Systematic Instructional Design – Part One


And we’re back to Instructional Design! There is something that keeps drawing me back to this topic! As much as I might be loathe to admit it, a lecturer during my teacher training must’ve have sown a seed about curriculum design…however I know Instructional Design as a topic was never discussed, the work of Robert Gagne was, and so here we are nearly fifteen years later!

In this post, I’m looking again at Instructional Design  and specifically the Dick & Carey model. This is based upon research into the learning process which sets out a series of steps that begins with analysis and ends with assessment. There is also a revision of the design system to further improve  what is delivered.

I will be splitting the post into two as there is quite a lot of content, and so the material will work better being packaged in smaller sections.

In this post I’ll be looking at points 1-6:

  1. Introduction to Instructional Design
  2. Assessing Needs to Identify Instructional Goals
  3. Conducting a Goal Analysis
  4. Identifying Subordinate Skills and Entry Behaviours
  5. Analysing Learners and Contexts
  6. Writing Performance Objectives

In the next post (which will be linked at the bottom of the page) I’ll be looking at the second set of points in the process:

  1. Developing Assessment Instruments
  2. Developing an Instructional Strategy
  3. Developing Instructional Materials
  4. Designing and Conducting Formative Evaluations
  5. Revising Instructional Materials
  6. Designing and Conducting Summative Evaluations

1. Introduction to Instructional Design

In this section: What is Instructional Design?

As with many posts on this site, I’m starting with a definition of what instructional design is, so that we all know what it is I’m specifically talking about, but also to avoid confusion over any ideas other people might have about Instructional Design. I’m definitely not saying they’re wrong, but rather that this is the parameters I’m working under.

Berger & Cam (1996) state that “Instructional Design is the systematic development of instructional specifications using learning and instructional theory to ensure the quality of instruction. It is the entire process of analysis of learning needs and goals and the development of a delivery system to meet those needs.”

Kearsley & Culatta (2016) have commented that “the process by which instruction is improved through the analysis of learning needs and systematic development of learning experiences. Instructional designers often use technology and multimedia as tools to enhance instruction.”

Whereas Reiser and Dempsey (2007) have defined Instructional Design as “a systematic process that is employed to develop education and training programs in a consistent and reliable fashion.”

My definition will draw on these and define instructional design as: the process of learning in which an empirical process is undertaken to analyse the needs of the learner; creating a systematic learning process and drawing upon the capabilities of technology and multimedia to enhance instruction and to create a set of learning experiences that will specifically meet the needs of the learner.

Assessing Needs:

When we are assessing the needs of the student, this can take a few paths in our brainstorming:

  1. What do we need for the student to succeed?
  2. What does the student need (thinking about additional needs of any sort: this could be software, new learning, or additional support because of pre-existing learning or medical diagnosis)
  3. What do we want the student to know?

Clarifying Goals:

This particularly  relates to fuzzy, or unclear learning goals, which will include phrases like: “increase awareness of,” “understand” and “appreciate.” A quick way of understanding this section is in relation to the goals you have and what you want the student to be able to do. The process of clarifying goals is intended to see the removal of these words, so that the goals are clear and measurable. This could be carried out by deciding what you want the student to be able to do or demonstrate at the end of the module (build a database, website or spell a word with 100% accuracy, for example). You then work out how the student will display this ability but also how you are going to mesure this demonstration of ability. The next step then focuses on the content you will teach in order for the student to be able to succeed in the assessment. This will then allow you to to construct an accurate and active learning goal. Effectively, you are designing a curriculum backwards: you start with what you want the student to be able to do and work backwards. In can sound counter-intuitive, but does show potential areas of curricular weakness, as well as specifically allowing you to have a clear vision of what “good” looks like. When you know what your destination looks like, getting there is somewhat easier.

Dick & Carey (1996) have commented that a goal statement should include a short description or statement of:

  • the learner;what learners will know and be able to do;
  • the context in which the skills and knowledge will be applied (that provides a rationale for why achievement of the goal is important);
  • the tools that will be available to the learners.

Establishment Criteria:

This relates to what is needed to get started: finances, time constraints (for both the development and implementation of the curriculum), the need for instruction, the currency and stability of the subject, organisational goals and other political/cultural elements that may affect the degree of instruction.

These goals may all be affected, determined and decided upon by another source – especially within a hierarchical organisation, like businesses, were final decisions may not be made by the person delivering the training.

2. Assessing Needs to Identify Instructional Goals

In this section: Assessing Needs; Clarifying Goals; Establishment Criteria; Performance Analysis

3. Conducting a Goal Analysis

In this section: Goal Analysis, Classification, Performance Description.

