The Nature of Instructional Design


This research characterizes the nature of instructional design (ID) through the consideration of its central tendencies. In defining ID It considers the extent that the discipline can be considered scientific and examines its definition as a technology, and examines its core components.
  • What is the discipline of instructional design?
Instructional design is the strategic use of techniques to facilitate a learning experience for students. Wilson (2004) writes, “The practice of instructional design has been defined as a science, a technology, a craft, and even an art.” Indeed, the very nature of instructional design is a contested issue, as theorists debate the relative nature of the discipline.
  • Do you believe instructional design aligns with a science? Why/Why not?
While it’s clear that instructional design incorporates scientific principles in its construction of instructional strategies, the extent that the discipline can be deemed strictly scientific is highly debatable. Indeed, this very question has been debated by Merrill (1966) and Wilson (2004).

Merrill’s manifesto, ‘Reclaiming Instructional Design (1966)’ situates the discipline in strictly scientific terms; Merrill argues, “Like other sciences, instruction is verified by discovery and instructional design is extended by invention. Instructional science, the foundation for the technology of instructional design, is the discovery of instructional strategies.” Even as Merrill convincingly argues for the scientific nature of instructional design, his article tends more towards promoting the field to continue along scientific paths of exploration, rather than realistically acknowledging the contemporary state of the discipline, or many of its subjective tendencies. Other theorists, such as Wilson (2004), have a more realistic conception of instructional design; Wilson writes that, “I tend to think of ID expertise as a craft …Craft knowledge is practical knowledge owned and transmitted within a community about how to design and make things. That knowledge is partially encoded in published models, theories, techniques, and rules, but another part remains tacit within the community’s culture.” In this regard, instructional design is situated not only within the scientific formulations of discovery, but in the practical application of these formulations in creative and artistic ways.

The underlining scientific nature of instructional design is contingent on the worldview of the designer. As contemporary philosophy has exhibited a trend towards relativistic interpretations of reality, a subsequent trend in instructional design demonstrates that ”prescriptive theories of instruction lie in a space between descriptions of the world and direct guidelines for practitioners.” (Wilson 2004) Ultimately, it’s not a question of whether instructional design is scientific or not (it clearly incorporates scientific testing, e.g. Skinner), but a matter of where one distinguishes science from philosophy from artistry.

  • How is instructional design described as a technology?

Instructional design has been characterized as a technology in a number of ways Wilson (2004) writes, “ID practice can be seen as a technology—applying known techniques and procedures to yield defined outcomes.” Merrill (1966) similarly characterizes instructional design as a technology, by indicating its foundations as a man made component, “The technology of instructional design, like other technologies, is not a natural phenomenon. It is man made, designed to serve our needs. Design research involves inventing procedures and processes which incorporate what we learn from instructional science. These instructional design procedures are not governed by any natural laws.”

  • How does instructional theory differ from learning theory?

The difference between instructional theory and learning theory is that instructional theory focuses on the physical components of instruction, such as manuals, presentations, and texts, while learning theory is concerned with broader concepts of implementation and organization. Merrill (1966) describes the difference succinctly, “While instruction takes place in a larger organizational context, the technology of instructional design is concerned only with the development of learning experiences and environments, not with the broader concerns of systemic change, organizational behavior, performance support, and other human resource problems.”

  • What are the critical components of instructional design?

While designers don’t agree on an objective set of critical components that define instructional design, a recent theory by Wilson (2004) posits four main categories of distinction: individual cognition and behavior, social and cultural learning, values, and aesthetics.

  • What are the tasks that instructional designers must perform?

Instructional designers perform a variety of tasks. Indeed, one of the characterizations of the discipline is its malleability in the face of new challenges. When considering the specific tasks Wilson (2006) writes that designers, “design instruction and related resources that meet learning needs for defined audiences and settings. This includes tasks of management, implementation, and evaluation”.

  • What are the critical skills for instructional designers?

While theorists may differ slightly on this question, with some stressing an emphasis on scientific processes over craft (Merrill 1966), Wilson (1966) formulates a succinct answer when he states, “Outstanding practitioners of ID must demonstrate high levels of creativity, general knowledge, wisdom from past experience, and ability to adapt to location conditions.”


Merrill, M. D. Research Group at Utah State University (1996). Reclaiming instructional design.

Educational Technology, 36(5), 5-7. Retrieved February 12, 2010, from:

Wilson, Brent G. (2004) Foundations for Instructional Design: Reclaiming the Conversation, retrieved, Feb. 12, 2010.

Let's make that grade!