Return to the IDT Record

Instructional Theory and Instructional Design Theory:
What's the difference and why should we care?

Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, Ph.D
Department of Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University

The Instructor The Instructional Designer

The context of instruction
As a secondary school teacher, my years were spent teaching three courses per semester during six class periods a day to students ranging from 13 to 18 years of age. My students varied in their entry-level knowledge, their learning skills, their motivations for learning, and of course in their very personalities. The dynamics of group interactions were different in every class I taught. Consequently, what happened during each class period was unique and mostly unpredictable.

The context of instructional design
When I was an instructional designer for a Fortune 100 telecommunications company, I spent very little time instructing or implementing lesson plans. Instead, I spent most of my time planning instruction that others would teach. As an instructional designer, my job was to create instructional designs that would be replicated over time, space, and various individuals. My work was to develop a course so that each instructor would teach it as I intended, so that different instructors would teach the course the same way, so that courses in different locations and environments would provide the same learning experiences to different students, and so that courses taught at different times would be delivered in similar fashion.


The objective of the instructor
My objective as a teacher was to ensure that every student learned as much as possible about the subject, to the best of his or her abilities, knowing that each student would have reached a different achievement level by the end of the semester.

The objective of instructional design
As an instructional designer, I was responsible for ensuring that any particular course taught to learners in different locations, at different times, by different instructors would be as similar as possible. My objective was to facilitate standardization of instruction by doing my best to account for variation between instructors, instructional locations, and instructional schedules.


The work of the instructor
To achieve my objective, I manipulated the strategies of instruction: I concentrated on setting expectations, providing resources, presenting examples, facilitating practices, administering assessments, and giving feedback; I engaged in summative evaluation to understand what my students had learned. I spent a bit of time each day planning my lessons, but I spent much more time implementing them, adjusting as I went, and because of the uniqueness and unpredictability of my students, rarely did my plans work exactly as intended.

The work of the instructional designer
In order to achieve my objective, I manipulated elements of the instructional design process: I analyzed the tasks that students were to learn, I analyzed the locations and timeframes of the instruction, I analyzed the characteristics of instructors as well as the characteristics of students; I looked for ways to design instructional and instructor materials so that they were most likely to be used by instructors and students; I struggled to develop instructor materials and instructional materials given constraints of budget, time, and human resources; I engaged in formative evaluation to see if the materials worked and I revised materials as necessary, based on findings from these evaluations.


The concerns of the instructor
As an instructor, my greatest concerns were with variation and sufficiency; I worked to ensure that every lesson and activity was sufficiently targeted to meet the individual needs of each student, given the differences between members of each classroom group.
The concerns of the instructional designer
As an instructional designer, my greatest concerns were with efficiency and standardization; I worked to ensure efficiency of both the instructional design process and the instructional product, and to provide standardized instruction to learners, given differences in time, location and instructors.
The Issue at Hand

The point of the two preceding scenarios is to make the case that instruction and instructional design are not the same thing. While both instruction and instructional design are based on and derived from theories of learning, these are two different activities based on different contexts, different objectives, different activities and different concerns. Questions of how instructional designers should design instruction, how instructors should deliver instruction, and ultimately of how learners learn are very different, and each is a very important question in its own right.

(Having just made the case that instruction and instructional design are different activities, I want to acknowledge here the inter-relationships between them. It is true that instructors - as is often the case in corporate contexts - may focus solely on implementation, or - as is often the case in schools - instructors may also be instructional designers. It is also true that instructional designers may focus solely on design, or they may also periodically serve as instructors. Obviously, instruction and instructional design are both informed by and impacted by the other, but still, that does not mean they are the same thing.)

The problem is, in the field of Instructional Design and Technology, we somehow do not seem to recognize the differences between instruction and instructional design. Consequently, we confuse the questions and theories of these two distinct activities.

For examples of this confusion, we need look no further than two of the seminal texts of our field. The first is Instructional-Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current Status, edited by Charles Reigeluth (1983) and including work from some of the most respected names in the field, including Lev Landa, Dennis Aronson and Leslie Briggs, M. David Merrill, John M. Keller and David Krathwohl. Though the title of this book is "instructional-design theories," the majority of the chapters in it address instructional theories, such as "The Algo-Heuristic Theory of Instruction," "A Cognitive Theory of Inquiry Teaching," "Component Display Theory" and "Motivational Design of Instruction" - to name just a few.

In Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Volume II, edited by Reigeluth (1999), the confusion continues with chapters by David N. Perkins and Chris Unger on "Teaching and Learning for Understanding;" Hannafin, Land and Oliver's "Open Learning Environments;" "Collaborative Problem Solving" by Laurie Nelson; and Thomas and Elizabeth Kamradt's "Structured Design for Attitudinal Instruction."

Even though the titles of these books include the term "Instructional-Design," it is my view that the theories presented are actually theories that have to do with instruction, and that these books do not address theories that have to do with issues of instructional-design as related to the work of instructional designers.

To be fair to Reigeluth and the chapter authors of the popular "green books" (known for the color of their covers), I want to make it clear that Reigeluth defines the term "instructional-design" in a very different manner than I am using it here. I, obviously, am using the terms "instruction" and "instructional design" in a colloquial sense based on the position descriptions of people who have the titles "instructor" and "instructional designer" in their professional work.

