Instructional Design Mistakes to Avoid

By 21/05/2018 December 2nd, 2019 Education, Pedagogy, Professional Development

Mistakes to Avoid in Curriculum Design

There are instructional design mistakes that we can avoid when designing our curriculum. These pitfalls range from doing the same thing all the time (in a curriculum planning context) to putting too much text on a screen (in a curriculum content context).

In this post I have planned for two main sections. In the first section I’ll look at five major mistakes we can make when planning our curriculum, and in the second section I’ll look at five major mistakes we can make when constructing our content. And the for the duration of the post, I’ll try not to be found guilty of any of the mistakes I’m discussing!

Design Mistake #1: Not Having a Plan

This one might sound like common sense, but it is our number one mistake, so let’s deal with it. But before I do, really? How can a teacher enter a room without a plan of what they’re going to do in the lesson? Even in my time as a substitute teacher, this only really happened when the teacher was off ill and I was a last second stand-in. And even then, material would be sourced pretty quickly.

Regardless of that, not having a plan is our number 1 mistake, so you have been warned – avoid at all costs! But Michael, how do we do that exactly? I hear you ask…

This will ultimately happen in your content analysis. This is the first thing we should be doing while developing any curriculum. Proper analysis is critical for an eLearning course as we decide the learning strategy based on the content type. When the analysis is not completed accurately, the learning strategy runs a higher risk of be decided incorrectly. Making an effort in understanding the content before developing the course will save everyone a lot of time, frustration and annoyance.

Design Mistake #2: Always Doing the Same Thing

This can start from a position of good intentions. When we stick to one tried and trusted method because ‘it works’ then we rob our students of a varied learning programme and we deny some of our students the opportunity to learn in a manner that suits their learning style best.

How this looks of course, will depend on the teacher. For some, we’ll call them ‘the photocopying monarch‘ (to avoid gender stereotypes, but I’ve only seen women do this in my own experience – male teachers just maybe weren’t that organised). This type of learning is understandable from the teachers’ point of view, as they can ensure the salient material is covered. But look at this from the students’ perspective. They know from the very beginning exactly what they’re going to get-repetitive lessons following the same formula.

Another stereotype I would include here is the ‘overkill by lecture‘. I would be guilty of this in some respects as I teach in Higher Education, but, as with the photocopying monarch, it has its’ place where it can be useful – but in moderation. In my own teaching I would be conscious that when I start talking about a topic, because there may be so much material to cover, and because I get so involved in talking about my material, a five minute instructional talk can easily become a 40 minute speech. Luckily, this is something I am aware of and working towards resolving this before boredom sets in.

In primary schools (more than post-primary or tertiary education) there is also the ‘learning by chaos‘ approach. You can usually find this in the younger classrooms, where the formalised curriculum hasn’t really set in yet – and I am trying to not let any personal bias creep in, but sometimes the classroom can be a bit chaotic because children are doing different tasks and the teacher is trying to manage all these spinning plates at once, while also responding to organisational tasks – email, phone calls etc. No own wins, because multi-tasking doesn’t exist – we are fooling ourselves into believing that we can get multiple tasks completed at the same time and to the same level of excellence, when we can’t, no one can.


Design Mistake #3: Technology

Before I go into this section, I need to make a declaration: I am a computing lecturer, I am also the course director for the Foundation Degree programme in Computing for the Northern Regional College. I love technology and what it can do for us, and what we can do with it, but it is not a cure-all solution for all our educational, societal, cultural issues. It has its’ place in education, but while it is rightly prominent, I do not believe everything should be accomplished through technology.

Having said all that, using technology in education needs to be carefully planned out and mapped very closely to the learning outcomes. There should never be a replication of work – I’ve definitely done it when I worked in primary education: “you’ve completed that letter in your workbook, now type it up on the computer.” This type of work is just busy work – the pupil has completed the task and to keep them out of your face/hair you get them to redo the work in a different medium, but they’re not actually learning something (unless you’ve previously taught them to type properly and this is additional practice, which I will equally – and correctly – be very cynical about, because no one teaches typing skills). There are multiple variations of this type of activity, but you get the idea.

