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4 top instructional design models, explained

There are dozens of instructional design models, but most learning designers rely on a select few. Here are four of the most common.
instructional design models
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; masterzphotofo / Adobe Stock

There is no shortage of instructional design models for those seeking guidance in building effective learning experiences. An instructional design model can serve as both a project management tool and a roadmap for delivering instruction that supports organizational objectives and learning needs.  

Although there are dozens of instructional design models, most learning designers rely on only a select few. 

The 4 instructional design models you should know

There’s no magic formula for choosing the best ID model for a particular project, or to serve as an organization’s “standard” approach. Choices are often dictated by the resources available, particularly time and budget. The full application of the chosen model may be subject to the same constraints, and some compromise may be necessary in order to deliver on time and within budget.

When considering the various instructional design models to choose from, learning designers may factor in: 

  • Project scale, scope, and complexity
  • Criticality and urgency of the learning need
  • Nature of the learning need (ie. soft skills, technical skills, etc.)
  • Audience characteristics and the degree of learner self-direction
  • Learning environment and the types of learning supported

Here are four of the most commonly used instructional design models.


The ADDIE Model originated at Florida State University’s Center for Educational Technology in 1975, designed as an instructional systems design model for the United States Armed Forces. Initially called the ISD model, it has its roots in concepts that arose in the 1950s. 

ADDIE has often been faulted as being inflexibly linear, but that was never the intention. The original ISD approach regards the outputs of one stage as inputs to the next, but the ADDIE model most often is depicted as circular and iterative, with formative evaluation occurring at every stage and the summative evaluation results feeding back into stage one, closing the feedback loop.

Summarized briefly, the five stages of the ADDIE model are:

  • Analyze instructional goals, audience characteristics, and resources required (including content, technologies, people, delivery methods, etc.)
  • Design a learning solution that aligns objectives and strategies with instructional goals
  • Develop learning resources, validate and revise draft materials, and conduct a pilot test
  • Implement the learning solution and engage learners
  • Evaluate effectiveness of learning resources and materials in terms of achieving instructional goals (measures of perception, learning, and performance, at a minimum)

ADDIE remains one of the most commonly used instructional design models today. Its greatest strength is its emphasis on evaluation and redesign at every stage, and its longevity is evidenced by the fact that it continues to evolve – most recently through the incorporation of rapid prototyping. 

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

M. David Merrill studied existing instructional design theories with the goal of developing his own and used the commonalities he found in ID literature as the jumping-off point for constructing a set of five principles. Introduced in 2002, these principles define an approach to designing effective instruction for learning new tasks. 

Simply stated, Merrill’s principles of instruction are that:

  • Learning occurs most readily when instruction is problem-centered.
  • Existing knowledge is activated to serve as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Instruction involves demonstration of new knowledge and tasks for learners.
  • Opportunities for application of new knowledge are provided.
  • New knowledge is integrated into the learner’s real world.

Most often, Merrill’s principles are applied in conjunction with an instructional design model such as ADDIE to guide design decisions about content and learning activities. 

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

In 1965, Robert Gagne identified nine ways to create the conditions for learning to occur. Almost three decades later, Gagne, Leslie Briggs, and Walter Wager added specific methods for accomplishing each of the nine events.

  1. Gain attention of learners by presenting a stimulus, such as thought-provoking questions or an icebreaker activity.
  2. Inform learners of the learning objectives by describing required performance or what constitutes standard performance, or have learners establish those criteria collaboratively.
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning by asking learners about their previous experiences in a way that relates prior information to the current topic.
  4. Present content using a variety of media and active learning strategies.
  5. Provide learning guidance in the form of appropriate structural supports that can be removed gradually as learner performance improves.
  6. Elicit performance to activate learner processing through various types of practice and assessment opportunities.
  7. Provide feedback on learner performance to facilitate self-identification of learning gaps and opportunities for improvement.
  8. Assess performance through a variety of testing methods to determine the extent to which learning outcomes have been achieved.
  9. Enhance knowledge retention and transfer by providing opportunities for learners to connect what they’ve learned to real world applications.

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction provide a helpful framework for structuring and sequencing content. They’re often used in conjunction with Bloom’s Taxonomy (outlined below) to establish the conditions that best match the cognitive processes involved in the skills to be acquired through instruction. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In the 1950s and 60s, a group of researchers and educators headed by Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy of the cognitive processes involved in learning and mastering a subject.  The revised version developed in 2001 includes six basic processes, each of which is associated with a set of gerunds that provide context and suggest specific learning activities:

  • Remember — recognizing, recalling
  • Understand — interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining
  • Apply — executing, implementing
  • Analyze — differentiating, organizing, attributing
  • Evaluate — checking, critiquing
  • Create — generating, planning, producing

Bloom’s Taxonomy is often illustrated as a pyramid with the most basic cognitive process – Remember – at the base, and the most complex one – Create – at the top. It’s used in conjunction with instructional design models to develop objectives, learning activities, and assessments. 

Additional instructional design models

Below is a more expansive list of the best-known instructional design models, and their creators. This list reflects a large and ever-growing body of instructional design theory and literature devoted to operationalizing research-based instructional design principles. 

  • 4C-ID Model (Jeroen van Merrienboer)
  • Algo-Heuristic Theory (Lev Landa)
  • Andragogy (Malcolm Knowles)
  • ARCS (John Keller)
  • ASSURE (Robert Heinich, Michael Molenda, James Russel, and Sharon Smaldino) 
  • Backward Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe)
  • Component Display Theory (David Merrill)
  • Conditions of Learning (Robert Gagne)
  • Criterion Referenced Instruction (Robert Mager)
  • Dick and Carey Model (Walter Dick and Lou Carey)
  • Elaboration Theory (Charles Reigeluth)
  • Gerlach-Ely Model (Vernon Gerlach and Donald Ely)
  • Hannafin-Peck Model (Michael Hannafin and Kyle Peck)
  • Integrative Learning Design Framework for Online Learning ( Nada Debbaugh)
  • Kemp Design Model (Gary Morrison, Steven Ross, and Jerrold Kemp)
  • Knirk and Gustafson Model (Frederick Knirk and Kent Gustafson)
  • Kirkpatrick Model (Donald Kirkpatrick)
  • Organizational Elements Model (Roger Kaufman)
  • Rapid Prototyping (Steven Tripp and Barbara Bichelmeyer)
  • Situated Learning Theory (Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger)
  • Social Learning Theory (Albert Bandura)
  • Spiral Model (Barry Boehm)
  • Transactional Distance Model (Michael Moore)

When all is said and done, any instructional design model is better than none at all. L&D staff with a basic understanding of ADDIE and ADDIE-like models should be able to customize the design process to incorporate nearly any relevant learning theory and adapt it to their own organization’s priorities. 

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