Seven Common Mistakes of Instructional Design

Designing an entire e-learning course from scratch is no simple task, and there are many pitfalls along the way that might lead to a less-than-engaging end product. Be aware of the following seven mistakes that might arise while designing your course.


1. It’s too overwhelming

After speaking to subject matter experts and doing your research, there can a temptation to include as much information as possible in your e-learning course. After all, you don’t want to miss anything. But it’s your responsibility to sift through this information and decide what is necessary to accomplish the outcomes of your course. Including everything and the kitchen sink will overwhelm your audience and detract from the main course objectives. There should be a clear goal to impart relevant information, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal takes away from it.

2. It’s too long

Similarly, if a course goes on forever, a learner’s attention will begin to unravel and you risk losing them to distraction. Attention spans can be short, so try and break your course into simple, bite-sized micro-learning experiences that can be completed on the go. Include frequent breaks in the content to allow learners to feel refreshed between chunks of content. It’s important to plan your course meticulously in advance so you can focus on the content that matters – give your learners only what they need; this will increase retention and you won’t have wasted time creating content that will only be trimmed later.

3. Lack of interactivity

Interactivity increases the impact content has on students and thus reinforces learning and retention. It turns learners from passive to active participants in the subject matter. Online courses should be much more than endless paragraphs of plain text. Consider your authoring tool’s interactive features and add meaningful interactions as well as engaging audio and video. Include elements of gamification such a badges and leader boards to grab learners’ attention. Keep in mind how active you want learners to be while completing your course: if they’re simply scrolling and nothing else, information may be flowing in one ear and out the other.

On the other hand, be wary of meaningless clicking. Having locks of clickable interactions does not always equate to meaningful engagement – be intentional and precise with your design.

4. Can’t be viewed on mobile

Mobile devices are becoming the main tool for viewing and consuming content. This is also true for online courses. Learners want content that is available anywhere and at any time without needing to rely on a computer to look it up. Make sure your authoring tools provide mobile functionality. Before you publish your course, make sure you test its user experience on mobile devices.

5. Assessments that don’t stimulate the brain

Assessments can come in a variety of forms, from multiple choice questions to simulations to drag-and-drop interactions. Designers who dedicate all their time to writing the course content and fall short on writing stimulating assessments are denying their learners a meaningful way to show their newfound skills and knowledge. Assessments should be considered a critical part of the course as they challenge your learners to engage their brains. Test your assessments by asking someone who has never taken your course to complete them; if they are able to pass, the assessment is probably too easy and won’t provide adequate stimulation to learners.

6. Lack of repetition

The brain can absorb and process incredible amounts of information, but our brains are also dragged in many competing directions by daily distractions. The best way to make sure information sticks is by repeating it at least three times throughout the course. One way to create meaningful, repetitive material that isn’t invasive is to recall and bring different learning concepts together to form a bigger picture. This allows you to repeat things over and over to really hammer the point home.

7. Ignoring your audience

Before embarking on the course creation process, you need to do a thorough needs analysis of your target audience, or you risk alienating them from the get-go. Discovering some facts about your audience – such as their education level, their role/job, their level of comfort with technology, where their learning will happen (at work, at home, at school, etc), and how hey will be expected to apply their new knowledge in the real world – will help you craft content that is much more meaningful. No matter how slick a course looks, if the content doesn’t connect with its audience, you’ve failed as an instructional designer.


Written by Rob Ewart


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