How to Become an Instructional Designer: A Comprehensive Guide

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How to Become an Instructional Designer
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When you take an eLearning course or watch an instructional video, who do you think is behind it all? It might not be the coach you see on your screen. A great deal of the course development process rests on an instructional designer’s shoulders.

Going pro doesn’t happen overnight, but if you still have the passion and drive to study and practice, read our complete guide on how to become an instructional designer. We asked eLearning experts to share their insights to point you in the right direction.

Feel free to bookmark this article and come back for more insights. And make sure to download our Instructional Designer’s notebook, a collection of interactive guides, checklists, and tips on instructional design and eLearning.

What Is an Instructional Designer?

If you have friends outside of the eLearning world, they are likely to ask you what on earth an instructional designer is. Here is the answer you can give them: An instructional designer is an eLearning expert who gathers information from subject matter experts and uses instructional theories and models to create engaging and effective learning experiences.

Then your friends might say: “Okay, but what is it exactly that they do?”

What Instructional Designers Do

Instructional design is the art and science of creating learning experiences that help people gain the skills they need. The aim of the instructional designer is to identify knowledge and skill gaps, and find the most powerful ways to close them, whether through online courses, games, or training videos.

Instructional designers need to be experts in both how people learn and how to create content using technologies. They should be able to use authoring tools to create and deliver appealing learning materials and make training faster, easier, and more effective.

The roles and responsibilities of instructional designers are quite varied. They include:

  • Defining clear learning objectives and creating compelling content that aligns with them.
  • Interacting with subject matter experts (SMEs) to collect information based on the learners’ needs.
  • Creating a detailed storyboard of how an e-course should look and which interactions it should include.
  • Making online courses with an authoring tool for learning and skill building, and developing tests and assignments for performing knowledge checks and evaluating training effectiveness.
  • Creating supporting materials that include multimedia, e.g., audio, video, screencasts, and gamification.

If you’re going to become an instructional designer, the specifics of your job will depend on at least these two factors:

  • What field you’ll be working in (corporate, higher education, government, non-profit)
  • Whether you will work full-time, part-time, or freelance

Let’s take a closer look at these factors.

Instructional design specifics in various fields

Nowadays, everyone needs online learning: small companies, large enterprises, universities, and nonprofits. These fields have both similarities and differences. Check out this table to get a general idea of the instructional design specifics for each one:

 CorporateHigher educationGovernmentNonprofit
Who your learners will beemployees, partners, customersstudentsgovernment and military personnelboard members, staff, volunteers, donors
What eLearning content you will designonboarding, compliance training, hard skills training, soft skills training, product knowledge trainingmostly in-person courses converted to an online format, academic subject coursesorientation, hard and soft skills training, etc.courses on fundraising, grant writing, and accounting, governance training, etc.
Average salary$86,327$62,068$85,478$78,025
Main advantage of working in the fieldhigh salarywork-life balanceinteresting projects that affect many peoplechallenging projects steered toward societal good
Main disadvantage of working in the fieldpossibility of overworklimited career opportunitiesbureaucracy and hierarchylimited career opportunity

Full-Time IDs vs. Freelance IDs

Apart from deciding what field you would like to work in, you should also determine how you would like to work. You can either be self-employed or work for a single company full-time (or part-time). Let’s see the specifics of these formats and their pros and cons.

Full-time instructional designer

A full-time job is something many instructional designers look for when they start out in the field. It may be comforting because you’re focused only on providing learning experiences for employees or students, and all other job-related duties lie in other departments. 

However, you might find yourself quite limited in terms of choosing eLearning project topics, course development tools, and more.

Pros

  • Stability
  • Only instructional design duties
  • eLearning tool expanses lie with the company

Cons

  • Inexperienced beginners may receive a lower salary
  • No opportunity to choose projects
  • Strict working hours

Freelance instructional designer

A freelance instructional designer has more freedom in every respect: when and where to work, what projects to accept, which tools to use, and more. Still, any freelance job can be tricky. Although you have full control over your work and can take only the projects you’re excited about, it doesn’t necessarily happen like that – especially for beginners. 

