Instructional Design Theory & Practice - The Gap

(Why Courses and Training Programs fail?)

Vidyotama had tried everything. She had gone through the successful courses that her organization had developed in the past; then she had memorized the Standards and Guidelines for effective content development; she had even attended two different training programs on content development. The first program had introduced her to Bloom’s Taxonomy and ARCS, and showered her with examples and exercises; and the second had taken her through the nuances of Grammar and beaten her naturally flowing language into the hard lines of Active Voice!

Yet, today, she sat glum, her eyes glued to the CDR or the Customer Delight Rating of 3.5 on 10! Her course, the one she had pinned her hopes on, had once again flunked.

She asked herself, “Why can’t I ever predict the outcome of the courses that I design?”

Let’s try to answer Vidyotama’s question.

From a content developer's or instructional designer’s perspective, the content development process included the following broad steps.

  1. Analyzing the Audience and the Task
  2. Structuring the Objectives on the basis of the Goal
  3. Designing the Course/Training
  4. Developing the Content for Implementation

(Yes, this doesn't completely map to the ADDIE model. Primarily because Need Analysis (from the A Phase) and the whole I Phase aren't in the domain of the instructional designer.)

Let us look at each of these steps in more detail.

1. Analyzing the Audience and the Task

Audience Analysis:
This step includes a careful analysis of the audience’s skills, traits, expectations, and apprehensions. This can be successfully accomplished only when we are skilled in applying certain theories that help us understand traits and behavior of humans, and that allow us to measure the existing knowledge and skill of the learner, and it also gives us an opportunity to understand the attitude of the learner towards all facets of the learning program that we intend to offer.

Task Analysis:
This step includes a serious contemplation of the tasks that the learner will be required to perform, after completing the training. In case of corporate trainings, it includes a careful review of the role requirements. The trainers, training managers, or instructional designers do this review. This review tells them about the expected skills and knowledge that is required from the prospective learner, so that he or she may perform the said role effectively. This step requires ample use of the taxonomies that explain different types of learning, and also the application of Goal Analysis methods.
Unfortunately, this step seldom receives the attention it deserves. Even when audience data is collected, it is not put to right use.

2. Structuring the Objectives on the basis of the Goal

This step can baffle even some of the senior designers, and, I assure you that the fault isn’t theirs alone. Somewhere in their past, when they were green – someone told them that all that they needed to do with objectives was – write them using measurable action verbs! And so, they did that…sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The review-fix cycle became their daily reality, and they didn’t have the time to think otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with the measurable verb diktat…what’s wrong is that this is just one of the many things that an ID should be comfortable doing, if he or she has to analyze a goal into strong, workable objectives!

The Instructional Designer combines the outcome of the audience analysis and the content with the glue that’s made by brewing different instructional design concepts such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, Mager’s Objectives, etc.

Remember that writing good objectives isn’t about putting some measurable verbs at the beginning of some cute looking sentences. It is about ensuring that the sum total of the skills developed through those objectives will make the learner reach the goal that the course promises.

3. Designing the Course or Training

Designing a good course stretches an Instructional Designer’s skills, imagination, and knowledge to its limits. Design is the phase, which brings out the difference between mediocrity and greatness in Instructional Design – for it is here that the jargon-spouting, apparently knowledgeable individuals share the platform with the practical, application-oriented individuals. Unfortunately, both end up with courses that don’t have the spunk!


The Jargon-Spewing Individual (JSI) doesn’t bother to figure out how the theories and models that he/she talks about should be “used” to provide a strong instructional base to his/her courses.
The Practical Hands-On Individual (PHI) is too busy with rework to figure out how the theories and models could reduce effort and build a strong foundation for his/her courses.

So, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Behaviorism, ARCS, Gagne’s Events, Bloom’s taxonomy (Oh yes! There’s much more to this overused but underutilized theory, than their ability to make the objectives look cool!)…and other such beautiful concepts never reach their true potential. They continue to exist in their ornamental avatars…and the cynics continue to exclaim “Instructional Design? Anyone with common sense can do it.”

Ever wonder if Instructional Design could be done by anyone with common sense, why we have so many unhappy learners around us? Is it because as a population we lack common sense OR is it because we don’t use instructional design the way it should be used?

4. Developing the Course/Training

Finally during the Development phase, where the learning styles of the learner, the Gestalt principles, and other concepts such as cognitive dissonance and suspension-of-disbelief should be guiding us and helping us infuse life in our content…the theories and models are completely forgotten! The autocratic rule of Grammar, Templates, and Duplication of the so-called interesting interaction (without paying heed to the context,) send the effectiveness of learning to the guillotine!

Now you know the reason why our programs fail to interest our learners - not because ID doesn't work, but because we don't know how to make it work!


She’s is an innocent victim of the ubiquitous lethargy that pervades our content development processes, and which forces us to move through our professional lives as robots. We want to finish our 8 (or 10 or 12) hour-day and rush home – forgetting that when our productive years have flown past…we’d have spent the remaining third of our life wondering where we went wrong…and why those hours didn’t fill us with pride, hope, and confidence.

Of course, it never happened to you…it happened to Vidyotama.

Did I tell you that Vidyotama is only a figment of my overworked imagination?

Is she?

- Author: Shafali R. Anand

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The Instructional Design Courses by Shafali R. Anand (The IDCD Course and the IDST Course) are conducted at Noida - Delhi NCR, India.