Instructional Design: Models & Learning Theory

In the past, before I really knew what instructional design was, I worked with a few 3rd party contractors. After becoming an instructional designer myself, I realised that there is one aspect of the job that many instructional designers don’t talk about  – learning theory. Learning theory is a key element of developing a successful elearning solution and it is often confused with instructional design models.

When learning theory is combined with an instructional model, it provides the basis for which you create your learning strategy – the “how do we get there.” In this blog post I will attempt to deconstruct some of smoke and mirrors behind instructional design.

Let’s start by going through the definitions: what is learning theory, what is an instructional designer and what are instructional models.

Learning Experience

I use the word learning experience a lot. I describe a learning experience as “an event in which learning takes place” and doesn’t strictly need to be associated with elearning.

Instructional Designer

Instructional designers develop learning experiences. These experiences can vary but focus on developing learning consumed online. They work closely alongside subject matter experts to create and optimise content to a target audience. Many instructional designers (including myself) will also become involved in the UX (user experience) design, or LUX (learning experience design) of a learning experience.

I love working with subject matter experts, they are fantastically knowledgeable and interesting people. However, SME’s are not always the right people to design a learning experience. SME’s often throw all the information they know at someone or something, overloading learners with too much information, or irrelevant information. A good instructional designer will take that content and present it to the user in a way that is appropriate to the topic and to the audience. The ultimate goal is that the learner aquires a new piece of knowledge, skill or attitude (behaviour).

An instructional designer can be a powerful asset  when you are looking to move away from traditional publishing to elearning. Writing books and study materials is completely different experience to designing an elearning experience. I have all too often seen elearning which has been copied and pasted online and titled “elearning” which if you look at it objectively, it is in a very basic form. Is it effective though? Perhaps, if you’re a self-guided, self-motivated learner who just loves to read. Most learners don’t fall into this category and realistically if you follow this approach, you end up with a digital book which could have been uploaded in pdf or epub form. What makes it a learning experience is how the user interacts with the content – the key word being experience!

Learning Model

Straight from the Collins dictionary:

A model is a system that is being used and that people might want to copy in order to achieve similar results.

In other words, it’s a repeatable process that can be followed to achieve a result. Learning models are often confused with learning theory and essentially a good learning model should have roots in learning theory. Learning models provide you with a baseline strategy as they are often very process driven. For example take ADDIE; Analysis, Design, Develop, Implement and Analyse, it is an approach for building a learning experience. Think of it as a instruction manual, providing you with step-by-step instructions. This model doesn’t specifically tell you what should be included in the learning, but guides you through a development process.

You’ll often hear learning models quoted as buzzwords, it’s unfortunate I know. Corporate companies in particular pick up on these terms and you’ll see/hear things like “we must implement the 70-20-10 model” or “we must only hire instructional designers who use ADDIE” without actually knowing what it entails. Anyone can follow a model, but understanding the theory behind it  and what should be included is the difference. 

Learning Theory

Put simply:

Learning theory is the research and science behind how we learn.

There are a lot of theories around how the brain works and how we learn and it can be difficult to know which ones to follow. Understanding how people learn is a complex process and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the content being used to create a learning experience and it’s purpose, some theories lend themselves better to certain situations than others. It’s impossible to know all the different learning theories. I was presented with a very interesting situation recently where someone asked me if I had heard of a particular learning theory, which I hadn’t. The response was disbelief “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of this?” well, of course, I’m meant to know over 100 learning theories! 

What I personally tend to do is stick to theories and models I have successfully implemented in the past. Of course as with everything, you must keep up to date with the latest trends and techniques, but I tend to stick to popular tried and tested models and theories. 

I often use Gange’s Conditions of Learning. Gange outlined 9 events of instruction:

  1. Gaining attention (reception)
  2. Informing learners of the objective (expectancy)
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)
  4. Presenting the stimulus (selective perception)
  5. Providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)
  6. Eliciting performance (responding)
  7. Providing feedback (reinforcement)
  8. Assessing performance (retrieval)

I use this theory to guide my course design and make sure that no matter what learning object I am using/creating (e.g. media, audio, interactive slides) it contributes to one of the 9 instructions. This is just one example and you’ll find lots of different ones being used.


I’m hoping this post provided an overview on the differences between instructional models and learning theory. If you want to learn more about learning theories or models, a good website to visit is I found this website whilst searching for resources to link to this post!

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