Why a shot of theory is good for you

'It’s just a little pinch. It’ll hardly hurt and then it will be over.' Tell that to a four-year-old, sitting in the doctor’s office awaiting a shot.

But it turns out to be true. You take a deep breath, feel the pinch and then move on. OK – maybe you cry a bit or, a lot. Maybe your arm feels bruised. But if you’re good, you might get a lollipop from your mum.

We’re not talking about administering vaccinations to all you learning designers out there – although it would be nice if someone could develop a vaccine for bad e-learning! – but rather suggesting that all of us take some time to learn about learning theory and instructional design theory. Sounds painful, but really, it’s just a pinch…

Theory? Isn’t that just for academics?

Many practising learning designers find their way into the field by accident. You probably didn’t plan on being a corporate trainer or instructional designer when you grew up, but here you are. Perhaps you stumbled upon your role because you demonstrated an aptitude for explaining things to others or you could write well.

Some of us have even gone to school to get advanced degrees in ID, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of IDs don’t. (See the ongoing ID survey on Cammy's blog).

So how do we get by? We learn the trade on the job; we see what others are doing that works; we follow our gut. Sometimes that intuition is spot-on; sometimes it misses the mark completely.

Practise with intention

If you’re practising the ID craft with intention, you’re probably not missing the mark quite as often as most accidental IDs. To practise with intention, you must know what instructional strategies to use and why, to help maximise the learning. Which probably means  knowing a bit about learning theory and instructional design theory.

According to Charles Reigeluth (1983), 'The discipline of instructional design is concerned primarily with prescribing optimal methods of instruction to bring about desired changes in student knowledge and skills.' (p.4). He explains that theories of instructional design focus on methods of instruction (what the teacher does), whereas learning theory focuses on the learning process (what happens to the learner).

When you know a bit of theory, you can look at your content and apply the best strategy. You can start blending a bit of the science of ID with the art that you already practise. You can effectively explain to a client why it’s really not a good idea to start a program off with a detailed flowchart, or why locking out navigation leads to learner frustration. When you educate yourself, you can educate your clients and create better learning experiences for everyone!


Another plus for the self-education route – you'll sound like more of an expert.

When you actually know this stuff, well, you can actually talk like you know this stuff. We’re not suggesting you enter client meetings rattling off names like Gagne and Reigeluth and Keller for no reason. You'd risk sounding like a pompous, know-it-all smarty-pants.

We’re saying that maybe you should be a smarty-pants and learn more about the research and theory behind the practice. When you talk like you know what you’re talking about, you have more credibility. Of course, you also need to follow through and deliver, but sounding like you really know what you're talking about gives you a great start.

But I don’t have time for homework!

All this talk of theory can make our heads hurt. There are thick textbooks to read and lots of academic jargon to decipher.

That’s why we’ve started adding 'little shots of theory' to our top tips collection. Our aim is to take a look at a specific theory or model and break it down into terms and examples that you can put into practice.

We’ve started with John Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivational Design and Charles Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory.

Look for more shots of theory in the months to come – and let us know at info@kineo.com if there are any theories you’d like to see us cover!

It’s just a pinch – won’t hurt at all. Promise.


Instructional-Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current Status, edited by Charles M. Reigeluth, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983.