What is an instructional-design theory?

Gagné and Dick (1983) described the characteristics of instructional theories in terms their functions and foundations.

Reigeluth (1999) used the term 'instructional-design theory', which is defined as a theory that "offers explicit guidance on how to between help people learn and develop. The kinds of learning and development may include cognitive, emotional, social, physical and spiritual."

Reigeluth (1999) explain instructional-design theory from several aspects:

Its characteristics
Reigeluth (1999) described four major characteristics of instructional-design theory:

  1. It is design-oriented: it focuses on means to attain given goals for learning or development à it provides direct guidance on how to achieve their goals. Design-oriented theories are very different from descriptive theories, which describes the effects that occur when a given class of causal events occurs, or which describes the sequence in which certain events occur
  2. It identifies methods of instruction, i.e. ways to support and facilitate learning, as well as the situations in which those methods should and should not be used.
  3. In all instructional-design theories, the methods of instruction can be broken into more detailed component methods, which provide more guidance to educators about different components and different ways to perform the methods; different kinds of methods; offering criteria that methods should meet.
  4. The methods are probabilistic rather than deterministic: focusing on control instead of description and explanation à In other words, instructional-design theories intend to control variables in the learning environment to achieve certain results

Its components
There should be two major components in instructional-design theory:

  1. Methods of instruction: methods for facilitating human learning and development
  2. Instructional situation: indications as to when and when not to use those methods and descriptions of the conditions under which the instruction will take place

Its focus on value for decision making
Both values and empirics are important for making decisions about how to teach as well as what to teach. All the instructional-design-theories state explicitly what values guide their selection of goals and what values guide their selection of methods.

Its importance
It provides guidelines for practitioners. It transforms descriptive theory into methods of how to work, developing techniques and determine implementation details that are applicable to most conditions

Reigeluth provides (1999) three questions to examine what an instructional-design theory can offer:

  1. What methods best facilitate learning and human development under different situations?
  2. What learning-tool features best allow an array of alternative methods to be made available to learners and allow them to make decisions (with varying degrees of guidance) about both content (what to learn) and methods while the instruction is in progress?
  3. What system features best allow an instructional design team (that preferable includes all stakeholders) to design quality learning tools?

What instructional-design theories are discussed?

The instructional theories discussed in this knowledge base are classified as follows based on the different theoretical foundations about learning.


Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: An new paradigm of instructional theory, Volume II.. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.