Comparing 5 popular instructional design models for eLearning

By
Cydnie Smith
Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
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Comparing 5 popular instructional design models for eLearning

I completely understand. 

As a manager, you have what feels like the impossible task of implementing an effective corporate training program and ensuring that your employees learn, retain, and use the skills required to succeed in their jobs. 

And, if that’s not enough, your leadership team expects you to do all that while showing visible ROI (return on investment) from your learning and development efforts!

In your quest to implement the most effective eLearning programs, you may have discovered that instructional design is the recipe for eLearning success. Perhaps you’ve even started researching some potential instructional design models. However, with so many options available, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with questions.

Which instructional design framework should I choose?
Do I even need an instructional design model?

Don’t worry, though – we've got you covered when it comes to navigating instructional design frameworks.

In this article, we'll pull out our metaphorical microscope to take an in-depth look at topics like

Now if you’re well into your journey through the world of instructional design, you likely already know that sound instructional design can improve learning outcomes, increase workplace productivity, knowledge retention, and engagement­­­­, and ultimately drive business success. 

But what exactly is an instructional design model, and why do you need one?

What is an instructional design model

Earlier, we mentioned that instructional design is the recipe for eLearning success. If instructional design is the recipe you follow for creating great custom eLearning content, then an instructional design framework is the secret ingredient!

Simply put, an instructional design model or framework is a set of guidelines and best practices that help you create learning experiences that are engaging, effective, and efficient. Think of it as a blueprint for building an eLearning course or an evaluation of your eLearning program.

Essentially, an instructional design model provides a step-by-step process that takes you from defining your learning objectives to evaluating the effectiveness of your eLearning course.

Why use an instructional design model or framework?

Now, you might be thinking, "Why do I need a framework? Can’t I just skip straight to the design process? I already have all the learning material I need, right?" 

Well, you could. But, the chances of success are much higher when you have a solid plan. 

Think about it like this: If you were building your dream house, would you let a contractor start without first giving him your architectural plans? Probably not. 

Why? Because you’d likely end up with a poorly-designed home that doesn’t meet your (or your family’s) needs.

The same applies to instructional design. Without a framework, you may end up with an eLearning course that's disorganized, lacks focus, and doesn't meet the needs of your learners. 

Using an instructional design framework ensures that your corporate training program is structured, relevant, and effective. It also comes with several other benefits, like

  • It keeps you organized and focused – With so many elements to consider when creating an eLearning course, it can be easy to get lost in the details. An instructional design framework keeps you on track and ensures that you cover all the necessary components.
  • It improves consistency and quality – An instructional design framework will provide a consistent process for designing and developing eLearning courses – which can help ensure that each eLearning course meets a certain standard of quality.
  • It increases efficiency – When you have an instructional model in place, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you create a new course. This framework saves time and resources and allows you to focus on what’s most important – creating engaging and effective eLearning experiences for your learners.

Ultimately, using an instructional design framework can help you implement eLearning courses that are well-structured, organized, and easy for your learners to understand and retain, resulting in better learning outcomes and ROI!

Of course, unlocking these benefits requires some strategic maneuvering on your part. Luckily, we have a few tips to help you leverage instructional design to yield the best learning outcomes.

How to use instructional design to your advantage?

When it comes to creating more effective corporate training programs, there are many ways you can use instructional design to your advantage. Some of my favorite tips include:

  • Get input from your learners: Before you start creating your eLearning program, gather information from your target audience to find out what they need and want from their corporate training. This data will help you design more personalized courses, resulting in more effective training programs.
  • Make courses interactive and engaging: You can’t produce your desired learning outcomes if your employees are disengaged. Consider skipping the extended modules featuring a series of slides with text and images. Instead, make learning interactive with short microlearning courses, gamification, and other engaging activities to keep your learners interested and motivated.

However, the key to successful instructional design lies in choosing the proper framework for your organization. 

Of course, before we can discuss how to choose a framework, we first need to take a closer look at the different types of instructional design models.

The ADDIE instructional design model

The acronym ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. Perhaps one of the most popular instructional design frameworks, the ADDIE model is a five-step process that helps instructional designers create comprehensive and effective eLearning courses.

The ADDIE instructional design model shown by blocks, staggered like steps going down, from top-left to bottom-right. Analyze > Design > Develop > Implement > Evaluate.

