Instructional Design

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History of Instructional Design

“Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.”                                                     –African proverb

Sharing information, passing on knowledge, and creating communities of learners has shaped our world since the dawn of man. What first began as cave paintings and oral histories has evolved into a sophisticated and complex Internet which allows humans to share information, pass on knowledge, and create new learning communities around the world instantaneously.

             It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the study of learning actually began. Researchers such as Ebbinghaus and Pavlov studied how people forget and the effects of classical conditioning (see Experts in the Field page for more information on key figures).  BF Skinner built upon these studies and developed the radical behaviorist approach to learning. Others, such as Piaget and Vygotsky, studied the learner’s stages of development and the cognitive processes associated with learning. They, along with David Ausebel, helped to formulate the cognitive theory of learning, which included the role of metacognition, making learning meaningful, and the importance of making connections between new knowledge and what one already has learned for true learning to occur.

             The actual design of instruction has been informed by and founded on these and other learning theories. Historically speaking, instructional design is a fairly new field. It can be traced to World War II, when researchers, psychologists and educators, including Robert Gagné, developed training materials for those in the military. It was vital that instruction be efficient and effective in order for the war effort to be successful.

             Using their expertise in research, theory, instruction, learning and human behavior (Reiser 2001), they examined training programs and developed more effective ways to deliver instruction based on testing and assessment. They discovered the importance of knowing the entry skills of learners and designing instruction to meet learners where they were at. Many of these researchers continued their work after the war, developing the systems approach to learning and instruction which included the three major elements of design as we know it today: analysis, design, and evaluation.

             In the 1950’s and early 1960’s BF Skinner’s studies on teaching and learning greatly influenced instructional design. Programmed instruction became popular, and learning modules that were skill-based, presented in small steps with frequent questions, and provided immediate feedback were introduced into education. Because learning with these modules was measurable and easily revised if needed based on these assessments, the importance of formative assessment was introduced and implemented into the design process.

             Because of this behavioristic approach to learning, it was important that instruction be guided by clear objectives. Robert Mager added much to this movement when he published Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction (1962) to help educators learn how to write clear objectives. His work is still used today to guide educators in instructional design.

             Benjamin Bloom further refined objectives in his taxonomies of learning. He developed a hierarchical model of learning outcomes, and stressed that lessons should be designed to assure that learners are moving toward the higher levels of knowing, which include synthesis and evaluation, rather than just focusing instruction on factual recall. He provided key verbs for educators to use in writing objectives to assure that they meet the desired learning outcomes. He also stressed the importance of designing assessment that demonstrates whether the specific outcomes were met.

             The role assessment, both pre- and post-, formal and informal, became more and more important in the instructional design process. Designers realized that it was critical to effective design to really know your learners. This included pre-assessment to determine entry behaviors and knowledge, informal on-going assessment during instruction to determine if the instructional design was achieving its goals, and formal assessment at the conclusion of the instruction to ascertain the actual learning that occurred in the students. To facilitate this, criterion-referenced tests were developed in the mid 1960’s. These tests did not compare students with other students, as in norm-referenced tests. Rather, they measured how well a student performed on a particular objective or standard. This informed instructors in two ways: it provided entry behavior information to allow instructors to know where to begin instruction for certain students, and it allowed instructors to determine how effective their instruction had been following instruction.

             One of the most important figures in the history of instructional design was Robert Gagné. As previously mentioned, he was one of the men involved in the military studies during World War II. He continued his work in instructional design and, in 1965, published The Conditions of Learning, a seminal work in the field. In it, he describes the five domains or learning outcomes: verbal information, intellectual skills, psychomotor skills, attitudes, and cognitive strategies. For each of these outcomes, he determined a specific set of conditions for learning to occur. In addition, he outlined nine events of instruction, which have become the “cornerstone of instructional design (Reiser 2001).”

             As this work continued to grow, instructional design models were created by various designers. Designers used others models to refine and create their own models for systematic instruction. These include models by Dick and Carey, Gagné, and others. Instructional design began to be used in many domains, including education, military training, business and industry. In the late 1970’s, graduate programs in instructional design began in universities throughout the nation.

             It was during the 1980’s that the world of instruction began a major change caused by the advent of the computer age. Incorporating technology into classroom instruction soon moved from a novelty to a necessity. Instructional designers worked to develop programs that could be used in classrooms to build skills in students. Many of the first programs were basic skill-and-drill exercises that students could perform with their scores automatically recorded for the teacher. But as computers advanced, so did the ability to incorporate technology using project-based learning. This was fueled by the move to constructivist theory of instruction, requiring more than just factual recall, but allowing students to interact with each other and the environment to construct their own learning. While this did not significantly change the instructional design models, it did greatly increase the types of instructional activities and strategies that teachers could use in delivering instruction. Initially, constructivist theories were seen as antithetical to traditional instructional design, but designers have become more comfortable with using constructivist principles with instructional design practices (Reiser 2001).

             The use of the internet for distance learning, communication, and research has and will continue to impact instruction. Complex simulations can now be done in classrooms on computers to allow students to experience the results of their own decision making and experimentation with real-world results.

It is estimated that in our world today knowledge is doubled every eighteen months. We can no longer be satisfied with teaching students facts. We need to teach them how to access and apply information effectively in their lives. We need to teach them to be problem solvers and to think outside the box, because in today’s world, the box changes constantly. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world . . . as in being able to remake ourselves.” A good instructional design allows learners to achieve both of these goals.


Good lessons don’t just happen-they are crafted by careful design

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