Getting to grips with instructional design

Three months ago, completely new to the world of e-learning, I was given some time by Saffron to do as much research as I could on instructional design and effective learning strategies before starting my first project. It was rather daunting, but I leapt to the challenge and one of the ways I found out what good instructional design looks like was to review some of Saffron’s past courses and do some research online. Now that I have experience of both writing and reviewing courses, there are a few things that I’ve learnt. So, if you’re also new to this industry, read on for my thoughts on how best to write an engaging e-learning course that achieves the desired behavioural changes.

Firstly, anyone in the e-learning industry will encourage you to be innovative with your writing and while this is certainly a worthy aim, before leaping straight into an exciting approach, you should first look at what has worked well in the past. I’ve learnt that addressing the learner directly is really effective (using ‘you’), as it will make them feel that the course is relevant and designed specifically with them in mind. Using the active tense rather than the passive tense is often a good way to infuse some energy into your writing. Also, try to inject emotion – perhaps by adding humor – because emotion engages like nothing else does.

Secondly, keeping the learning outcomes in sight is essential because otherwise the training will drift away from the course objectives. So glance at the learning outcomes after you’ve written a few screens of a course and imagine being asked by an uninspired reader just why they need to know this. Keep doing this every now and again – although it may seem time consuming, it really did save me time in the long run and ensured that I kept on track!

Thirdly, really understanding the content is a crucial part of instructional design. Imagine this scenario: you’ve been given the material for a course and it’s about, say, VAT or financial management. Your task is to get to grips with said content and mould it into an engaging, interactive storyboard. How? Sustainable (and transmittable) ideas only come to those who really spend time familiarising themselves with the content – it’s an ID’s job to become the expert. Also, read a little around the area – you won’t necessarily use everything you research but it will increase both your knowledge and confidence and it’s that which will show in your writing – and engage the learner.

Fourthly, know your audience. You can’t structure content coherently unless you understand who they are and what they need to learn. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to include as much content as possible, to cover every eventuality, and trawling through text which isn’t personally relevant to them can make a learner switch off double quick. Knowing your audience also means you’ll be able to use realistic examples and scenarios familiar to them. You should aim for the learner’s sigh of recognition, their empathy and emotional involvement, which is likely to lead to better retention of information.

Lastly, signposting is something which should be included in every storyboard written by a good instructional designer. The learner only has the screen in front of them to indicate where they are in the course and what’s left to cover, so it’s important that they’re reminded of what’s coming up and what they’ve already learnt. Why? Because that way they not only understand how each screen is linked, but they are also able to organise their time and choose how much of the course to take in one sitting. Having a sense of control over their own learning will further engage them and can only add to their positive experience of an e-learning course.

So here lie my words of wisdom but I’m sure there are many points which I have missed as I’m still learning about instructional design every day. But these are good pointers to start with, and I hope that they help any new instructional designers as much as they helped me!

About the author

Camilla Weich - Instructional designer
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