Instructional Design Basics


Every Dog

Next year Reservoir Dogs will celebrate its 20th year in release. This movie is pretty awesome and if you haven’t seen it then I suggest you give it a look.

As to why I enjoy it so much, this movie was one of the first films I remember watching that switched between past and present scenes. One moment the characters were in the present and then the next they would be in the past. And it didn’t stop there, as there were multiple instances of the past. For example, once scene would have the characters three weeks in the past and then in the next one they would jump back further in time.

This back and forth in the timeline presented an interesting storyline and allowed for deep character development within the movie. This type of story is something that more movies take advantage of now but back then it was unheard of—movies then were strictly linear.

In many ways our training initiatives follow a like construct; here we often see our training courses as strict linear content. We have topic A, B, and C and before we talk about B or C we have to cover all of topic A. Jumping back and forth between topics is not something we typically do.

Story elements not content chunks

This doesn’t have to be the case though and your first step in breaking this cycle is to stop thinking of your content as separate chunks of information.

Here there is a tendency to organize our information into similar groups—after all we want to help our users find and internalize information. So we come up with topics and present them one at a time. And a typical content outline we us to develop our content looks something like this:

Common infections
Ventilator associated pneumonia (VAP)
• Signs and symptoms
• Prognosis
Staphylococcus aureus
• Signs and symptoms
• Prognosis

Prevention Methods
Hand Hygiene
Personal Protective Equipment
• Gloves
• Gowns
• Masks

By following the above outline you would develop two unique content chunks that would be separate parts of the course.  Here you would have a page or two listing the common infections and their characteristics.  Then later on you would have a couple pages describing infection prevention methods. Such groupings are nice as they provide structure and organization for the student; however, they don’t follow real life or make for an interesting course.

To break this you should think about your content from a story perspective and instead of the standard content outline, you should be developing a storyline that the user experiences.

While developing a storyline you can use a Table of Specification to help you keep track of your story and content needs.  Here you can list your story ideas and match them up to your course objectives.

Story Elements Objectives Content
A Staph colony is somewhere in the building 1,2,4 Symptoms


Transmission routes—Contact

Hand Hygiene


The user needs to research MRSA 1,3 PPE—lab coats, gloves

Patient risk factors—weaken immune systems

A patient has Tuberculosis 2,4 Symptoms


Transmission routes—Droplet


Once you have these story elements documented you can start to develop a storyline that users will experience in the course.  And if you are careful with you documentation you will be able to ensure that all of your needed content is addressed.

In the next couple of posts I will show you some informal ways that the above content could be delivered. Hopefully this will help you develop your next course and while it might not be another Reservoir Dogs it will be better then your typical A then B then C course everyone else is doing.


Invisible Cats

Please click here to learn about an important topic.

Now what did you learn, was it something like this?

If you learned that, then you experienced a type of learning strategy for teaching concepts.  Specifically you encountered the Concept Attainment model.

Here examples and non-examples of a concept are presented to a learner.  This presentation helps users identify the attributes of a concept and from this, form an understanding of it. This process can be used for simple concepts like “Invisible Cats” as well as more complex concepts.

Today I’ll talk about some additional strategies for teaching concepts.

RSA—The Good

Many of you may have seen the RSA videos and if not I suggest you take a look at them. These videos are rather interesting and use a good approach to teaching conceptual information.

Here they use analogies, metaphors and images to help users visualize the concepts that are being discussed.  And what emerges from this discussion is a detailed graphic organizer of the key ideas and attributes of the concept.

This approach is also nice in that it hits multiple learning styles (auditory and visual) and having multiple inputs here, can help students form stronger connections to the content.  If you liked this approach you can check out Prezi, which is an application that allows you to create whiteboard presentations like the RSA videos.

RSA—The Bad

Now before you go out and copy this approach, I do want to cover some of the bad things introduced in these videos.  Some of these are:

Passive Activity—Video is a passive activity and on its own does not guarantee transfer.  To ensure success here, include other activities that force the students to interact with the content.

Linear Activity—Video is linear and forces users to sit through all of the content whether they need to or not. Video doesn’t easily allow users the ability to skim, skip ahead or review content.  Help your users out by making your videos short and to the point.  Also include player controls that allow for fast forward and rewind capabilities.

Cognitive Overload—These videos have a lot of things competing for your users attention.  The animations, images and panning can be a distraction to the main message that the speaker is covering.  Users can only attend to a limited amount of content so make sure all of your information is relevant and supports your main content needs.