There just might not be enough interesting projects for you to earn a decent income from. So, you have to work on something less thrilling than you would prefer, and you have to perform the extra work of running your business (marketing, taxes, management, negotiations, etc.)

Pros

  • Freedom of choosing projects, when and where to work, what tools to use, etc.
  • Potentially higher income
  • Independence

Cons

  • Extra tasks
  • Instability

How Much an Instructional Designer Gets Paid

According to Glassdoor, the average instructional designer salary in America is $71,070 per year. Devlin Peck, an eLearning expert, provides a different number – $85,466 per year. Of course, ‘average’ means you can earn both much more than and much less. There are 5 major factors that can affect your income:

1. Level of education

According to the survey conducted by Devlin Peck, eLearning specialists with a master’s degree get the highest salary: with a master’s degree, you’ll generally earn $2,000 more than you would with only a bachelor’s degree.

2. Geography

Instructional design incomes vary depending on what country you live in and work in. The highest average salaries are in America ($85,466) and Australia ($89,905), while the lowest are in the UK ($52,012) and India ($11,535).

3. Size of the organization

According to Glassdoor, an average instructional design salary in small companies is $69,750 and $75,024 in large enterprises.

4. Instructional design field

The field you work in has a great influence on how much you get paid. Take a look at Devlin Peck’s data on average salaries in instructional design fields:

  • Corporate: $86,327
  • Government: $85,478
  • Nonprofit: $78,025
  • Higher education: $62,068

5. Professional experience

Glassdoor states that the average salary of an instructional designer with 0-3 years of experience is $63,653, while the wage for those with over 15 years is $84,528. According to Devlin Peck, IDs with 0-3 years of professional experience receive the lowest salary of $71,961, and those with 16-20 years receive the highest average salary of $110,737.

How to Get Instructional Design Experience

Professional experience can be an essential factor during your job interview. You might even get the position without it, but this would definitely have an impact on your salary. So, how can you get course development experience? There are at least 3 ways to do this:

University projects

If you’re getting a master’s degree in instructional design, you have plenty of opportunities to get your first professional experience. You’ll be involved in different eLearning projects for organizations, and your final project is likely to be a course on some topic.

Volunteering

If you’re currently working in a different field, you can volunteer at your workplace to create an eLearning project. That way, you’ll be creating a course about something you know about – which is great – and you’ll get a chance to check whether instructional design is right for you.

Networking and consulting

Find other instructional designers on LinkedIn and follow them. They might post job vacancies from time to time. Or, you could participate in an eLearning project as a consultant. Besides, networking is a crucial part of the eLearning world, so you might want to start doing that right away.

How to Become an Instructional Designer

There are 4 main paths to instructional design: the direct path, transitioning from teaching, transitioning from a position as a school administrator, and getting there from a noneducational sphere. Let’s look at each of them:

Direct path

The direct path is for people who want to get into the eLearning world right after they graduate from university. If you’re currently finishing your bachelor’s degree and thinking about getting a master’s in instructional design, check out the best academic courses listed later in the article

What’s important to keep in mind is that, unlike teachers, school administrators, and other professionals, you don’t have any professional experience yet. So, it would be great if you could get that while attending university.

Transitioning from teaching

Teachers and university professors have lots of teaching experience, know teaching models, strategies, and much more. But this could be both a great advantage and a limitation. You see, instructional design differs from traditional teaching. You have different learners, different tools, different models, and your role is different too. It’s important that you realize this, acquire new knowledge and skills, and adapt your previous experience and knowledge to your new profession.

Transitioning from a role as a school administrator

School administration might be a great background for instructional design – especially if you’re looking for freelance work. You already have the necessary organizational skills, such as learner management or curriculum design, that some eLearning specialists might find complicated. However, to create online courses, you’ll need to study instructional design theory and upgrade your design skills.

