy. 

Read more: Why every course creator needs to know the 7 learning pillars


ADDIE is one of the best-known instructional design models, partly due to the easily remembered acronym for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. The model provides a universal framework for instructional design. 

Many models that came after it was mainly built starting from this all-encompassing structure. In a nutshell, the stages are: 

  • Analysis phase – the instructor identifies the instructional objectives and puts together basic information about learners (level of knowledge, preferred learning method, etc.);
  • Design phase – this needs to be specific and systematic. The content, resources, teaching methods, and visuals all need to be consistent with the learning objectives established in the previous step;
  • Development phase – this is where you create and assemble the course content. The project gets its first reviews and feedback at this stage (from other course creators or potential learners);
  • Implementation phase – this is when learners are actually enrolled in the course and they consume the content; 
  • The evaluation phase has two parts: formative (at every stage of the process) and summative – testing designed for overall evaluation and gathering feedback from learners. 

Read more: Don’t start designing courses before reading this [Part 1]


The Successive Approximation Model (SAM) is a simplification of ADDIE. It’s a framework for fast, reiterative design that doesn’t function linearly. 

There are only three parts to SAM: Preparation, Iterative Design, and Iterative Development. The critical thing to focus on is the iterative nature of the model, meaning that each step is supposed to be repeated and re-evaluated.  

  • Preparation phase this is for gathering relevant information and understanding the context in which an online course was created. A good starting point is conducting buyer persona interviews
  • Iterative Design phase – in this step, the instructor creates a prototype that other people can evaluate. It's a lot easier to offer feedback on something that is there than on ideas of what should be. For example, a short email course can help you evaluate how interested potential learners are before launching a full course; 
  • The iterative Development phase is when the polished prototype (think short email course) goes through development and implementation. Once launched, it can be evaluated and adjusted by running through the other two phases once more. 

Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

Source: Successive Approximation Model (SAM), Kennesaw State University


Instructional design continues to evolve, incorporating what new technology has to offer. It also needs to keep up with major shifts in learner preferences and demand. However, these four true and tested instructional design models are timeless and help course creators design valuable online courses. 

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