Goal Analysis:

This is the process of determining the major aspects of the instructional goal.It solely focuses on the question: “What skills would a person be demonstrating if they could already perform the goal?” Goal analysis is broken down into two steps: 1) the classification of the goal statement and 2) the description of what a student will be doing when they are performing the goal.


The first step of a goal analysis requires the goal statement to be categorised within Gagne’s four domains of learning, which are as follows:
  1. Psychomotor Skills – skills that involve muscular actions, with or without equipment.
  2. Intellectual Skills – skills that involve cognitive activity such as discrimination, concepts forming, application of rules, or problem solving.
  3. Verbal Information – skills that involve specific responses to stimuli such as stating or listing.
  4. Attitudinal Skills – skills that involve making particular decisions or making choices under certain circumstances.

Performance Description:

Quite simply, this is a description of what th student will be doing while performing the goal. It is best to think of this in a step-by-step manner. For younger children (i.e. the lower end of the primary sector) these steps should be more precise to encourage accuracy in learning. However, this can equally apply to older learners; from personal experience of teaching adult learners, becuse of the increasaed age, maturity and level of application, they can progress through the steps at a quicker rate. This aso has the nice by-product of achieving greater confidence in what they have learned, particularly if it is a new concept or skill that is far from their comfort zone.

For older learners, the steps can also be more complex, as well as having a greater number of steps to achieve the goal in question.

This step of the goal analysis is best designed through the use of flowcharts, with each block containing a verb or observable behaviour. These steps will then be broken down into subordinate steps.

Subordinate Skills Analysis:

Due to the complexity of an instructional analysis (the identification of all the skills and knowledge to be included in the instruction), it is broken into two steps: (1) Goal analysis and (2) subordinate skills analysis.
Subordinate skills analysis is the process in which each individual step is examined and focused around the question: “What should a student already know or be able to do, before they learn to perform the goal?”
The subordinate skills analysis is broken into two steps: (1) the identification and analysis of the subordinate skills, and (2) the identification of the required entry behaviours

Techniques for Different Domains:

There are several types of techniques that can be used in the identification and analysis phase and in this section, I’m going to focus on three techniques for conducting the first step of a subordinate skills analaysis:

  1. The Hierarchical Approach
  2. The Cluster Analysis
  3. The Instructional Analysis for Attitude Goals

Entry Behaviour Identification:

Entry behaviours, are skills that the learner requires before instruction begins and are identified through the reduction of the subordinate skills to basic performance skills. The process of  behaviour idenitfication is as follows:

  1. Examine the subordinate skills results analysis for the majority of skills that most learners will have already mastered prior to the commencement of instruction. A line can be drawn under these skills, but this needs to be precise, because if the line is too low, then the instruction will be inefficient, but if it is too high, then the learning will be ineffective.
  2. When identifying entry behaviour, there should be a consideration of the relationship between the target population and the instruction. If a specific group is to be taught in a course, then the entry behaviour is more likely to need fine-tuning and individualisation according to the needs of the group of learners.

4. Identifying Subordinate Skills and Entry Behaviours

In this section: Subordinate Skills Analysis, Techniques for Different Domains, Entry Behaviour Identification.

5. Analysing Learners and Contexts

In this section: Learner Characteristics, Context Analysis of Performance Setting, Context Analysis of Learning Environment.

Learner Characteristics:

In this section, we identify the learner characteristics, and the learning contexts in which the instruction will be delivered and applied. This will occur concurrently with the instructional analysis. This analysis stage serves a number of purposes:
  • to identify the variables that may/can affect learner achievement,
  • to provide the curriculum designer with an opportunity to understand as much information about the curriculum content that is being taught and how it will be used,
  • to ensure that an appropriate level of instruction is being used.

There are eight learner characteristics that are analysed in this section:

  1. Entry behaviours
  2. Prior knowledge of the topic
  3. Attitude towards content and potential delivery system
  4. Academic motivation
  5. Educational and ability lelvels
  6. General learnign preferences
  7. Attitudes towards the organisation
  8. Group characteristics

Context Analysis of Performance Setting:

The characteristics of the educational setting in which the skills and knowledge will be used are analysed. This analysis is performed in order to provide the designer with a description of the environment where the skills will be used, as well as a list of factors that may assist or restrict the use of the skills. The areas analysed include:

  1. Managerial or Supervisor support
  2. Physical aspects to the site
  3. Social aspects of the site
  4. Relevance of skills to the workplace

Context Analysis of Learning Environment:

The two main aspects of this analysis (what is and what should be) include the following:

  • Compatability of the site with instructional mandates
  • Adaptability of the site to simulate the workplace
  • Adaptability of the site for delivery approaches
  • Constraints of the educational site that affect design and delivery of learning

Research shows that students who have been presented with behavioural objectives (which are also known as performance or instructional objectives) before instruction commences, have a slight but a significant advantage over those who have not ben presented with behavioural objectives. Performance objectives – which are detailed descriptions of what students should do when they have completed a unit of instruction – are also important in guiding the designer in selecting content and developing the instructional strategy and assessment process; furthermore, they also aid in many other areas of the instructional process.

