Instructional design is a systematic approach to course development that ensures that specific learning goals are accomplished. It is an iterative process that requires ongoing evaluation and feedback.
Numerous instructional design theories and models provide guidance in this arena. Yet, only a few of them have been empirically validated against actual designs&emdash;that is, have been tested in a classroom environment to substantiate the soundness of the proposed model. However, do not view the lack of validation as a shortcoming, because the learning process is unpredictable and subject to numerous extraneous variables.
Many instructional design models are based on a behaviorist foundation where the focus is on such things as learning objectives and operant conditioning through reinforcement of the desired behavior. These models fall in the area of reductionism, which is defined as the decomposition of each component of an instructional system into parts: the learner, the objective, the content, and the instructional strategy. The instructional system's design models support this view, which is based on a sequential process that begins with the definition of objectives and ends with the development of components of instruction to achieve each objective.
More progressive models fall under the rubric of constructivism, which posits the belief that individuals learn best from personally relevant and autonomous experiences. These models tend to be more fluid and less constrained to a sequential process of course design. They also tend to incorporate more collaborative learning activities and place less emphasis on the teacher's role.
Despite the proliferation of instructional design models, several elements are common to most of them. These common elements are defining objectives, determining content (and the sequence and structure of the content), determining the instructional strategies and methods for presenting the material, and developing the curriculum. Most models include evaluation and feedback at some stage in the process. The major discrepancy in the numerous models is in the method or approach to design.
Although most models presented in the literature are linear, much debate has been generated regarding the linearity of the models. The learning process is not as predictable; it hardly ever follows a linear, sequential progression. Keep in mind that any approach you use should be flexible, should reflect the reality of the learning environment, and should attend to the practical process of instructional design (that is, it should be appropriate for the classroom environment and not for hypothetical model-testing purposes).
The fast-paced, time-intensive process of instructional design doesn't always allow you to follow a systematic, step-by-step process. Many of the steps occur concurrently or, in some cases, not at all. Although a model can be helpful in focusing your design efforts, it shouldn't circumvent the reality of your particular training situation. Instead, adapt the model to fit your needs&emdash;start with a model that allows you to develop a course within your time and budget constraints. Successful training is not judged by the explicitness of your instructional design model but according to the extent to which your learners acquired skills and were able to transfer them to their workplace or home environment.