From a noneducational sphere

The fact that you don’t have any prior teaching experience might be your advantage. First of all, you will not mix teaching knowledge and skills up with those of instructional design – you’re like a blank page, and you can fill yourself only with relevant information. 

Also, you are likely to have worked somewhere, which makes you an expert in that particular field. So, you can become an instructional designer who specializes in that sphere. Let’s suppose you used to build cars. Imagine how preferable you would look among other learning designers who don’t have such experience and apply for an ID job at Mercedes or Volkswagen. Study ID theory, practice, network, and you’ll be great.

No matter which path you take, following these steps will be of great help:

Step 1: Study ID Models, Theories, and Strategies

Let’s say you’ve realized that your dream is to become an instructional designer and you want to make it come true as quickly as possible. The first thing you need to do is learn the basics of eLearning, study instructional design models, theories, and strategies, and get certifications to prove your competence. There are two basic ways to do that: university programs and nonacademic courses.

The best instructional design university programs

Check out these five university programs. All of them are focused on innovative eLearning approaches and modern technologies, methods, and techniques.

  1. Indiana University Bloomington: Instructional Systems Technology
  2. Florida State University: Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies
  3. University of Georgia: Educational Psychology
  4. Purdue University: Learning Design and Technology
  5. Michigan State University: Educational Psychology and Technology

The best instructional design courses

If you don’t feel like taking a full-fledged master’s program, you can take an online course. We’ve collected five great instructional design courses for you to check out. If you want to learn more about each of them and see some other courses, check our article.

  1. IDOL Courses (Instructional Design Academy)
  2. Instructional Design Certificate – 4 courses (University of Wisconsin-Stout)
  3. Learning Design and Technology Graduate Certificate (Harvard Extension School)
  4. MicroMasters Program in Instructional Design and Technology (University of Maryland)
  5. Learning to Teach Online (Coursera)

Instructional design models

For those who want to study instructional design theory on their own, we’ve prepared the basic info on various ID models. Check them out:

ADDIE Model

The first handy design tool you should have in your eLearning arsenal is the ADDIE framework.

ADDIE Model

The ADDIE model has been around since the 70s and tackles the five stages each eLearning project goes through (which gives rise to the acronym). They are:

  • Analysis. In the analysis phase, you need to clarify at least two things. Who is your target audience, and what should they know or be able to do after completing the course?
  • Design. Now that it’s clear who you’ll train and what knowledge they should get, you need to understand how. Which instructional methods, activities, textual content, and media assets will you use to create a killer learning experience?
  • Development. Now it’s time to translate all this into reality. You need to storyboard the text, produce graphics and videos, and develop the learning interactions outlined in the design stage. Then, gather all the content and start building a course. This can be a challenging and time-consuming phase, but authoring tools can make your job quicker and easier. 
  • Implementation. This is the phase where the course goes live. Since it’s ready now, share it with your learners. For example, you can deliver a course right to the LMS that they use.
  • Evaluation. Since evaluation can help make training even better, it’s crucial to gather learners’ feedback. You need to find out what works, and what should be improved.

Make sure to read about the ADDIE model in more detail.

SAM (Successive Approximations Model)

The SAM model is a more recent instructional design model, created by eLearning pioneer Michael Allen. It’s built to help you design meaningful, memorable, and motivational learning experiences. 

The SAM model is an alternative to the ADDIE model and aims to fix some limitations of its predecessor. The main difference is probably that, with the SAM model, there’s more creativity and freedom in the project creation process, while ADDIE has a strict structure that makes you follow each step. Here’s how you’ll create your eLearning project if you choose SAM:

SAM (Successive Approximations Model)
  • Preparation Phase

Collect background information on learners’ prior knowledge, weaknesses, strengths, and other factors. Brainstorm ideas on every aspect of your project. By the end of this phase, you are to come up with a potential design for every content area.

  • Iterative Design Phase

Design and prototype your project and send it to other people for review. Based on the feedback, fix the weaknesses.

