How to Use Instructional Design Principles to Improve Your Course

The growing number of online learning platforms means that it’s never been easier to create e-learning materials. However, this also means that more people are creating online courses than ever before. If you’re going to secure sign-ups, it’s vital you provide the best possible experience for your students.

Thankfully, there are effective strategies dedicated to helping you create more engaging and memorable online courses. Instructional design is one of the most popular methodologies that can help you wow your students.

In this article, we’ll demystify the sometimes-vague concept of instructional design, and look at what this established technique means for the world of online learning. We’ll then show you three easy ways to apply its principles to your next online course. Let’s get started! 

An Introduction to Instructional Design (And Why It’s Important)

Instructional design is rooted in cognitive and behavioral psychology. Using this technique, course creators structure their content and create learning activities that align with how the human mind naturally processes and organizes information. This can help promote knowledge acquisition and retention.

Many education experts believe that people acquire information quicker and retain it for longer when they’re actively engaged in the learning process. Speaking about passive online learning pedagogies, adult education expert Paul Stacey said: “Students tend to find online behaviourist and objectivist learning pedagogies boring, impersonal, and not interactive or engaging.”

Therefore, a big part of instructional design is encouraging students to engage in the learning experience. The more involved they are, the better results they're likely to see at the end of your course.

The quality of the learning experience is even more crucial in today’s internet-connected world.  There's an abundance of information freely available online.

However, much of this information is unstructured or focuses on instructing the reader, rather than educating them. This can result in unengaging, passive, and directionless learning that doesn’t bode well for long-term knowledge retention. 

By following instructional design principles, you can immediately distinguish your materials from the majority of online information. This will help you provide the best possible learning experience for your students, and help build your reputation as a quality course creator. 

How to Use Instructional Design Principles to Improve Your Course (3 Key Strategies)

Instructional design can provide tangible benefits to course creators and students. However, even professional instructional designers admit that this term can be vague and hard to pin down.

That said, there are definitely at least a few simple concepts you can apply to your e-learning materials, even if you're not super experienced in the field. With that in mind, here are three key instructional design principles you can apply to your online courses today.

1. Use Relatable Stories to Reinforce Key Concepts

students benefiting from good instructional design

As humans, we are naturally drawn to a compelling, well-constructed story. By weaving your learning points into a narrative, you can appeal to this innate love of storytelling. 

A good story can promote knowledge retention. It’s far easier to remember an interesting plot than a list of facts and figures. Storytelling can also encourage participants to engage with your learning materials on an emotional level, which contributes to knowledge retention, too. 

You don’t necessarily have to create a sweeping narrative. Often, it’s beneficial to base your stories around scenarios that your students encounter in their everyday lives.

If you manage to deliver your knowledge via relatable scenarios, your participants are more likely to create a strong, personal association with your content. This will encourage them to engage in the learning experience in a more meaningful way and can help with future information recall.

You might even want to develop your scenarios across multiple lessons. Alternatively, you could create narrative links between your lessons by featuring recurring characters and locations.

This can give your course a more consistent and logical structure, and help students remain orientated within your learning materials. Recurring elements and ongoing narratives can also help reinforce learning by constantly reminding pupils of information they encountered in previous lessons.

2. Provide Lots of Opportunities for Students to Practice


Passively reading information isn’t the most engaging form of learning. By adding interactive elements to the learning experience, you can encourage participants to engage with the information you’re giving them. 

Wherever possible, try to provide opportunities for learners to engage with core concepts in multiple ways. For example, you might test their comprehension through multiple-choice, drag-and-drop, true or false, or scenario-based challenges.

By asking participants to approach the same concepts from multiple angles, you can reinforce learning while keeping your content fresh and attractive. This can also be a valuable opportunity for students to practice applying the same information in various ways.

3. Give Immediate, Relevant Feedback on Projects and Assessments

instructional feedback

When it comes to feedback, faster is usually better. For example, in a multiple choice quiz, it’s best to provide the correct answer after each question, rather than waiting until the end of the quiz.

By providing immediate feedback, you can create a strong association between the question and the correct answer. If the student answered the question incorrectly, this can be a valuable learning experience. It also prevents the incorrect answer from becoming lodged in their brain. 

If you delay your feedback, your students may struggle to associate the correct answer with the corresponding question. In addition, when feedback is provided at the end of an activity, participants are more likely to focus on their overall score, rather than taking the time to consider each incorrect answer individually. This can transform interactive activities into box-ticking exercises where the learner is simply satisfied to achieve a passing score.

Wherever possible, it’s helpful to explain why a particular answer is right or wrong. This can maximize the value participants glean from each activity. It can also make the interaction more rewarding, compared to simply displaying a ‘pass' or ‘fail' verdict.


Creating an online course that’s interesting, motivational, and provides real value to students is easier said than done. However, by following tried and true education methodologies, you can create digital learning materials that are every bit as engaging as in-person classes.

If you want to improve your online courses, we recommend implementing the following instructional design principles: 

  1. Use relatable stories to reinforce key concepts. 
  2. Provide lots of opportunities for students to practice.
  3. Give immediate, relevant feedback on projects and assessments. 

Do you have any questions about instructional design? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Categories: Courses How To
About John Hughes

John is a blogging addict, WordPress fanatic, staff writer for, and a regular contributor to the MemberPress and Easy Affiliate blogs.