Other Approaches

Video can be a resource intensive approach and may not be an option available to you.  This is ok though as you can address conceptual information in other ways.   For instance you can include the visuals used in the RSA videos to create static images that act as the graphic organizer.

An added option here would be to make the graphic organizer the main menu for your content.  This option would provide greater control to the user in relation to accessing the content and be more engaging then passively watching a video.  Besides the visual elements presented in the movie, you can also use simple text formatting, tables, charts and graphs to help users identify key attributes within a concept. For instance check out the following document to see how these simple tricks can be used to highlight the main ideas behind Engineering Controls in the Laboratory.

Engineering Controls

Not only does the revised content in this document highlight the main ideas behind the controls, but it also makes a nice handout that users can take away from the course. As such, focusing on a text approach can add some benefits that video can’t match.

Regardless of the approach you take remember to focus on your content—make your content interesting and relevant to your users.  The RSA videos are successful in part because their content is interesting. Here the lecturers have something meaningful to say and they say it well. Your topics probably won’t have the appeal as Invisible Cats but that shouldn’t stop you from keeping your student watching/learning.


Stuck on You

One of my 1st real experiences with kids occurred several years ago when I went to visit my buddy Scott.  Here I got to spend a few days with him, his wife and their son Jeffrey.  And I must say, Jeffrey was a pretty cool little kid— he was smart, creative, well-mannered and everything else you could hope for in a son.

It wasn’t all good though; Jeffrey did have one small episode while I was there.  It occurred one night while he and I were sitting at the table playing with his dinosaurs. And when it became time for his bath, the little guy calmly ignored his mom’s request and kept on playing. At this point his mom tried to reason with him, telling him that he would get to play after the bath but he wasn’t having any of it.

This standoff ended shortly when his dad got involved—here Jeffrey got a spanking, had to take his bath and then went to bed without finishing his dinosaur adventure. Things could have gone much more smoothly for the little guy if he could have just let go for a bit instead of getting stuck.  In his mind the dinosaurs had important things to do—the bath had to wait. This however, did not jive well with reality, that being, the need to listen to his parents.

In a way, this is a situation I have encountered in many of the projects I have worked on.  Here I have often seen people getting stuck on an idea of how something should be presented rather then reality of the project.  Today I’ll talk about some of these experiences and hopefully present you with some ways to get unstuck.


I often see people getting stuck in this regard when a solution calls for a non-traditional approach.

Traditional Approaches
Traditional in this sense is a reference to behaviorist approaches that tend to follow a standard Tell/Show/Do model.  Here a course is very controlled and systematic—topic A then topic B and then C—and probably has a lecture type feel to it.

One key component of these types of approaches is the need for close-ended interactions and assessments. Here definitive correct/incorrect behaviors must be demonstrated and assessed.  In these approaches, objectives are often covered as distinct content pieces and assessed as such. And the overall training goals of the solution are realized when the users demonstrate specific behaviors.

Non-traditional Approaches
Non-traditional in this sense is a reference to constructivist and social learning approaches that tend to have their own project specific models.  Here a course is less controlled and may not be systematic— part of topic B and C unless the student wants A first and then maybe the rest of topic B—and may take the form of stories, scenarios, games, simulations and collaborative problem solving activities.

These approaches use open-ended assessment activities that require a rubric of some kind. In addition, objectives are usually covered together and wrapped around a real world story/problem. The goals of these courses are usually not defined around changing specific behaviors, rather they center on the user producing a product.

Obviously there is a lot more to behaviorism, constructivism and social learning but we’ll save this for latter posts. For now just realize that each approach has some fundamental differences in what is required and these differences are often what get people stuck.

Getting Stuck—Creating Content

A few years ago I worked on a project that had a simulation at the end of the course. Here I worked with another ID that was a hardcore, “A then B then C” type of fellow.  So as we worked on the simulation we quickly ran into some roadblocks.

As stated above, interactions for constructivist approaches tend to be more opened-ended in nature and revolve around real world situations. How this might play out in your assessment is that in the real world there often isn’t one clear right/wrong way to address a problem.  In addition, sometimes there may not even be a good choice to a problem—the lesser of two evils.  So it may make sense for your interactions to reflect these types of situations.

