Top Ten Tips in Instructional Design

Check out our video blog on the top ten ways to improve the design of your online course. You can find the content used in the video below the video.

Webinar Course Content

1. Begin with the End in Mind

The first step in developing great content is to know what and why students are learning and how you are going to assess them. This seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many people start building content without thinking about this. Ensuring that your content is aligned with your objectives and assessment is only possible if you create a plan from the beginning.

2. Vision Trumps all other Senses

We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%. Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time. Therefore, reduce text and add images that support the text. This is why using consistent icons across instructional programs is so important. Students can process the meaning of the icon in a second.

We highly recommend John Medina’s website and book, Brain Rules.

3. Stimulate Multiple Senses

In the 1990s, researchers started using functional MRIs to learn more about the brain. This has completely changed what we know about the brain and learning.  As a result of this research, we know that learning and retention increase when multiple senses are stimulated. The most ineffective activity for a student is reading plain text or listening to a lecture.

4. Reduce Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load refers to the amount of working memory the brain can process. Working memory can typically only hold a few bits of information at a time and lasts around ten seconds. Therefore, your job as a content developer is to reduce and/or remove any information that a student doesn’t need to process.

Here are a few ways to reduce cognitive load:

  • Implement simple, clear navigation, that is intuitive and requires no thinking. 
  • Use a consistent icon bank across courses – means one less thing a student has to process.
  • Minimize scrolling and create smaller chunks of content. 
  • Share PDFs with the most important points highlighted. 

5. Student Engagement is a Product of Active Learning

Engaging students in an online course is tough to do, especially with self-paced courses. Our advice is to create a matrix that identifies all of the different types of activities in your online course and then correlate each one to the level of interaction. Completing a matching activity that gives the student instant feedback would be considered interaction with the student. Whereas an online class discussion would involve the entire class.

Examine all of the pages in your course; we recommend that a student does not go more than three or four screens/pages without any interaction.

6. Create Assessments FOR and OF Learning

Ensure that your course has both formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are designed to give the student feedback during their learning. These are critical in an online course when students are physically separated from their teacher. In a traditional class or lecture hall, an instructor might walk around the room and give verbal and nonverbal formative feedback. Something as simple as going over questions from a Calculus homework assignment would be an example of formative feedback. The student doesn’t have access to that type of interaction in an online course so make sure you design opportunities to give them feedback before the summative assessment.

7. Consistency isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Commitment.

Storyboarding was first introduced by Walt Disney to sketch animations and widely used today to help visually organize a lesson outline. A storyboard is often described as a template. Before you decide how you are going to storyboard or template a lesson, you will need to identify the steps in your instructional process. Most importantly, using a consistent template for each lesson is going to considerably reduce cognitive load, especially as students progress through the course, and allow them to focus on what is most important.

The most popular one used with online learning is Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. Check out the following course developed using a CourseArc template based on the Nine Events. 

8. Consider your Audience

Always consider your audience before developing online content. Think about their age, experience with online learning, reading level, if English is their first language, etc. Often times, the reading level for online content is too high for the audience.  This is the type of thing that can easily be fixed if you know to look for it. The average adult reads at an 8th-grade level. Similarly, if your audience is in the primary grades,  they might not be able to complete dragging activities if their hands are too small.

9. Organizational Knowledge is an Asset

Create style guides and other documents that can be used across disciplines to help with rapid development and consistency. Crowdsourcing is a great way to build knowledge libraries in large organizations. It is imperative to use a writing or style guide for all online courses. These documents can layout your deep feelings about the Oxford Comma and how to spell the word website. 

10. Quality is Never an Accident

It doesn’t matter if your organization has one or one thousand people developing content, you need to bake quality control into your process. This is also referred to as quality assurance or QA. Your QA should include both an internal and external review, even if that means you are using yourself and one other person to help give feedback on the course. It is especially important to test new content with a student in a realistic environment prior to the content going live. Even if you have been teaching an online class for years, you still should review your content annually. One of the biggest mistakes we see is no plan for continuous evaluation and improvement.


Some of you may be familiar with Quality Matters. They support organizations that are building online content with training materials, evaluation rubrics, and peer feedback. We strongly encourage you to check them out. They have a robust website with many support materials:  https://www.qualitymatters.org/.

See It All in Action

Discover how these best practices come together in our sample World War course – developed entirely in CourseArc!

Explore Our Sample Course

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2019-06-14T18:11:28+00:00June 14th, 2019|Instructional Design, Online Learning|0 Comments

About the Author:

In 2014, Katie and her lead developer, Bethany Meyer, developed the concept for CourseArc and launched the beta version in 2015. She combines a broad educational technology background with program planning and project management expertise to help organizations deliver high quality learning solutions. Prior to starting CourseArc, Katie ran her own consulting company providing clients with program planning, instructional design, and eLearning solutions. She worked with companies and organizations to design and deliver eLearning, to conduct needs analysis and program review in order to make recommendations for improvement, to plan and deliver professional development for employees, to lead large-scale grant applications that include eLearning, and to provide documentation and process improvement to management. Previously, Katie worked for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) as the secondary specialist in the Office of Instructional Technology. As a specialist with BCPS, Katie led the creation of teacher professional development using eLearning and developed over 10 courses using both blended and fully online formats using Desire2Learn and Blackboard. Later, Katie led several large scale, multi-million dollar federal grants focusing on eLearning with multiple stakeholders, partners, internal employees, and contractors. Katie received her BA degree in History and Education and MA Degree in Instructional Design from UMBC. In addition, she has completed many professional training courses such as PMP, Flash, ADL Co-Lab Scorm School, HTML/Dreamweaver, Captivate, and Articulate. Katie has also presented at national conferences on eLearning and is knowledgeable regarding current trends in technical and eLearning solutions, such as Learning Management Systems (LMS), writing for English as a Second Language Learners (ESL), accessibility requirements, HTML 5, Javascript, .css, and responsive design/mobile.

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