Writing Instructional Design Materials

One of the primary ways I’ve paid my bills in the last couple years has been in the instructional design field. What, exactly, is instructional design? I’m going to skip Wikipedia this time and go with a more authoritative source for my definition.

[Instructional design is 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.

In practical terms, that means I’m helping deliver classroom materials, such as facilitator (trainer) scripts, PowerPoint presentations, workbooks, activity materials, and handouts. My first experience with this work was at Disney University, where I was teamed with an instructional designer to develop management training classes.

The instructional designer works through a systematic process, sometimes called ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation). You start by analyzing what the customer wants taught, who needs to learn it, and how they might apply it. Once all that is worked out, the process moves toward creating an outline for how the training experience will flow, in what order, and with what emphases. When the outline is approved, the course material is developed in detail. Depending on the extent of the material, that could involve any of the contents I listed above. At the tail end of the development process, the training experience is launched with its intended audience, and is evaluated for future improvements.

Instructional design is a great way to make a living. If you’re an introvert, as I am, but you’re interested in teaching others what you know, this is a good compromise, as you get to write the script for someone who does talk in front of a class. I’ve been fortunate to work with some highly skilled instructional designers, and I’ve written classes on anything from building trust to taking reservations to reading financial statements. I learn as I go, so it’s a humbling process. If you’re interested in pursuing ISD (Instructional Systems Design), I can only share with you what I’ve learned so far:

  • Consistency is key, especially across the training script, PowerPoint, workbook, and other materials. Visual consistency is often achieved with the help of a graphic designer. Content consistency is up to you: making sure that content flows in the same order, asks the same questions, and provides the same answers all in the same language.
  • Your writing “tone” should fit your audience. This is something you develop in connection with the customer. It could range anywhere from serious to hilarious, but that will be a reflection of the customer’s organization and the content.
  • Your content will determine the flow and organization of your training. Does your audience need to just “learn it” so they can pass an exam or observe some new policies? Do they need to “apply it?” Is the content intellectual, skill-based, personal, or physical (kinesthetic)?
  • Straight lecture can put people to sleep. Adult learners, who have a wide range of experiences, will engage with content differently from school-age students. I noticed this about myself when I attended graduate school eight years after I finished my B.A. Rather than just absorb the material and memorize it, I was interested in understanding how it applied to my daily work. It’s important to allow time for participants to have time to discuss and apply the material as they go.
  • Speaking of straight lecture, my ISD mentor Dede (D2) is fond of keeping new content/lecture sections down to no more than 18 minutes–essentially the length of a TED talk–before you pause to discuss and learn.
  • Don’t be afraid to use analogies, especially if your material is utterly new to the participants.
  • Listen to your trainers/facilitators if you get a chance to interact with them. They can tell you what’s “not working,” either for them or the class.

Best of luck to you wherever you decide to go.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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