Earlier this week I delivered a webinar as part of Sukh Pabial’s Modern Learner Leader (#MLLeader) programme, but ran out of time while discussing common instructional design mistakes. This blog post is an attempt to make up for my rushed ending, with links throughout to further reading.

1. Learning outcomes up front

I’ll open with my most controversial point. Learning outcomes have been a mainstay of elearning courses for years. How else do people know what they’re going to learn?

The problems are that they immediately signal that we’ll be doing the ‘same old elearning’; they’re a boring start to any learning experiences; and they’re presumptuous — the learner might have their own outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong: as an instructional designer, you probably have things that you want your learners to learn or, better yet, business outcomes that you want your learners to deliver. These are great behind the scenes, but is it necessary for learners to know them?

A final point here: context is important. David Ausubel writes about advance organisers, whereby you would start a course on frogs, salamanders and caecilians by introducing the important relationship: these are all amphibians. Learning outcomes can do the same, but there are more exciting ways to do so.

2. Too much information

If you plan to deliver a course on a particular policy or piece of legislation, you’re going to end up with a lot of information delivery. Is this the most effective use of learning time? Why not provide a link to the policy, and then use your time to focus on the behaviours you want to see in the workplace?

Cathy Moore’s action mapping technique is a great way to avoid this. Start with the outcome you want to achieve, identify what learners need to do to achieve that outcome, then design realistic practice activities to give learners an opportunity to develop their skills. If they need to identify when a data protection breach has occurred, include a scenario where they have to make a judgement: not a multiple-choice quiz on data protection legislation.

3. Too difficult/too easy

People learn best when they’re stretched, but not too far. This is referred to as the zone of proximal development or, in more friendly language, ‘desirable difficulty’.

If a learner can sail through a course without thinking — or pass the assessment without looking at the course materials — it’s probably too easy. It’s worth testing this with a pilot group.

If you go to the other extreme, and make a course impossibly difficult, learners are likely to become frustrated and lose interest.

A fun way to get used to pitching difficulty level is to look at video games. Sonic the Hedgehog and Tiny Soldiers are both available from Apple App Store. Give them a go and notice how the levels become increasingly challenging until you reach a ‘boss’ — then have a slight reduction in difficulty at the start of the next level. This dip in difficulty gives your users an opportunity to rest.

4. Same content for novices and experts

We’re often asked to create courses for everyone, whether they’ve been performing a task for one week or ten years. This is a cost effective way to deliver learning to a wide audience, but how do you allow ‘desirable difficulty’?

One way is to include supports, or ‘scaffolding devices’, that are unobtrusive but are clearly sign posted. For example, you might have a scenario question with a ‘Help!’ button. An expert can answer the scenario question easily enough, while a novice has support if they are completely flummoxed.

Another technique is to provide definitions of new terminology. An expert won’t need them, but a novice can see them on mouseover.

These are just some of the common mistakes I see in instructional design — particularly in the creation of courses. If you want to ask any questions (or want to tell me that I’m wrong!), you can get in touch on Twitter @RossGarnerGP.

This post was original published on Medium. Image by Alexas_Fotos / Public Domain.


3 thoughts on “4 common instructional design mistakes

  1. Hi Ross. I found this blog post to be especially enlightening. I have a few ideas and comments that I’d like to share with you.

    As an instructional designer, I agree that there are mistakes that IDs make, and I realize that I am guilty of making some of those mistakes. I am especially interested in your stance on not stating upfront learning outcomes (mistake #1). While I see your point about the mundane, “same old elearning” start to an elearning course, is it not helpful for the learner to know the desired learning outcomes to them better connect with the content? Perhaps it is a personal preference of mine and I’m allowing that to bleed over into my instructional development. I do agree with you that learning outcomes can be presumptuous, but in each elearning I do have specific objectives/learning outcomes (all IDs do) and I find them to be valuable to learners. I know that not everyone will leave the elearning with those outcomes (for whatever reason), but I feel that stating learning outcomes up front provides a clear learning path. I have to admit that I don’t believe I’ve ever read where objectives or learning outcomes need to be shared with the learners up front; rather, objectives and learning outcomes should be identified up front.

    While reading common mistake #2, I visited the link you provided to Cathy Moore’s action mapping technique and I found myself nodding in agreement. Especially with this statement, “We’d better cover everything they might need to know!” (Moore, 2008, p. 4). I don’t think I can count the number of times I have heard that from a manager or someone requesting training. It’s my belief that an elearning can be a great starting point for learning about a new policy (or some other content). Linking out to other content or resources (I uses the Resources option in Storyline a lot) is better than trying to cram irrelevant information into an elearning just because they might need to know it. How have you approached situations where someone is pushing hard to get so much frivolous content added because they think it might be needed later.

    If I may add one more common mistake that instructional designers make, which eLearning Industry (Pappas, 2017) (lists as one if its top 10 is “lack of interactivity.” Boring old page turners (click next, click next, click next) is not interactivity. I have been a learner in many elearning programs that had minimal or no interactivity. Maybe I’m just overly critical of elearning (an instructor-led training) because of what I do for a living, but listening to someone drone on in an elearning is boring, lacks interest, and is easily ignored. We should find the right balance of games, quizzes, and scenarios, and they need to be appropriate for the content. Engaging the learner is critical to the elearning and learner’s success (Pappas, 2017).
    I find your blog to be extremely helpful. Your insight is invaluable. Thank you!


    Moore, C. (May, 2008). Design lively elearning with Action Mapping. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/CathyMoore/design-lively-elearning-with-action-mapping/4-Mistake_2Knowledge_information_Wed_better

    Pappas, C. (September, 2017). 10 common mistakes in the development of an eLearning course. eLearning Industry. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/10-common-mistakes-in-the-development-of-an-elearning-course

    1. Hi Matthew! Thanks so much for your in-depth comment! I really appreciate it.

      I think we’re in agreement that a course needs outcomes (learning outcomes, performance outcomes, business outcomes, whatever they may be). I just don’t think a bullet-pointed list is an effective way to engage people. It is however a good idea to give the learner some context as to what they’re about to do (check out the link to ‘advance organisers’ in my post).

      You could do this with an intro video, an intro paragraph or even just the course title. ‘How to create an eye-catching website banner in Photoshop’ is going to provide better context than:

      In this course, you will learn how to:
      – Create basic objects in Photoshop
      – Use gradient fills to colour objects
      – Use layers to stack objects on top of one another

      Hat tip to Julie Dirksen for that example! (her book is worth reading)

      On ‘lack of interactivity’, I also think this is true to a point. An endless voiceover is utterly tedious, but I binged on 10 episodes of Making a Murderer without any interactivity whatsoever. So it’s definitely possible to engage an audience without any interactivity, if the content is useful, relevant or exciting.

      Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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