  • Iterative Development Phase

Finish your online course and implement it. Collect feedback from your learners, evaluate the training program, and fix issues if necessary by returning to the iterative design phase.

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction, when used together, form a framework for a successful learning process. The idea is that once you complete each step, your learners are likely to be more engaged in learning and subsequently retain new knowledge and skills. Consider these events when designing an eLearning course:

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction

Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Training Evaluation Model

Don Kirkpatrick suggests 4 levels of training evaluation: Reaction, Learning, Impact, and Results.

Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Training Evaluation Model

Here’s what to do if you decide to evaluate your course with this model:

Level 1: Reaction

Collect learners’ feedback on the course.

Level 2: Learning

Measure how much new knowledge learners gained from your course.

Level 3: Impact

Assess how much an employee’s behavior changed after the training program.

Level 4: Results

Analyze quality, efficiency, productivity, and customer satisfaction ratings to evaluate the overall impact of your course on the organization.

Make sure to learn about this and other training evaluation models.

The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy

The original Bloom’s taxonomy included these 6 categories:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

However, in 2001, a group of cognitive psychologists and education specialists offered a revision of this taxonomy that proved to be more effective. Instead of nouns used by Benjamin Bloom, they used action words – verbs and gerunds – that describe the learner’s cognitive processes. They also changed the sequence and replaced the “Synthesis” category with the “Create” step. Check it out:

The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy

1. Remember

Recall facts and basic concepts.

Define, duplicate, list, memorize, repeat, state.

2. Understand

Explain ideas or concepts.

Describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate.

3. Apply

Use information in new situations.

Execute, implement, solve, use, demonstrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch.

4. Analyze

Establish connections among ideas.

Differentiate, organize, relate, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test.

5. Evaluate

Justify a stand or decision.

Appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, critique, weigh.

6. Create

Produce original work.

Design, assemble, construct, conjecture, develop, formulate, author.

Waterfall Model

The Waterfall model is a sequential linear adaptation of the ADDIE model that includes these 6 steps: feasibility, analysis, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance.

Waterfall Model

The model is based on the idea that each following step is easier than the previous one, as is the case with a waterfall: water falls faster and faster until it hits the ground. The course development happens quickly because once you finish a step, you don’t come back to it, so you don’t spend extra time running through content, visuals, and other project components. However, this might affect the overall course quality.

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

David Merrill suggested 5 instructional design principles that will help you create a truly effective learning experience:

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

Principle 1: Problem-Centered

Engage learners by letting them solve real-world problems:

  • Show an example of the task that learners will perform.
  • Make sure learners understand what they are going to do and are interested in the task.
  • Provide learners with a basic problem, then give them a complex real-life problem to solve.

Principle 2: Activation

Activate learners’ existing knowledge and use it as a foundation for new knowledge. Ask them about their relevant experience and knowledge, and make up examples and tasks that connect both with these experiences and new information.

Principle 3: Demonstration

Learners need to see everything: learning outcomes, new knowledge application examples, etc. Your task is to show it to them using media that will engage them.

Principle 4: Application

Let learners apply what they’ve learned. Provide them with guidance on how to use new knowledge and skills, and give them an opportunity to practice them.

Principle 5: Integration

Help learners integrate new knowledge into their world. In order to do this, let them demonstrate new skills to others, reflect on them, and encourage learners to transfer what they have learned into their lives.

AGILE

AGILE is another course development model that focuses on one eLearning module at a time. You move to the next one only after you’ve finished the previous one. This results in a higher quality course because you pay more attention to details in each segment.

AGILE Model

So, here’s what you should do according to the AGILE model:

Align

Set goals and objectives.

Get Set

Plan how you are going to develop your eLearning project.

Iterate and implement

Develop the project following the plan.

Deploy

Test the module.

Evaluate

Collect feedback, analyze, and assess the module. Fix any issues.