What are the best practices for using the ADDIE model?

Naturally, I want you to yield the best results if you employ the ADDIE model. So here are some of the best practices for using this framework.

Analysis

The analysis phase aims to evaluate your employees’ learning needs and your training objectives. As you navigate this stage, consider questions like

  • What are my organization’s desired learning outcomes?
  • What performance issues will my training program address? 
  • Are there gaps in knowledge that may lead to performance issues in the future?
  • Are there any constraints or limitations that may impact the design of the training program?

Gathering this valuable data will ensure that your instructional design is relevant and meets the needs of your team.

Design

Develop a concise design document outlining your instructional strategy, content, and needs assessment methods. The design document should align with your learning objectives and employees’ needs.

Development

In the development phase, you want to create instructional materials that are engaging, interactive, and aligned with the design document. Make use of multimedia and other technology to enhance the learning experience.

Implementation

Plan for a smooth implementation of the instructional materials, including training the trainers and preparing the physical environment for the training. Ensure that you have adequate resources, including technology, for the implementation to be successful.

Evaluation

After implementation, your final step is to evaluate the effectiveness of your instructional materials and make improvements as needed. The evaluation process can include formative assessments during development and summative reviews after training ends.

Using the ADDIE model (a practical example)

To illustrate the use of ADDIE in your eLearning course development, let’s look at this practical example.

Imagine six new staff members enter your workforce, and your C-Suite tasks you with creating an eLearning course on customer service. You’re unfamiliar with their skills, practical experience levels, or learning needs, so you employ the ADDIE model to inform your instructional design process.  

  • Analysis phase: You gather critical data like your employees’ skill levels and learning needs. You’ll also identify the information they need to know to succeed in their new roles and outline your training objectives and goals.
  • Design phase: You create a blueprint for your eLearning program, including the content, the instructional strategies, and the assessment methods.
  • Development phase: You design your courses and test them to ensure they are clear and work as intended.
  • Implementation phase: It’s time to launch your eLearning program! You walk into the office and see fully engaged employees.
  • Evaluation phase: Once your employees complete a course, be sure to assess its effectiveness using methods like surveys, quizzes, or focus groups. You can use this information to make necessary improvements to your training program.

So what happens if you don’t need a tool as robust as the ADDIE model? What if you need a more simplified version of this framework?

Well, please allow me to introduce you to the SAM instructional design model.

The SAM instructional design model

Developed as an alternative to the ADDIE model, the SAM (Successive Approximation Model) instructional design model is a relatively new and flexible approach to designing and developing instructional materials. 

The SAM instructional design model shown as a continuous circle made of 3 arrows. Starting at top arrow and going clockwise: Approximate, Refine, Implement. To the top-left, near "Approximate" is a block that says "Start: Gather background."

The SAM model is an iterative process that allows for continuous improvement and refinement of the instructional materials. It consists of four phases:

  • Start: Define your learning objectives and the scope of your online training program.
  • Approximation: Develop an initial version of the instructional materials, then test and refine it with a small group of learners.
  • Refinement: Test the refined version with a larger group of learners and make further improvements based on the learners' feedback.
  • Implementation: Launch the final version of the instructional materials to your employees.

The SAM model is agile and flexible, allowing instructional designers to quickly make changes and improvements to their courses based on feedback from learners or stakeholders. 

When should you use the SAM model over the ADDIE model?

Compared to the ADDIE model, the SAM model is better suited for learning programs requiring a faster development timeline or courses needing frequent changes or updates. 

Okay – let’s pause for a second and go back to our practical illustration.

In our example, the ADDIE model was the best choice given the circumstances. We had many employees with varying backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge levels. (That’s A LOT of moving parts!)

The ADDIE model was appropriate in this case because of its systematic structure, which is better suited for larger and more complex training programs. 

Now imagine you lead a team of frontline workers. They are constantly on the move, so they don’t have time to sit through lengthy training modules whenever you need to add new material to your eLearning program. In this instance, how do you ensure your instructional design addresses their needs? 

That’s simple: opt for the SAM model. 