There are two types of performance objectives:

  1. The instructional goal. This describes what the learners will be able to do at the end of the instruction, is converted into the terminal objective (which is more specific than the broad goal).
  2. Similarly, subordinate skills are converted into subordinate objectives (the stepping-stones that move towards the terminal objective).

Components of Performance Objectives:

Robert Mager’s three-component model for an objective, which is the standard model used in instructional design, is composed of the following stages:

  1. The Skill or Behaviour is identified during analysis and is expressed precisely using action verbs. The behavior should be observable, and if it is intellectual or verbal, the intent of the behaviour must be stated as well.
  2. The Conditions under which the performance occurs can include: a cue or stimulus used by the learners; the characteristics of the resource materials required for performance; and the scope or complexity of the task. Each type of behavior requires attention to specific areas.
  3. The Criteria used to evaluate performance, which include areas such as the level of accuracy that is needed.

It is important to note here that the objectives used may meet all of the above criteria but still not be adequate. All three components must be specific rather than general or universal (which returns us to point 1.

Steps for Writing Objectives:

The process for writing performance objectives is as follows:

  1. Edit the goal statement as needed to reflect the eventual performance context.
  2. Write the terminal objective to reflect context of learning environment.
  3. Write the objectives for each step in the goal analysis for which there are no substeps shown.
  4. Write the objectives that reflect the substeps in one major objective, or write individual objectives for each substep.
  5. Write the objectives for all subordinate skills.
  6. Write the objectives for entry behaviours if some students are likely not to possess them.

Evaluating Objectives:

An effective way to evaluate an objective is to construct a test item for that objective; if it is difficult to do this, then the objective may need to be revised – as the learner may not be able to achieve it. When evaluating the objective, the criterion itself must be scrutinised and tested in order for it to be considered a valid learning objective.

6. Writing Performance Objectives

In this section: Components of Performance Objectives, Steps for Writing Objectives, Evaluating Objectives.

In Conclusion

In this post we covered six main points.

The first was a straightforward (but brief) introduction to instuctional design; the second point was how we can assess the needs of the learner to identify instructional goals; the third point explained how to conduct a goal analysis; the fourth point examined how to identify the subordinate skills and entry level behaviours; the fifth point explored why we need to analyse learners, their characteristics and the contexts in which learning will occur; finally in point six, we wrote our performance objectives andset out the steps needed to write and evaluate these objectives.

To conclude this first half of the post on the systematic nature of Instructional Design, it is entirely possible to scientifically design for learning. The most important part of starting, is having a clear understanding of where you want to finish. When we know this, the journey is so much easier because we know what our final destination is supposed to look like.

If you are travelling to another location (let’s say from Belfast to New York), if we know what New York looks like and have a clear understanding of what the destination should include (let’s say a sign that says “Welcome to New York” and a person speaking with an American accent), then we can clearly evaluate if we have arrived at our destination. If we arrive at New York, see the sign and hear the accent, then we have achieved our goal. If we see a sign that welcomes us to Amsterdam and hear a Dutch accent, then we may have taken a wrong turn at some point or may have not yet reached our detination.

The example may have been obvious, but that was intentional – our learning goals should be intentional, obvious and clear for our learners. We need to show clearly what success looks like to give them the clearest opportunity to achieve it. This of course does not mean we make it easy, but the task can still be simple (regardless of any potential complexity). The learner should be able to verbalise the goal – if they can’t, then we haven’t been successful in our job.

One of my main teaching beliefs is that if the learner hasn’t learned then I haven’t taught (this belief assumes the learner is engaged and interested in learning). The systematic nature of instructional design helps me to achieve this in the simplest of terms, and that gives my students the greatest chance of understanding whatever it is I happen to be saying on any given day, in any given class.

In the second half of this post, I’ll be looking at:

  1. Developing Assessment Instruments
  2. Developing an Instructional Strategy
  3. Developing Instructional Materials
  4. Designing and Conducting Formative Evaluations
  5. Revising Instructional Materials
  6. Designing and Conducting Summative Evaluations

I hope you will join me!


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.

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