Step 2. Explore the Psychology Behind Learning Behaviors

If you want to deliver good knowledge and skills, and keep your learners engaged and motivated, you need to understand them. Realize how they absorb the information, what drives them to better learning results, and, conversely, what can be a distraction. 

If you’re going to promote training in the workplace, start exploring the psychology and behaviors of the average adult learner. Of course, there’s no single learning approach that works for everyone, though there are some generic aspects common to all people that you should know about:

  • Adult learners have a wealth of experience to draw on when learning and they want their voices heard. 
  • They learn best when there are opportunities to self-reflect and internalize the learning. 
  • They aren’t used to receiving direction in education and want to be respected for their experience. Ideally, they want to contribute their experience and wisdom when in a learning environment, rather than just absorbing content. 
  • Adult learners need a purpose or motivation for learning. It might be that learning a framework can make a process more efficient and/or the learning might help them achieve goals – ranging from realizing personal achievements to improving in their current role, or even preparing for a new role. 
  • They want their ideas and learning needs to be incorporated into the process; they want to be involved. 
  • Many adult learners are self-directed, meaning they like to learn independently in a self-paced environment.
  • They don’t have a lot of extra time in their day or life for learning and prefer chunks/bursts of learning (microlearning) and individualized training. They are more motivated to learn if they have quick wins by completing learning rapidly. 

To delve deeper into how adults learn, you can also explore existing adult learning theories, including Transformational, Experiential, and Individualized (Centric) learning, as well as Andragogy

Step 3. Choose the eLearning Tool for the Current and Specific Use

So, now you’ve got the necessary theoretical ID background. If you’re hoping to move further toward a career as an instructional designer, you need to gain some technical skills. You can start by studying our list of 50+ tools for instructional designers. Of course, you might not need them all, but you’ll be able to choose one or more tools for your current tasks.

For example, you might try iSpring Suite. This is an authoring toolkit that allows you to build interactive courses containing different types of eLearning content quickly and easily. You can enhance slides with tests and drag-and-drop activities, add video and audio narrations, build realistic dialogue simulations, and record and fine-tune screencasts and training videos with the integrated video studio.

Experience this eLearning demo to see what a course created with iSpring Suite looks like:

If this kind of content is exactly what you need, our guide on how to create online eLearning courses and Michael Sheyahshe’s webinars will walk you through the whole process.

Still not sure? Explore some other amazing courses made with iSpring Suite or download a free 14-day trial and test drive all the features right now.

Step 4. Make eLearning Samples and Create an ID Portfolio

The next important step you need to take is to start practicing. Armed with all the necessary theoretical knowledge and an authoring tool, you can start creating sample e-courses. And why not present some of your samples in your resume?

Having a good ID portfolio is the quickest way to get the job you’re dreaming about. It’ll provide your potential employers with an overview of your skills, educational background, creative abilities, and subject matter expertise. Check out some tips from Christy Tucker, Learning Experience Design Consultant and the owner of Syniad Learning, LLC:

Tips for making eLearning samples

  • Make it short. Most prospective employers won’t sit through a 30-minute module. Just include an interesting snippet that can be reviewed in under 5 minutes. A sample might be just a few slides, or even a single interaction that shows off your skills. 
  • Pick a topic you know or can research online. Topics like time management, handling customer objections, or software demos don’t require much specialized knowledge. Topics related to workplace training are more effective as portfolio samples than overly simple topics like “how to make a sandwich.”
  • Don’t focus only on visuals and interactions. Think about the learning objectives and show off your instructional design skills, not just flashy development skills.

Tips for creating an instructional design portfolio

  • Include eLearning samples with descriptions. Describe your process and explain why you chose that approach. 
  • Focus on what you want to do. For example, if you love creating software training, include software simulations and quick reference guides.
  • Mention only relevant information. If you can’t stand working with a particular tool, don’t include those samples in your portfolio. Also, those who want to develop in workplace training should avoid examples aimed at children and add samples that are relevant for adults.
  • Create your personal website. Of course, you can use various portfolio website builders, but, in my experience, the ideal solution is a personal website with a custom domain. When you own your own site, you have control over everything: how it looks and what you include.

Check out our step-by-step guide on building an instructional design portfolio. And take a look at these portfolio examples to get ideas on how to create your own personal portfolio.

Step 5. Learn from Other Instructional Designers’ Experiences

Another vastly important piece of this puzzle is the human element. To become a good instructional designer and develop in your profession continuously, you need to learn from those who walked a similar path and came out on top. There are 3 principal ways to do this:

  1. Read instructional design books
  2. Watch instructional design videos
  3. Follow instructional design blogs and websites

We’ve compiled the top lists for each of these resources. They all give insights on how to create better learning experiences, use authoring tools, and manage eLearning projects. Check them out!

Step 6: Prepare for the Job Interview

At some point, you’ll need to go to a job interview, where a hiring manager will decide whether you’re the right fit based on your answers. So, you’ll need to be prepared. Here’s what a hiring manager needs to know about you:

  • If you know instructional design theories, models, and strategies, and can apply them
  • What work experience you have (if any)
  • What tools you can use
  • How well you understand the specifics of the company and its learning needs
  • If you’re a pleasant person to work with (your communication skills, interpersonal skills, and overall EQ – level of emotional intelligence)

If you want to learn more, read our article on 11 instructional design interview questions and how to answer them.

Step 7. Keep apace with Instructional Design and eLearning Trends

 

An instructional designer should always stay up to date with two things: trends in instructional design and trends in eLearning technology. In fact, it’s hard to separate them, since they are interdependent. However, the first is more about popular approaches to ID like video-based learning or mobile learning, while the second is focused on emergent technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

When keeping updated on ID and eLearning trends, you may look into new areas and skills that you want to upgrade and find new ways to make learning experiences even better.

Jeff Dalto, Senior L&D Specialist at Convergence Training

There are four sources of “trendy” knowledge you shouldn’t ignore:

  • The simplest thing you can do is to find experts in the field in social media, including LinkedIn and Twitter, and keep up with what they’re posting about. 
  • Join professional organizations such as ATD and eLearning Guild. Follow them on social media and read their websites.
  • Attend conferences in the eLearning and training industry, where you can meet other professionals.  Watch their informational presentations and see their product demos. 
  • Create a “community of practice” with like-minded coworkers or eLearning professionals in your area. Have regular meetings or webinars to discuss ideas, books, trends, and new products, and help one another keep abreast of what’s what. 

You may try all this, but you need to be wary of marketing hype and the seductive qualities of the latest new things. There are a lot of unfounded learning myths out there already, and excitement over the newest trend has a tendency to add to that. 

So be open-minded to new trends, but also be skeptical; make sure the claims line up with what you know about how people learn and look for supporting data. Learning researchers like Dr. Will Thalheimer (and others) are great at helping you separate what’s real from what’s snake oil in the learning profession.


A career in instructional design is exciting, but beginnings can be difficult and confusing. We hope our guide will help you start your career and move toward the top of your field, step by step. Remember to download our Instructional Designer’s notebook, a collection of interactive guides, checklists, and tips you’ll need in your new profession.

Good luck!

Takeaways

  • Learning about different ID models and strategies will serve as the backbone of your online courses and will help you create engaging content.
  • Studying the psychology and behaviors of the adult learner and exploring learning theories will help you provide your audience with the most meaningful and memorable eLearning experiences.
  • Along with a theoretical ID background, you need to gain some technical skills and choose eLearning tools that meet your requirements. 
  • Your ID portfolio should ideally be focused on the particular kind of work you want to do, and include eLearning samples with descriptions.
  • Following some of the top instructional designers’ blogs is an effective way to expand your knowledge of ID.
  • When keeping up with ID and eLearning trends, look into new areas and skills that you want to upgrade and find new ways to make learning experiences even better.

Useful Resources

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