Respect the [Content] Flow

hand holding a marker
Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to growing an instructional design firm, I am a full-time instructional designer. A couple weeks ago, I was tasked with updating all the presentation slides for a one-week school. I really enjoy those type tasks  as they give me the opportunity to be creative while bringing to bear my knowledge of human learning theory and instructional design practice.

I immersed myself in the existing presentation slides, reading them several times over to gain understanding of the content and to cluster and sequence the content in a logical way (i.e. simple to complex, temporally, spatially, etc.) to make learning easy, no extraneous cognitive load. I consulted with the subject-matter-expert on questions about the necessity of content, terminology, images, and transitions. Then, using Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction as a micro framework, I carefully crafted presentations that were sound from an instructional design perspective and well-scripted, easily picked up “off the shelf” for  any qualified instructor at the school to use and teach with.  I felt good about what I created and believed the updated slides added value to the school. Turns out, what  created was not what the school instructors wanted.

After submitting the project to the project manager, I learned that, as it was, the existing content flow in the presentations had been carefully crafted across several instructors and over many iterations of teaching with the slides. The existing content flow was, to the school instructors, like gold, the impurities or problems of which had been borne out by repeated teaching, and what was left was pure and what worked best for them. The instructors did not want any changes to the content flow.

What I learned:  Talk to instructors about plans to restructure content flow before restructuring content; be sure that updating presentations involves changes to content flow and not something else, like aesthetic changes to make all the slides have the same look and feel (a master slide background, for example); that is what these instructors wanted.

Respect the Content Flow.

Be Extraordinary!



Andrew Gibbons’s Architectural Approach to Instructional Design



I recently started Andrew S. Gibbons award-winning book, An Architectural Approach to Instructional Design. In Chapter 3, Design Process, Gibbons purported four stages of design thinking. According to Gibbons, the design thinking of instructional designers develops in stages across the career or experiences of the instructional designer, from design thinking that focuses on the medium used for designing (stage 1) to thinking that focuses on the structure of the subject matter (stage 4). Here are Gibbons’s Four Stages of Designer Thinking

Media-Centric– Early in an instructional designer’s career he or she tends to focus design thinking on the medium for which he or she is designing, e.g. a website, computer-based learning, just-in-time resource book, a webpage

Message-Centric– During the message-centric stage of design thinking, the instructional designer focuses on the story- how to best present ideas, examples, explanations, etc. through the use of visuals, text, and clustering and sequencing content

Strategy-Centric– In the strategy-centric phase, the instructional designer focuses on strategies and structures that will provide learning guidance, opportunities for practice, and facilitate the attainment of learning objectives

Model-Centric– In the model-centric phase of design thinking, the instructional designer combines strategy with knowledge of the content to create a model of the content that is dynamic and responsive to the learner and mode of delivery

I believe an instructional designer goes through all of these stages of design thinking, to a lesser or greater degree, in any instructional design project. I take Gibbons’s point, though, that the focus of novice instructional designers is more heavily on the medium, perhaps because story-telling, strategy-development, and model-development are skills that are honed over time, through experience.

Which of Gibbons’s Stages of Design Thinking resonates most with you?





I Heart Scripting Content

I suppose every ID (Instructional Designer) has his or her favorite part of the instructional design and development process. As for me, I enjoy scripting content; I feel like the sculptor, and the raw content from the subject-matter-expert (SME) is the clay. I carefully extract the content from the SME, meticulously clarify the content through research and consultation with the SME, then use my creativity, learning theory knowledge, and instructional design expertise to mold content into an efficient and effective instructional unit. The creative energy that ensues is exhilirating, intoxicating, addictive..I heart it.


Backwards Design and Stephen Covey

The Backwards Design model is one of my favorite Instructional Design models. Perhaps I like it so much because it is similar to the Dick and Carey Model of Instructional Design, the first instructional design model I learned. Perhaps it resonates with me because of my training as a Quality Matters reviewer; quality matters reviewers are taught the importance of beginning with measurable objectives and aligning all other course components to those objectives. The Backwards Design model starts with determining what learners should be able to do at the end of a unit of instruction. Next, assessments and performance tasks are developed, and finally, instructional material and learning activities are designed and developed to help learners achieve the stated ends, aka learning objectives or learning outcomes.

Urban legend has it that a popular qualifying exam question for the Instructional Design and Development doctoral track student at the University I attend used to be, “Name a person, living or dead, who would make a good instructional designer and why?” I was a first year instructional design student when I heard the story of that question. I immediately thought, Stephen Covey would make a good instructional designer because of one of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 2 of Covey’s list is Begin with the End in Mind. The point is to think of your future self then bring all decisions and actions into alignment with that vision of your future self. It is like Backwards Design; the model begins with a vision of what learners should be doing at the end of instruction then performance tasks, assessments, instructional materials and learning activities are designed and developed to align with that vision of the learner at the end of instruction. Begin with the end in mind, in instruction and in life.

Information on Backwards Design and Curriculum Planning 

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People



Good Instruction Codified- Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

Robert Gagne was a pioneer in the field of instruction. His Nine Events of Instruction (or G9) are good instruction codified. The nine events are:

  1. Gain Attention
  2. Inform learner of objectives
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
  4. Present content
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Elicit performance (practice)
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess performance
  9. Enhance retention and transfer to the job

I frequently use G9 as a macro instructional strategy framework for courses or units of instruction I develop or review.

Checkout Northern Illinois University’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center piece on Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction.

Instructional Designer as Investigator

Problems arise–learners do not meet learning objectives, performance goals are not attained, learners become frustrated–when instruction is created without a thorough analysis. When this happens the instructional designer must put on his or her investigator hat and locate the holes in the content and/or instructional materials. Instructional and training programs that begin with a thorough analysis produce efficient, effective, extraordinary results the first time around.

Quality Matters Review

I’m working on an informal Quality Matters review for a criminal justice course. QM reviews give me the opportunity to keep my instructional design and online course development skills sharp while assisting a peer with his or her online course development.


This is the official relaunch of Extraordinary! by Design Instructional Design and Performance Improvement.