A Quick Guide to the Top Instructional Design Models

When you’re starting out as an instructional design specialist, finding best practices online can feel overwhelming. Where do you look for help? Which resources do you consult first? Chances are, you look to a variety of sources. Your eLearning software’s blog undoubtedly provides helpful tips, and industry-specific tips and tools should pop up with even a basic google search.

But, before you go down any eLearning research rabbit holes, take one second to pause. It’s easy to get lost in the latest trends and lose sight of the fundamentals. 

Remind yourself why you began this career path: to provide adult learners with meaningful, relevant learning experiences. How do you maintain this focus as you create a course? Does this mean you never get to play with fun new eLearning trends?

Choose a solid instructional design model

You can absolutely have fun with your course creation. Build a compelling course by first following a tried-and-true model. Then you can try gamifying your modules, creating an mLearning version, or applying any of the other eLearning trends that catch your interest.

This quick guide to the two most widely respected ID (instructional design) models will give you just enough information to help you choose the best model for your needs.

We’ll also cover two essential learning theories, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Merrill’s Principles of Instruction. These two theories can be used to build a course. But, they’re best for developing a strong theoretical basis that guide your ID choices. By keeping key learnings from these top foundational principles in mind, you can make small tweaks to your ID model as you design your class.

After you read this post, you’ll be able to stride forward with your course design.

Most Popular: The ADDIE Model

Developed in 1975, ADDIE remains the top choice for elearning instructional designers. While its developers introduced it as a waterfall, step-by-step program, many people follow the phases in whatever order makes the most sense for their organization. Often, eLearning course developers follow an organic process. Some phases can occur side-by-side. 

ADDIE stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Each word describes a part of the course development process. In this case, our elearning AI voiceover avatars fit into the development phase.

Image by Obsidian Learning


In this phase, find answers to two critical questions. What is my audience’s learning need? What is the best way to meet that need? Conduct research to fully understand your audience, the content they need to learn, and the best-fit delivery method.

Often, this phase involves reviewing prior courses to see what worked and what didn’t. Talk to your learners and work with subject-matter experts (SMEs) to gather the best data.


Create the learning module, starting with learning objectives. What must your students know, feel, or be able to do after they finish your course? Then, create a strategy that gets students there. Make sure you follow a logical sequence (see section on Bloom’s Taxonomy below).


Here, you create the resources your students will need to achieve their learning outcomes. You also conduct a test run-through of your course, preferably with key stakeholders, to fine tune the content and sequence. Run everything by your SMEs to ensure accuracy of information. 


Students finally engage with your learning material! They enroll, follow the course, and complete modules. While this step seems straight-forward, you can be creative with it.

Think about the best way to onboard your students to your course. What first impressions do you want them to have of the course, or the quality of instruction? Use your audience analysis from the Analyze phase to create buy-in from your learners.


Did your students meet their learning outcomes? In this phase, you evaluate not only their performance but your course as well. How did it succeed? How could it have gone better?

This phase overlaps a bit with Analyze, which also asks you to evaluate prior courses. In an agile model, you ask for evaluations throughout the course. 

Emphasis on agile: the Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

While ADDIE isn’t exclusively a step-by-step model, instructional designers sometimes struggle to break out of a waterfall mode of thinking when they use ADDIE. A popular alternative to ADDIE, the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) uses agile principles. Some call it the Agile Model for this reason.

This model emphasizes learner experiences, engagement, and motivation, while ADDIE tends to emphasize content and structure.

SAM is an iterative prototyping model. Simply put, you develop a series of course prototypes until you reach a completed, or “gold,” version. These prototypes take three main phases to develop. For a helpful graphic, visit the Allen Interactions site.

Phase 1: Information Gathering

Without spending too much time, gather the information you need about your audience, their training backgrounds, and what they will need to succeed.

The end of this phase is called the “Savvy Start.” Using the information you’ve gathered, brainstorm the intended course outcomes and course approaches with key stakeholders.

Sketch a very rough course prototype collaboratively. Keep it rough and brief, and make sure you don’t put too much effort into polishing it. A good prototype is rough enough that components can be easily discarded or replaced.

Build in your content, keeping your audience’s needs in mind.

Phase 2: Iterative Design

Continue to design your content, moving broadly across the course. As you iterate on your course design, go deeper into each content module in small steps. Bring in the appropriate media and enhance critical details.

After each design iteration, conduct a quick informal review. Use this feedback to build your next prototype.

Phase 3: Iterative Development

At this point, you should have a design proof. With this proof, conduct a trial run to ensure all aspects of the course run properly. Review the course as a whole, and use these reviews to fine tune the course.

Think of this phase as a series of dress rehearsals. The first dress rehearsal is the Alpha review, which is reviewed by stakeholders. The second, or Beta review,  includes all media and content. Once the Beta proof gets the go-ahead from all stakeholders, it’s labeled the Gold proof, and it’s ready for your learners.

Bloom & Merrill: Who/what are they and do I need to know?

If you’ve spent any time reading posts about ID models, you’ve certainly encountered Bloom’s Taxonomy and Merrill’s Principles of Instruction.

Have you ever decided to follow one of these models and found the whole process difficult? While people refer to these as models, they are more accurately described as learning theories.

Think of Bloom and Merrill less as models, which provide guidelines and steps to follow, and more as principles to help you develop your professional instructional designer’s mindset. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s helps you write clear learning objectives. Created by Benjamin Bloom in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy essentially describes the order of cognitive skills involved in mastering new content.

Often depicted as a pyramid, Bloom’s theory of learning states that students must master one ability before moving on to the next. Learners first demonstrate they can remember facts before they move to the higher-order ability to understand those facts. Next, they can apply that understanding to new situations, draw new connections, and evaluate the results.

At the highest cognitive order, students produce new, relevant contributions to that field and demonstrate full mastery. 

Image by Vanderbilt University

Use Bloom’s to make sure your course objectives fall in an appropriate order. Students will feel frustrated if you ask them to apply foundational concepts if they don’t first understand them.

If you’re using ADDIE, Bloom’s can help you during the Design phase to write clear, on-target course objectives. Each tier of the pyramid gives you clear, actionable verbs, such as “define” for lower order skills and “appraise” for higher skills. Use these verbs to write learning outcomes. For instance, a course on Bloom’s could include the following three learning outcomes:

Students will be able to…
list the six stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy
defend the value of Bloom’s Taxonomy to instructional design
critique the value of Bloom’s Taxonomy to instructional design

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI)

Merrill’s Principles have helped instructional designers keep their courses relevant since 2002, when David Merrill first proposed them. They create a holistic framework of instruction, integrating five critical principles of the learning process. These five points dictate that learning should be:

Problem-based. When students can relate their learnings directly to real world issues, their retention increases.
Built on prior knowledge. By activating what they already know about the subject matter, students connect to new understandings.
Demonstrated. Show your learners what they’re supposed to learn, rather than merely telling them.
Applied. Ask your learners to directly apply their new understandings to real-life problems.
Integrated into their work. By asking learners to practice their new skills within the context they’ll be using them, their learnings will translate into real-time behaviors.

You make the call

We’ve introduced you to two popular ID models and two solid learning theories. As the instructional designer, you make the final call in choosing a learning model to structure your course creation.

Remember, your job requires you to consult with SMEs, employees, managers, and a variety of relevant research materials. That means you have a unique, well-researched perspective.

Take charge of your learners’ success. Choose the ID model that best supports them, and you’ve set them — and yourself — up to succeed.


Cover photo by Pexels
Music by Bensound


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