What is an Instructional Designer?

By Sandy Chapman and Patty Cantrell

Are you designing a new course or thinking about redesigning an existing one? Need help with planning your teaching methods, strategies or course activities? What about exploring alternative assessment techniques or implementing new technologies?

If your answer is “yes” to any of the above, you might find collaborating with an Instructional Designer helpful.

So—You Might be Asking: What exactly is Instructional Design and what exactly do Instructional Designers do? Good questions, and with good reason. People often mishear the word instructional. Easily mistaken for industrial, the ensuing confusion often leads one to conclude that Instructional Design must have something to do with mechanical and/or architectural engineering and drafting.

Such is not the case. Instructional Design has nothing to do with the engineering of any product or structure, nor any building, construction, or fabrication process. And it has nothing to do with computer programming or graphic design, either, though such skills are very helpful and people who have them are typically included on a course-design team.

What Instructional Design has everything to do with is translating pedagogical research and practice into instructional curriculum specifically crafted to produce desired learning outcomes. That said—here’s an important sidebar: Though technology may be helpful in many cases, implementing technology is not the goal of instructional design—good instruction is.

Instructional Designers engage in a theory and research-based process of designing and implementing instruction for better learning. The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) defines this as “the theory and practice of design, development, utilization, management, and evaluation of processes and resources for learning” (Reiser, 2002, p.1).

Though there are many models for designing or redesigning a course, the creative process employed by Instructional Designers, is based on improving learning and generally always includes the following:

  • Assessing overall curriculum needs
  • Analyzing learners background knowledge and instructional needs
  • Determining course goals
  • Determining course objectives and the sequence in which to address them
  • Developing and implementing instructional content, teaching strategies, and assessments
  • Conducting formative and summative course evaluations

Overall, Instructional Designers perform a wide variety of tasks, from designing training materials, teaching manuals and student guides, to developing full course materials, and/or entire curricula. The multi-media formats they employ can range from operational job-aid materials ranging from simple pamphlets to online tutorials and complex interactive multi-media. The delivery system may vary from face-to-face classroom instruction to internet-based distance education, and/or blended courses.

Most Instructional Designers have an M.A. in Education, Educational Technology, Curriculum and Instruction, Training and Instruction or some such related area and are employed in colleges and universities, K-12 schools and school districts, educational software and textbook companies, as well as in business, government and the military.

Regardless of whether they work individually or in collaboration with subject matter experts (SME’s)—such as faculty members or in-the-field technicians and professionals—the common thread in every professional context is improving content comprehension and learning outcomes for students and/or trainees.

At Colorado State University the Instructional Designers’ backgrounds in The Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) include classroom teaching, creating environmental educational programs, designing interactive K-12 multimedia educational software, developing industry training materials, designing and teaching online distance education courses, and conducting workshops on improving pedagogical practices. They can assist you with:

  • Designing new and redesigning existing undergraduate-level courses
  • Facilitating the development of online RAM CT-based courses
  • Developing and maintaining relevant Web content on the TILT Web site
  • Creating educational podcasts and writing online teaching tips and guides
  • Helping instructors add audio, video, and multimedia to existing courses
  • Implementing clicker response systems into classroom assessment strategies
  • Translating face-to-face classroom courses into online and distance courses
  • Facilitating and coordinating a mid-semester student feedback program
  • Providing GTA training through the College Teaching Certificate Program

If think you could use a partner to help you brainstorm ideas for improving your course, contact an instructional designer—we’d be happy to assist you. We do make “house calls!” Contact us at TILT@ColoState.EDU or 970.491.3132.


Reiser, R.A and Dempsey, J.V. (Eds.)(2002). Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Additional Instructional Design Resources:

Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (1997. Educational technology: Definition and glossary of terms. Washington, DC: Author.

Commission on Instructional Technology. (1970). To improve learning: An evaluation of instructional technology. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Ertmer, P.A., & Quinn, J. (2003). The ID Case Book: Case Studies in Instructional Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Seels. B.B., & Richey, R.C. (1994). Instructional Technology: The definition and domains of the field. Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor