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EIU Faculty Development and Innovation Center

Understanding Instructional Design

What is instructional design?

Instructional design is a systematic and ongoing process of analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating learning or instructional experiences so they effectively help learners increase their potential to better understand and retain what they are being taught. Instructional design is like the secret sauce to designing courses that contain effective learning or instructional experiences rather than dumps! Instructional design can be applied to experiences that span diverse modalities such as face-to-face or online courses, workshops, training sessions, manuals, video tutorials, simulations, etc. Instructional design intentionally considers how learners acquire knowledge, what topics are essential, what methods, strategies, techniques, tools and activities will help make the learning stick, and how to continuously improve the experience to most effectively help learners learn. Commonly interchangeable with terms like learning experience (LX) design, curriculum design, and instructional systems design (ISD), a University of San Diego webpage summarizes the term instructional design well by stating, “Simply put, instructional design is creating learning or instructional experiences that facilitate the (effective) acquisition of new knowledge.”  As important as it is to point out all the things instructional design "is", there is one important "what it is not" to point out. Instructional design is not a one and done application. Faculty applying instructional design principles to their course design will benefit from embracing the mindset that instructional design is an ongoing journey. Along the way, this journey can benefit from building a robust tool chest filled with frameworks, concepts, methods, strategies, techniques, tools, and activities to empower faculty to continually enhance the effectiveness and engagement of their teaching practices.

Approach to instructional design

When embarking on the instructional design journey, it can be confusing where to start. While recognizing that there are numerous valued instructional design methodologies, the Faculty Development and Innovation Center (FDIC) places emphasis and advocates the use of the backward design framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (also known as understanding by design (UbD)) as a starting place for course design and redesign.

Backward design

This approach centers on an intentional and purposeful order in designing a course that includes three stages.

Stage One: Identify desired results starts with the end in mind, emphasizing first the development of overarching course learning objectives, followed by module learning objectives.

Stage Two: Determine acceptable level of evidence involves the development of assessments that provide evidence of successful completion of the objectives.

Stage Three: Build course content is the identification and/or design of course content (instructional materials and learning activities) that will support successful completion of the module learning objectives.

This three-stage approach helps break any common tendencies to start course design by identifying or developing course content first. When course content is identified first, how do you truly know that the selected content appropriately aligns with the objectives? More detailed information and templates for using backward design are available on the backward design webpage.

Purpose of instructional design

Why does instructional design matter? Instructional design plays a crucial role in teaching and learning by ensuring that the learning or instructional experiences are aligned with desired objectives, effective, and engaging. Have you ever heard of the term course alignment? Course alignment is like a gold standard in course design and instructional design is the master key that helps unlock the gold standard. Quality Matters defines course alignment as a concept of critical course components working together to ensure that learners achieve the desired learning objectives. One process employed to achieve course alignment is course mapping - an intentional activity of correlating course and module level objectives with each other, then correlating course content with their related module level objectives. Engaging in practices such as course mapping not only fosters course alignment but also contributes to the effectiveness and impactfulness of your instructional approaches on learners.

Alignment in course design

A significant purpose of instructional design is to help ensure course alignment. Alignment refers to how critical course elements work together to promote a learners’ achievement of the intended learning objectives. Critical course elements that relate to course alignment include the course and module learning objectives, assessments, and course content (instructional materials and learning activities). More detailed information about course alignment is available on the alignment in course design webpage.

What is an instructional designer?

An instructional designer is someone who organizes learning to improve its impact. Think of developing a course much like Hollywood develops a movie (but on a much lower budget). Hollywood starts with a screen play which you can liken to a subject matter (course) that is of interest to our learners. The actors in the movie are like professors and instructors that deliver the content to learners. In the movies, the person who stays on top of the movie development is the director. In course development, this falls to an instructional designer. - Blair Cook, Instructional Designer at the Finance Learning Academy.

Supplemental resources

Instructional Design Central (IDC) Website. IDC is a privately owned and operated company that provides design and learning design professionals access to resources, tools, content, a community, and blog to enhance success in their career and education. The instructional design history webpage within this website offers a timeline of key events that influenced the field of instructional design and instructional technology.


Helping you deliver your online promise. Quality Matters. (n.d.).

What is instructional design?. Instructional Design Central. (n.d.).

What is instructional design? [5 Examples + Overview]. University of San Diego Online. (n.d.).

The written information and resources are developed or curated by the 

Faculty Development and Innovation Center

phone 217-581-7051 :: email :: web

Contact the FDIC for instructional design related questions or to schedule a consultation appointment. The FDIC staff can recommend instructional design strategies for your online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses.

Last updated: March 29, 2024

Related Pages

Contact Information

Dr. Michael Gillespie, Director, FDIC


Julie Lockett, Director of Learning Innovation


Kim Ervin
Instructional Designer


Faculty Development and Innovation Center

1105 Booth

David Smith
Instructional Support and Training Specialist


Keerthana Saraswathula
Instructional Support and Training Specialist


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