Instruction Design Theories

Every field or science, when conceptualized, builds on the models and theories dedicated to that particular field. General extrapolations are merely documented for the first time by the means of theories (or models). Theories (and models) can be referred to as general guidelines that aid in solving problems occurring in a particular field. They try to provide a holistic view of a situation so that a convoluted problem can be broken down and each aspect can be analyzed in isolation to reach to a summative logical conclusion with cause and effect relationships taken into consideration.

However, one-size-fits-all is never the case with areas where human intervention is inevitable and so is also the case with instructional design. The discussed theories are merely general predictors and are susceptible to modification any time. All theories that will be discussed have the same underlying perception though, that pedagogy is all in one; the art, craft and science of teaching. Its success heavily depends on how well content is presented, to ensure maximum comprehension and retention.

We will discuss the relevant theories that led to the shaping up of instructional design in this article and some significant and most commonly applied models in the next.

1. Behaviourism

It all began with Pavlov’s experiment of classical conditioning. This Russian psychologist performed an experiment on a dog by conditioning it to an external stimulus, the bell, which was always followed by the dog’s food which inturn caused the dog to salivate. This happened a few times and the conditioning was deemed complete when the dog salivated at the sound of the bell alone.

The Dog and the Bell

Other researchers like Thorndike (1874-1949) and Watson (1878-1958) also began conditioning experiments studying animal behavior and Watson then took it to the next level by experimenting with conditioning of human behavior.

It was BF Skinner (1904-1990) who devised a theory that dealt with the changes in observable behavior. He stressed on voluntary behavior than mere conditioned reflexes and he called it operant conditioning. For example, a reward for exceptional performance at work will reinforce hard work for the same outcome by the employee; the fear of punishment will refrain an employee from committing an ethical or illegal task in his company.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivist learning theories were a development on the behaviourism school of thought. It ruled out the very basic postulate of behavioural theories that humans can be conditioned in any desired way, not taking into account the processes that go on in the human mind. It opined that humans are rational and have a considerable part to play in when learning takes place. It stressed on mental processes like the problem solving ability, emotions and natural reflexes should also be taken into consideration. The best way to differentiate between the two schools is that behaviourism considers external behaviour and cognitivism considers internal processes.

Cognitivism took over behaviourism gradually from the 1950s to 1970s. The influence of cognitivism on instructional design is quite evident because of due importance given to clearly chunking content for better comprehension, and extensive use of graphics and mnemonics.

Some noteworthy theories of cognitivism are:

  • David Merrill (1983): the Component Display Theory
  • Reigeluth (1983): Elaboration Theory
  • Gagne, Briggs and Wagner (1988): Events of instruction

3. Constructivism

Each learner is unique and that’s exactly what constructivists say. Learners construct new knowledge on the facts already known to them. Therefore, where behaviourism and cognitivism are objective and can predict the outcome (behaviourally or cognitively) of instruction to a certain extent, the same may not be true for constructivism. How the outcome will be depends on the learner themselves, their past experiences and past knowledge. It is rather open-ended and each outcome is unique in nature. It is often argued that constructivism is a learning theory and not a theory of instruction.


Constructivists stress that a set predictor of instruction (like the previous thought schools) and how learning should take place will bind the learner to specific notions and will restrict him/her to think out-of-the-box to create new knowledge.

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