Knowing this I wrote the storyboards around a series of events that a user may experience on their job. The storyline that emerged here included a few of these challenging situations. In these instances, I limited the user choices to ones that didn’t have definitive correct answers.

I finished my storyboards and passed them on to the other ID for a review cycle. As this other ID reviewed these she immediately started rewriting the interactions.  Here she edited the situations and options so that there were clear right/wrong choices.  And by doing this, she altered the storyline to such an extent that it no longer followed a real world situation. In addition the final product that emerged was something that felt less like a simulation and more like a series of multiple choice questions that were loosely tied together.

This was an instance of the ID being stuck on the nature of assessment. In her mind these situations had to be clear and definitive—your classic closed ended question types. The reality of the project though called for something else.

Now in her defense I can understand her motives for the changes—she wanted the assessment to hit the exact content that was covered previously in the course.  In the course things were clear—there were specific answers and steps to follow. In addition the content had a high level of detail to it. Here the training focused around a small set of parameters, variables, and conditions. Anything outside of this may seem like a trick question or something that is unfair to the user.

These are valid concerns but there are better ways to address them in your simulations. The nice thing about these types of assessments is that you have more feedback options that are available to you.  With simulations you have the following options here:

  • Storyline—this is how the characters react or what changes to the environment happen based on the user choices.
  • Image—visual display of the changes to the environment.
  • Assessment—specific feedback you can give the user about their choice.

Each one of these options presents an opportunity to tie back to your clear and specific course content.  So in this regard you could have a character react in a way that forces a new interaction.  This new interaction could contain the expanded detail content that was covered in the course.  Your feedback offers the easiest way to address this though as you can tell users exactly how it connects back to the course content.

The important thing to remember with simulations is not to get stuck on the questions you are asking. Here focus on the story and use that to clear up and connect to any existing course content. Some tips with developing simulations can be found here. I’ll have more on simulations though in future posts.

Getting Stuck—Navigation and Interface Needs

This next project was quite a few years ago and focused on a new orientation course.  Here the sponsor wasn’t so concerned with users demonstrating mastery skills, rather they wanted a resource that would introduce users to their new world.  Engagement was a key focus for this sponsor as they wanted users excited about their jobs.

So after meeting with the sponsors I developed the appropriate design/scoping information and passed it on to the instructional designers (IDs) on the project. Here the IDs started developing the storyboards around our standard interface template. In addition to this template, they started reusing our other normal navigation controls (Table of Contents, Next, Back,…) and interactions within the course.

Shortly after they started the storyboards we all met up to see how the course was going. At this point, I discovered that what was emerging was basically our old A then B then C type of course.  I knew this wasn’t what the sponsor had in mind so I had stepped in to help the IDs on the project.  Here we had to start over as they were stuck on trying to make the content fit into existing templates and frameworks.

To start fresh we defined the common elements and themes in the content. With these themes we then talked about how they could be represented in menu structures that users could interact with. For example one theme was that users would have to interact with a lot of different people in their new job.  So we created a visual representation of these people that users could click on to interact with and access the content.  This graphical menu structure was much more engaging then our normal navigational structures. We did this with several themes and created a hierarchical content framework for the course.

We also found ways to create new interactions within the content. For example there were several tables in the content that contained various statistics about their jobs. Here we introduced a slider bar that users could interact with to view the different values. We followed this up with questions on the data contained in the new animated tables.

This process wasn’t easy though as the IDs were seriously stuck on their old methods and strategies.  To get them to be comfortable with the new approach, collaboration was a key—here I needed to create an environment that didn’t constrain possibilities.  Next we had to take these ideas and represent them online with prototypes.  In this regard, I encouraged the shitty first draft concept. I just wanted them to build out the content—we would refine it and fix it as it came. And slowly but surely the course that emerged was very open and focused around discovery interactions. More importantly our client was very satisfied with this end result.

What To Do if You Are Stuck

If you haven’t developed a non-traditional course yet and you are tasked to do this, you probably will get stuck at one point. Developing for this type of course is a paradigm shift—the standard Tell/Show/Do models and your regular interface templates will not work here.  You have to go back to your project needs and examine how those relate to constructivist and social learning activities. Here don’t be afraid of creating a terrible first draft.  Also plan on using prototyping and collaboration to help you get your content into shape.   After a few painful tries, you’ll learn to let go and just go with it.  This is important as you don’t want to end up like little Jeffrey here—getting a spanking is no fun at all.