More generally, someone also thought that we won’t need as many teachers because computers can teach us. I’m still waiting for the day when AI is human enough to replace teaching staff, but we diminish teaching expertise when we ignore experts in their own respective fields. I’ve had business owners tell me they can create just as good a website as me (so why should they hire me when they can do it for free?) but this type of thinking ignores the level of expertise at our disposal – we choose an expert because of their accumulated knowledge an d skill in that field. We have top schools and top universities because they have the best teachers/lecturers and we want to assimilate that knowledge and expertise into our own learning and professional practice.

The same is true in instructional design, when we learn that it is by a mixture of good methods that incorporates a varied learning approach, we learn that technology can enhance student learning – but is cannot replace good teaching wholesale, as to solely rely on technology reduces the opportunity for learning.

Having dealt with the negative aspects of using technology, there are of course many positives. When using in the expectation that learning will occur, technology can enhance the educational experience. There are millions of resources that we can use (by people better qualified that us) to talk about a topic they will have a higher level of expertise in. This will enhance our planning as it incorporates a varied approach and shows our students that ultimately, we are all learning.



Design Mistake #4: Projects

Connected to this mistake, is the context that we give the students a project. Not one connected to problem-solving or any other 21st Century Learning skill, just a project. This is similar to the idea of giving students busy-work. Work that is not directed at increasing or improving their learning, but rather something that will keep them busy and away from us while we complete a task that is pertinent to teachers keeping on top of some other admin-related task.

But let’s be clear – projects that are structured properly, with clear learning objectives and creating an intentional environment in which the student can be challenged and their learning expanded and questioned in a way that develops new skills and methods of questioning, problem solving and creativity are to be encouraged (but keeping check with mistake #2).

Design Mistake #5: Read the Textbook

Textbooks are great.

They have all the information you need to understand the course and will give some nice examples with pretty pictures and cool takeaway statements that have been carefully crafted to be memorable.


  1. they’re ten years old (if you’re lucky)
  2. are annotated heavily (and usually are not helpful or pleasant)
  3. they reference websites which don’t exist anymore (if they reference websites at all)
  4. they reference really old websites (Ask Jeeves anyone?)
  5. They can’t be updated, therefore are likely out of date.
  6. they are missing the important pages (because  of point 1, and because you can’t guarantee everyone will look after them)

Oh and:

  1. they don’t take into consideration different learning styles
  2. they encourage lazy teaching (“I’ve covered everything in the textbook, therefore I’ve taught this topic)
  3. they encourage a stagnant curriculum (why change when all we need is in the textbook?
  4. they don’t ensure student learning
  5. students don’t always use them
  6. publishers will encourage their use for sales purposes (and not educational ones)
  7. they’re really expensive


In short, over-reliance on teaching from the textbook ensures student boredom, teacher creative stagnation and you’re also guilty of mistake #2 – always doing the same thing.

Think a little, design something that encourages creativity – including your own. Your students might just love it.

Mistakes to Avoid In Curriculum Content

Having addressed potential mistakes that we can make within our curriculum design, I’ll now look at potential mistakes we can make with our curriculum content. These again can have good intentions and start from a position of wanting to deliver the appropriate content,, but when taken to excess can become a negative element within any curriculum.

Content Mistake #1: Too Many Words

We’ve all been here, trying to read a document that is Times New Roman, size 12 font, single line spaced and A4 top to bottom text. This is even worse on a screen. There is a point in which reading across the screen too far means the reader will find it almost impossible to read with any type of flow when they have to move to the next line.

This will equally apply on the amount of text you use in a section. Too much text on every page (which ties in with always doing the same thing) will be heavy going for any student, even those who do favour a text-based learning style.

Curriculum content needs to be designed while paying very close attention to the Cognitive Load Theory. This suggests that learners can absorb and retain information, but only if their mental capacities are not overloaded. If a course floods the learner’s mind with a lot of information written on text-heavy pages, then the cognitive load on the learner is obvious. No one responds well to curriculum content where they feel like they’re being bombarded by too much information.

Well-built courses will avoid including irrelevant information and will breakup complex concepts into much smaller, easier digestible sections that are paragraphed or presented using bullet points. Rather than simply summarising the information, the course should aim to provide a pleasant learning experience and retain the learner’s attention throughout.