Reigeluth's definition of "instructional-design" is more systematic, specialized, and academic than my own. I shared a draft of this article with Dr. Reigeluth, who is my colleague at Indiana University. He provided the following email response, and I believe his own words are much better for explaining his definition than any paraphrase I could provide, so I partially quote them here:

In Chapter 1 of Volume I, I had a diagram that showed several sub-disciplines (or sub-fields) within "instruction": analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Each of these sub-areas has its own theory, and jointly they make up "instructional theory." The instructional design sub-area deals with methods of instruction: what the instruction should be like (italics mine). This is what you were defining as "instruction" in your article… Also, in that chapter I have a section on the difference between instructional-design theory and ISD process. That distinction seems to be similar to your distinction between instruction and instructional design, respectively.

Now, in Volume II I describe a slightly different though largely overlapping meaning of instructional-design theory. I distinguish between design theory and descriptive theory. As Landa pointed out in Volume I, instructional theory can be descriptive, and it can be prescriptive (design theory). There are many kinds of design theory, as Herb Simon (1969) pointed out in The Sciences of the Artificial. Design theory of instruction is one of those kinds. Hence, instructional-design theory could be contrasted with instructional-descriptive theory. Obviously, this meaning has almost 100 percent overlap with the one derived from that diagram in Volume I, and in both cases it is a very different meaning from your use of the term "instructional design."

It is clear from Reigeluth's explanation that his concern in the green books is "with methods of instruction: what the instruction should be like" - and the chapters in these books are true to their purpose and obviously address concerns of instruction very well. Yet, after readers are finished with these books, there is still the need for a full, methodical treatment of issues that are important to instructional designers, as I have outlined them above. My own assumption is that what we call instructional-design theories should have something to do with the legitimate concerns of instructional designers and focus on the design process itself, addressing issues such as how to conduct analysis, how to design and develop instruction, how to address issues that impact implementation (instead of focusing on implementation itself- which is in the realm of instructional theory), and finally, of how to complete formative and summative evaluation. Instructional-design theories may also address issues related to the value of instructional design models, exploring issues such as the efficiency and effectiveness of ADDIE and rapid-prototyping models (Gordon & Zemke, 2000).

Summary Table: Differences between Instruction and Instructional Design
The purpose of the table below is to briefly summarize a few of the key differences between instruction and instructional design in terms of the goals and activities of each, as well as the theories that inform them.
  Instruction Instructional Design
Ensure learning to the best of each student's abilities, given variation between and individual differences of learners
Facilitate standardization of instruction by accounting for variation between instructors, locations and schedules
Activities - Set expectations
- Present examples
- Provide resources
- Facilitate practices
- Administer assessments
- Give feedback
- Task analysis
- Context analysis
- Learner analysis
- Instructor analysis
- Identify design constraints
- Materials development
- Evaluation
Prototypical Theories

- Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction (Gagne, Briggs & Wager, 1992)
- Merrill's 5-Star Instruction (Merrill, 2003)

- Instructional Systems Design model (Briggs, 1977)
- Rapid Prototyping model (Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990)

Concerns - Sufficiency of instructional approaches
- Variation between learners

- Efficiency of design process
- Efficiency
of instructional products
Standardization of instructional delivery


For the doctoral program in the Department of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, we administer a written qualifying examination that is blind-reviewed by faculty. During one recent examination students were asked to explore the relationships between Alexander et al's (1977) theory of design called "pattern language" and theories of instructional design. I was so struck by the insights of one student on this topic that I captured their thoughts in my book of quotes. S/he wrote: "Instructional Systems Technology is a design field that doesn't recognize the work of design."

Unfortunately, I have to agree with my unidentified student. I propose in this article that we need to recognize that instructional design is not the same as instruction. We need to care about instructional design theory. We need to address it intentionally and explicitly.

If we in the field of Instructional Design and Technology do not recognize the difference between instruction and instructional design, who else will? If we don't recognize the difference, we lose a point of focus, an important opportunity to add value, and an avenue of differentiation between our field and other related fields such as curriculum and instruction, educational psychology, learning sciences, information science and telecommunications.

We need to study systematically the work of instructional design and the impact of what instructional designers do. No one else is going to do this work. We need to be more intentional about developing instructional design theories, about testing them, and about promoting them within our own field and to those in other fields.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. London: Oxford University Press.

Briggs, L.J. (Ed.) (1977). Instructional Design: Principles and Applications. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Gagne, R.M., Briggs, L.J. & Wager, W.W. (1992). Principles of Instructional Design (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Gordon, J., & Zemke, R. (2000). ISD under attack. Training, 37(4), 42-53.

Merrill, M.D. (2003). Does your instruction rate 5 stars? URL: (Access date, May 4, 2003).

Reigeluth, C.M. (Ed.) (1983). Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current Status. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reigeluth, C.M. (Ed.) (1999). Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tripp, S.D. & Bichelmeyer, B.A. (1990). Rapid Prototyping: An Alternative Instructional Design Strategy. Educational Technology Research & Development, 38(1), pp. 31-44.

August 2003 IDT Record