It’s typically best to use the SAM model over the ADDIE model in cases that involve:

  • Time constraints: The SAM model may be a better choice if you have a tight deadline and need to produce instructional materials quickly.
  • Resource constraints: If you have limited resources and need to produce instructional materials with a smaller budget, the SAM model may be a more cost-effective option.
  • Constantly evolving content: Do your eLearning courses require multiple iterations and revisions? If so, the SAM model is better suited to accommodate this type of training program.
  • Feedback: The SAM model can provide faster adjustments and results if you require quick feedback from stakeholders and users.

Now let’s say you prefer a model that’s a bit more meaningful and learner-focused.

Bloom’s Taxonomy for instructional design

Bloom's Taxonomy is a framework for organizing learning objectives and creating training content in a structured and meaningful way. It was first introduced in the 1950s by Benjamin Bloom and later revised in 2001 by a group of cognitive psychologists and educational researchers.

Bloom’s Taxonomy for instructional design diagram. A triangle divided into 6 labelled sections. Starting at the bottom and going up to the top point: Remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create.

Sometimes referred to as "Bloom's Taxonomy 21st Century Skills", Bloom's Digital Taxonomy, or simply "Bloom's Taxonomy 2.0.", the 2001 revision of Bloom's Taxonomy includes six parts, which form a hierarchy of cognitive skills that learners must develop to understand and retain new information fully. 

These six parts are:

  • Remembering: Retrieving information from memory
  • Understanding: Comprehending the meaning of the information
  • Applying: Using the information in a new situation
  • Analyzing: Breaking down information into parts and understanding how they relate to each other
  • Evaluating: Making judgments about the value of the information based on criteria and standards
  • Creating: Putting information together in a new way to form a unique, coherent whole.

How do instructional designers use Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Instructional designers use Bloom's Taxonomy as a tool to guide the development of instructional materials and assessments. They use it to help identify the learning objectives of a course or lesson and ensure that the instructional activities, assessments, and evaluations align with these objectives. By starting with the desired learning outcome and working backward, instructional designers can ensure that their materials are effective and that learners can achieve the desired level of understanding and mastery of the subject matter.

For example, an instructional designer might use Bloom's Taxonomy to determine that a spreadsheet course should focus on the "applying" and "analyzing" levels of the taxonomy. To do this, they would develop instructional activities that require learners to use the spreadsheet program to perform real-world tasks. Your employees would then evaluate their work by breaking down their solutions into components and analyzing how well they used the software's features.

By using Bloom's Taxonomy in this way, instructional designers can create eLearning courses that help your staff acquire new information but also help them develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and other higher-level cognitive skills essential for success in the ever-changing corporate workplace.

The Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model

Up next is a well-known and widely used model for evaluating the effectiveness of training programs: The Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model.

The Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model. A 4-rung ladder with a label on each. From the bottom rung, going up: Reaction, learning, behavior, results.

It is a framework that consists of the following four levels:

  • Reaction: Measures learners' reactions to the training program, including their satisfaction, enthusiasm, and engagement.
  • Learning: Assesses what participants learned from the training program, including changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • Behavior: Looks at whether the training program yielded any changes in on-the-job behavior, such as increased productivity, improved customer service, or better teamwork.
  • Results: Evaluates the impact of the training program on the organization, including improvements in performance, increased profitability, or other tangible benefits.

This particular instructional design model aims to systematically and comprehensively evaluate a training program's effectiveness.

When should instructional designers rely on the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model?

Instructional designers should rely on the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model when they want to understand a training program’s strengths and weaknesses and identify areas for improvement. The model provides a comprehensive approach to assessing the impact of eLearning from the learners' perspective to the organizational level. By using the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model, instructional designers can gather valuable feedback and insights that can inform future training programs and ensure that they are effective, efficient, and relevant.

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

Last but not least, we have Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction. 

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction diagram. a 3x3 grid, with numbered blocks that go from 1-9 in a "Z" shape. Starting at row 1, block 1: 1) Gain attention; 2) Inform learners of objective; 3) Stimulate recall of prior knowledge; 4) Elicit performance; 5) Provide learner guidance; 6) Present stimulus material; 7) Provide feedback; 8) Assess performance; 9) Enhance retention & transfer.

First proposed by Robert Gagne in 1965 (and widely used ever since), Gagne suggested nine events of instruction that may enhance the learning experience: gain attention, inform learners of objectives, stimulate recall of prior learning, present content, provide learning guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance, and enhance retention and transfer.

Let’s zoom in and look at how each can apply to your corporate training program.

  1. Gain attention: Before learning can happen, you must motivate your employees to pay attention to the training material. So, to keep them engaged, include attention-grabbing visuals, videos, animations, or interactive activities! 
  2. Inform learners of objectives: Once learners are engaged, the next step is communicating your learning objectives and desired training outcomes. You can provide a clear, concise statement of goals at the beginning of each eLearning module. Doing so ensures that your employees can actively navigate the learning process to the desired learning destination.
  3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge: Stimulating recall of prior learning allows your employees to build upon previous knowledge and helps connect new information to what they already know. You can successfully navigate this event by employing pre-assessments, surveys, or knowledge checks to assess your employees’ prior knowledge and skills.
  4. Present stimulus material: This simply refers to the delivery of your eLearning content. You can deliver training material using varying methods such as videos, animations, interactive simulations, scenario-based learning, text, or audio narration. You should choose the best format for your employee’s learning needs.
  5. Provide learner guidance: Providing learner guidance entails offering support to help them process and retain information as they work through the training material. You can assist them in this process by offering feedback, answering questions, or providing additional resources.
  6. Elicit performance: Eliciting performance allows learners to actively engage with the content and apply what they have learned. Practical exercises, problem-solving activities, or simulations allow them to practice without penalty and receive further instruction or clarification as needed.
  7. Provide feedback: To put it plainly, you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. That’s why the feedback stage is so crucial to the learning process.  Whether you opt for immediate mechanisms, such as quiz results, or more in-depth options, like formal reviews, your feedback can help learners identify areas where they need improvement and reinforce their understanding of the content.
  8. Assess performance: This event evaluates the learners' understanding and mastery of the content. You can complete assessments using quizzes, gamification, or other evaluation methods.
  9. Enhance retention and transfer: Enhancing knowledge retention and transfer helps learners retain the information by allowing them to apply their new skills or knowledge to real-life situations. Engage employees in this process by incorporating role-play or simulations.

I know, I know – we’ve covered a lot of instructional design models. But how do you choose the “right” framework for your organization?

Which instructional design model should I use for eLearning development at my organization?

Like any major life decision, you must first assess your needs. Here are some factors to consider when choosing an instructional design model for eLearning development.

  • Type of training content: Consider the type of content you want to present and how you want to deliver it. For example, some instructional design models are better suited for video-based eLearning, while others are better for text-based eLearning.
  • Employees’ learning styles: Different instructional design models cater to different learning styles, so consider the preferred learning style of your target audience when making your decision. (You can gather this crucial information during the training needs assessment and learning needs analysis processes!)
  • Available resources: Consider the resources you have available, including budget, time, and personnel. Some instructional design models are more resource-intensive than others, so it’s essential to choose an instructional design model that fits your constraints.
  • Organizational goals: Opt for the instructional design model that best aligns with your organization’s goals and learning objectives. For example, if your goal is to create eLearning courses that are highly interactive and engaging, choose an instructional design model that emphasizes these features.

Ultimately, you want to find the best framework for you, your employees, and your business. Considering your needs (on both an employee and organizational level) can help you pinpoint the right model for your corporate training program – which can help ensure that your learners achieve their goals and that your eLearning initiatives succeed.

You can start using an instructional design model today!

If you’re already familiar with developing custom eLearning content for your learners, using an instructional design model can help reframe your approach. See how you can blend an instructional design model with the other parts of your process – whether that includes a needs assessment, learning analysis, training audits, knowledge checks, or training development such as gamification, microlearning, adaptive learning, or scenario-based training. You can even apply the principles of an instructional design model to your unique organizational perspective regarding eLearning content creation.

Or perhaps, you’re relatively new to instructional design and eLearning content. Don’t worry – our eLearning advisors are happy to discuss your organizational goals for eLearning and help you develop your own instructional design process so you can create informative, effective eLearning content that helps your team be their best at work. 

If you’d prefer to continue exploring the wonderful world of custom eLearning development and instructional design, you can always head back to our Learning Hub. It’s full of articles to help you navigate the many nuances of the learning and development process.

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Cydnie Smith

Cydnie is an experienced writer, editor, and blogger who believes that accessibility plus a dash of creative storytelling is essential to cultivating a memorable learning experience.

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