Instructional Design and Individualization: Standardized Approaches for Individualized Outcomes


Instructional Design

We have all worked somewhere, perhaps under someone else’s supervision, where we have had the inclination to say—at least to ourselves— “If I were in charge, I would….” During those moments, we are questioning both the ability and the approach of the organization to meet different needs, objectives, and efficiency requirements. Conversely, we may have worked in an environment that was very productive and where objectives were often met—just not with the same level of quality that was intended. Projects produced in such an environment are submitted with a disclaimer like “It was the best I could do with what I had to work with” or something similar. Our critiques of the organization’s approach, or our subtle expression of our needs, may be well-grounded in our firsthand experience; however, these approaches are rarely systematic.

The reality is that many organizations, whether they are startup organizations or well-established organizations, may benefit from systematic instructional designs. For startup organizations, a well-conceived instructional design—although time intensive at the onset—could save the organization time and money in the long run, as well as help them ensure they achieve their desired productivity objectives. For well-established organizations, systematic instructional designs could be employed for various reasons. They can be used to improve the current efficiency level, address a specific problem that has been observed, or to expand into new product or service areas. For established organizations, a key consideration with instructional designs is that one should approach the design in such a way that its implementation does not worsen the existing problem being addressed.

One can generalize and say that the systematic instructional design process should occur, at the very minimum, at the onset of a new project. However, as can be seen from the brief description above, instructional design can also be valuable any time there is a noted change. This can be a problem that has been observed that is impacting performance, or it can be the implementation of something new that requires additional training or upgrading of facilities. To generalize to a mere three value-laden words, systematic instructional design seeks to increase “performance, efficiency, and effectiveness” (Rothwell, Kanazas, Palloff, Pratt, Smith, & Ragan, 2003. p. 3).

Although the above description sounds mostly applicable to a standard business environment, many of the same ideas are also useful in academic instructional design. After all, running a school is running a business, only the customers are different and the product is a somewhat intangible nebulous thing called education. But is the product—education—really nebulous? Without a systematic approach to the instructional design, it certainly can appear to be; however, with planning, educational outcomes can become increasingly measurable and definable, and a teacher’s success at delivering the educational product can be better assessed.

What is particularly interesting about education as a “product,” however, is that the “consumers” of each unit are multiple. In other words, unlike a physical product, which when “sold” goes to only one consumer, there are many stakeholders or purchasers for each recipient of education. Federal, State, and local governments are large-scale consumers, putting financial resources and performance demands on schools; parents are local consumers, selecting educational opportunities for their children (in the form of public or private education, or in the form of enrolling their children in different schools); and finally, of course, the students receiving the “product” directly are also consumers, whether by choice or not.

This breakdown of the “consumers” is of interest because it makes the job of an instructional designer all the more challenging. Measures of effectiveness or efficiency are different at each level. A disinterested student, for example, may have few demands or expectations of a program, and the process is all that matters. Performance measures may be the most of their concerns, with little regard for efficiency or effectiveness. To contrast with a disinterested student, an enthused student may have demands which exceed the realistic capabilities of a teacher or a particular course.

Imagining that both the students mentioned above were in the same class, does this imply that the instructional design for this course has failed? Not necessarily. While the previous two examples have focused on consumer-side results, most instructional design is concerned with the impact on the producer. Based on the goals and objectives established with the instructional design, it is quite possible that the course was successful.

Yet this instructional design is not without its flaws. Where this instructional design suffers most is in the area of efficiency. Within one classroom, we have a teacher who perhaps expends a great amount of energy trying to reach a student who is, by our earlier definition, disinterested, and we have a student who has already achieved the objectives and is essentially waiting for the rest of the class to arrive at the same point. Neither of those situations is an efficient one; in both cases, the “cost”—time—is not always proportionately represented in the “benefits”—learning. If that scenario were to be repeatedly observed, the school, or at least the classroom teacher, should conduct a needs assessment.

Needs assessments are integral to instructional designs. In fact, it is possible that a needs assessment may determine that no changes are necessary in an organization’s existing instructional design, or that modifying the current instructional design will incur negative outcomes. Needs assessments are critical, however, because they strive “to uncover, more precisely than performance analysis does, what the performance problem is, who it affects, how it affects them, and what results are to be achieved” (Rothwell et al., 2003. p. 14).

Needs assessments should be conducted before creating an instructional design, whether the design is taking place for a new organization or an established one. As such, needs assessments are usually broadly defined as either comprehensive or as situation-specific (Rothwell et al., 2003. p. 16). In our above classroom example, the needs assessment would most likely be situation-specific for two main reasons. First, it is taking place at an established organization, so unless the organization itself is undergoing major changes, it is unlikely that it would need a comprehensive overhaul of its instructional design. Second, the problem is an isolated one observed by a teacher who wishes to improve the efficiency of the delivery of the product; it is likely that other teachers may have similar difficulties, but based on the little narrative evidence we have, it is a situational problem.

A needs assessment is a helpful stage of the instructional design process because it helps identify the many variables that we may want to consider, as well as the level of interconnectedness of these variables. Especially in an environment like a school or a classroom, there are many different channels of feedback and information flow. Among the different paths for information to travel, one can observe that information flows bilaterally between federal, state, or local governmental authorities and school administrators; between administrators and teachers; between teachers and students; between teachers and parents; and between students and parents.

For an instructional designer, the act of identifying and addressing an audience on a broad level is difficult. This is another reason that it may be beneficial for a classroom instructional designer to conduct a situation-specific needs assessment. As a reminder, with our example, performance and effectiveness appear to be satisfactory. The audience of the needs assessment in this example would be the producers themselves—the teachers; their focus audience for the subsequent revision of the instructional design are the students.

During the needs assessment, teachers will have to identify goals, objectives, and the tools they would need to help them achieve these objectives. When writing the objectives, the teacher may include items like “All (100%) of the students will be able to remember their multiplication tables by the end of two weeks of instruction.” Including a time expectation as an objective measure will help address the issue of efficiency.

Of course, even with these steps, there is no guarantee that all concerns will be adequately addressed nor will this guarantee that the “product” of education that teachers are delivering will be uniform. To address this, one can be even more situation-specific with their planning and create individualized education plans for each student. As in the prior paragraph, objectives will be specific; however, the focus will be on an individual student based on an assessment of his or her needs.

As can be seen above, systematic instructional designs can help incredibly with the creation and the delivery of a product. As is also evident, however, is that the field of instructional design is far from simple. There are an incredible number of variables to consider. Can we account for them all? Can we control all the variables we do succeed in identifying? Perhaps not. As teachers, taking a systematic approach towards producing high-quality education will require attempting to maximize the potential of each input in the process of production and allowing for individualization in the process.


  • Rothwell, W., Kanazas, H. C., Palloff, R. M., Pratt, K., Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2003). Instructional Design. (University of Phoenix Custom Edition). NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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