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What is Good Instructional Design?

What is Good Instructional Design?

Instructional design is a systematic approach which helps to keep the process of training, coaching or development well-targeted and on track to meet the needs of the individual(s) at which it is aimed. But what makes instructional design good or effective? After all, we are all hard-wired to learn and there really isn’t any time where we’re not drinking in information of some kind (even when we sleep and dream). In other words, learning happens through our conscious and unconscious mind and through the things we experience almost all the time. Good instructional design therefore needs to appreciate that we are open to learning but find the best ways and moments to intervene (what educationalist Robert Havighurst calls “teachable moments”) in which to package it or parcel it up so that it can be successfully delivered to make the change that we are seeking.

Over fifty years ago, another educational expert and psychologist Benjamin Bloom sought to provide a developmental model or what he called a “taxonomy of learning objectives” which could be applied to all development situations (although his focus was mainly on schools and colleges and the formal education process, at the time). This system had six parts and is still highly applicable to all instructional design challenges today (and has been highly influential in general in the educational sphere). Let’s therefore look at all six parts of Bloom’s model in more detail. It is worth noting that Bloom’s model is progressive and starts by asking what level of learning are we trying to create. Knowledge (such as facts and figures) are lower level or more basic goals in these six realms for example, where as synthesis or evaluation are higher level and often complex learning goals (and need a lot more time to achieve them).

Bloom’s six learning levels:

1. Knowledge: recognize or recall information.

Q: What is the capital of Australia? Who wrote “The Origin of Species”?

Words typically used: define, recall, recognize, remember, who, what, where, when.

2. Comprehension: demonstrate that the learner has sufficient understanding to organize and arrange material mentally.

Q: What do you think Hamlet meant when he said, “to be or not to be, that is the question?”

Words typically used: describe, compare, contrast, rephrase, put in your own words, explain the main idea.

3. Application: a question that asks a learner to apply previously learned information or interpolate to reach an answer. Solving mathematical word problems is an example.

Q: According to our definition of democracy, which nations in the world do not follow a democratic political model?

Words typically used: apply, classify, use, choose, employ, write an example, solve, how many, which, what is.

4. Analysis: higher order questions that require learners to think critically and in depth. Unless learners can be brought to the higher levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, it is unlikely that transfer will take place. If teachers/trainers/coaches don’t ask higher level questions, it is unlikely that most learners will transfer learning to real life.

Identify the motives, reasons, and/or causes for a specific occurrence.

Q: Why are there lots of laws to regulate financial transactions in business?

Words typically used: identify motives/causes, draw conclusions, determine evidence, support, analyze, why.

5. Synthesis: higher order question that asks the learner to perform original and creative thinking. Synthesis questions ask students to:

a) produce original communications.

Q: What’s a good way to market this product? Write a letter about what you have achieved at work assuming that it is five years from now.

b) make predictions.

Q: How will the world be different if China becomes the world’s dominant superpower in the next 50 years? What would happen if almost everyone worked at home on the Internet? What is the next likely development in motor vehicles?

c) solve problems – although analysis questions may also ask learners to solve problems, synthesis questions differ because they don’t require a single correct answer but instead allow a variety of creative answers.

Q: What will US debt grow to in 100 years if current spending stays broadly the same?

Words typically used in synthesis questions: predict, produce, write, design, develop, synthesize, construct, how can we improve, what would happen if, can you devise, how can we solve? etc.

6. Evaluation: a higher level question that does not have a single correct answer. It requires the learner to judge the merit of an idea, a solution to a problem, or an aesthetic work. The learner may also be asked to offer an opinion on an issue.

Q: Do you think the e-learning module is too easy? Which candidate for the job is most likely to succeed?

According to Bloom, to answer evaluation questions objective criteria or personal values must be applied. Some standard must be used. Differing standards are quite acceptable and they naturally result in different answers. This type of question frequently is used to surface values or to cause learners to realize that not everyone sees things the same way. It can be used to start a group discussion. It can also precede a follow-up analysis or synthesis question like, “Why?”

So what does all this mean for instructional design and instructional designers? Well, it simple entails that we should not only select at which level we wish to aim our development efforts but we should design the learning experience to allow individuals to answer the kind of questions that will stretch them accordingly at this level. If these development experiences are well crafted, the learning delivery channel (classroom, one-to-one session, reading, case study, activity, online learning module, etc.) will not matter (although these should always be fit for purpose too).

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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