Content Mistake #2: Images

Let’s be very clear at the outset here, I’m not saying that images are the mistake, but rather how they are used:

  1. It’s a mistake to have an imbalance between text and images – too much of either is to be avoided.
  2. Irrelevant images – there should be an element of common sense here, but images should enhance what is being said in the text.
  3. Low quality images – there really is no excuse here. Whether you use carefully selected stock imagery (see point two) or pay for them via a photography platform, low quality, pixellated or stretched images should not be visible anywhere.

The course you are planning should be of the highest quality you can produce with the resources available to you. There lots of free sites that you can use to improve the quality of what you present. For stock imagery, I will use Pexels. For producing quick high quality documents, I will use Canva. When I have a bit more time to spend on producing an image, I will use Photoshop or Illustrator, but Canva can help you get round the design issues as they provide great templates which you can use to improve the layout of a document.

Content Mistake #3: Focusing too much on technology.

This might seem like a surprising instructional design mistake to list, coming from a computing lecturer, who has been a big supporter of integrating technology into education. But like all things, the plan needs to be executed correctly and to a high standard.

Technology should be used like any educational tool, with a specific educational goal, purposed to involve the student in the learning process and to enhance the learning process for the student.

Ask me about integrating technology into education, and what I’m working on, and I’ll talk to you for hours about Microsoft Teams; online learning; video lessons and how to use social media in education.

Ask me about using iPads in the classroom and you’ll receive a one word answer: “don’t.” Do not misunderstand me, I think iPads are great, you can use them to learn and there are a great number of educational apps that are really great, but the iPad is first and foremost a device for consuming technology, not for creating it. Watch any child on them, they’ll largely be passive: press this button, watch this video, play this game. This is not what I would encourage as a supporter of technology enhanced learning, or for any type of learning. We should encourage learners to be present in their education, questioning of what is presented to them, involved in the learning process and above all they should be actively engaged with the material, not mindlessly accepting what is playing in front of them.

Content Mistake #4: Imitating traditional classroom training in eLearning.

This is part of the eLearning historical journey. We were able to put learning material online and because of how we have been conditioned to learn according to the Victorian classroom model, we recreated this model electronically.

But we grew.

We learned that we could question what was done before and that recreating a model that didn’t work for a large number of learners could be changed for their benefit.

More importantly, classroom training and eLearning are two completely different methods of imparting training and skills to the learners: the nature of training, methodologies, and learner expectations are completely different in these two methods. While eLearning has adopted many features from classroom training, it has some unique attributes which should be leveraged to offer effective training. By using an eLearning course structure, you can offer a personalised learning experience, tell stories, and engage learners through the use of audio and video.

Content Mistake #5: Not paying attention to the emotional journey of the learner.

Emotional design is an upcoming trend in eLearning.

It says that through the use of right instruction strategies and creative design, eLearning courses can develop a connection with the learners.  Completion rate is one of the largest problems in eLearning (completion rate in MOOCs is rated at 5% by and 7% by THE in courses that are marked automatically, but under 5% for courses that require some form of peer assessment).

When the learner is emotionally connected with the courses, he/ she will better comprehend the concepts and the chances of successful completion will increase.


So there is our whistle stop tour of the instructional design mistakes we can make in designing our curricula and also the mistakes we can make in our content.

This article may seem a bit bleak, because I’ve gone and shone a big light on everything that can go wrong, but sometimes, by understanding this, we can increase our chances of success by simply not doing something we know to be wrong – like overloading our PowerPoint slides. We might suddenly have 48 slides instead of 20, but the learner will be much more open to those greater number of slides because the brain is not being overloaded with textual information in a shorter space of time.

There is a lot than we can get wrong, and do get wrong as educators, but by using a pedagogical framework, we can potentially limit how much error can creep in and that is always a good thing.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

One Comment

  • Edwin Nava says:

    Greetings Michael.

    I have read your article and I think it is excellent, I would like to translate it into Spanish and share it on our blog, we will respect all your copyright and linking to your profile.

    I await your response in this regard.

    Atte. Edwin Nava

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