Instructional Design: Inspire Students and Empower Teachers

Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design

As educators today, we have more tools available for our use than any generation of students or teachers before us. It’s our job to decide which tools we want to bring into our classrooms and how we want to use them. This is no small task.

We all know that giving a student an iPad isn’t necessarily going to turn them into a Rhodes Scholar. So, it’s up to us to do our research about how to best use the libraries, computers, phones and space at our fingertips.

This is where instructional design comes in. The Department of Instructional Technology at Utah State University defines instructional design as the incorporation of “known and verified learning strategies into instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective and appealing.” In short, the job of an instructional designer is to make learning easy.

In my line of work, we specialize in instructional design for the workplace, primarily for employee onboarding. If you come to our office, you’ll see teams of instructional designers, writers and artists working together to create a learning experience catering to the specific needs of our clients. And while our office may look different from your school, we’re all educators and educators have to stick together. So, if you’re looking for ways to bring instructional design into your classroom, here are some pointers about where to start.

Connecting with and Inspiring Students through Games

If there’s one thing that’s hot right now in instructional design, it’s gamification. For many educators, their instinct is to resist this strategy, and it’s hard to blame them. After all, we’ve all seen the damaging effects too many video games can have on a student’s performance in class.

But instead of wasting your energy hating games, you may be better off trying to harness their power in your classroom. After all, games are motivational powerhouses. How else do you explain those all-night gaming marathons? In Dr. Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken, she suggests that tapping into the motivational powers of games might just be the key for connecting with and inspiring your students.

Chances are your students are already gamers. Today, gaming is bigger than ever. According to The Houstonian, a record-breaking 36 million people watched the League of Legends World Championship in 2015. That’s just a few hundred thousand shy of the 36.6 million people TV Guide reported tuning in to watch the Oscars last February. If you don’t know what League of Legends is, just ask your students–one of them will undoubtedly know. According to the Huffington Post, it’s likely that they’re among the 183 million Americans who play video games for at least an hour each day, with 97 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls under the age of 18 playing video games regularly.

But what is a game? What do croquet and League of Legends have in common? On the surface, it seems like they couldn’t be more disparate, but McGonigal says that all games share four essential elements: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation. These elements create an environment that encourages players to work harder than they would in any other circumstance.

Empowering Teachers through Gamification

Now, admittedly, getting voluntary participation in an educational environment is sometimes tricky, but as educators, we can focus on goals, rules and feedback. Give your students a goal that goes beyond passing or failing. A good goal provides students with a larger sense of purpose. This combined with real-time feedback of telling them how close they are to achieving their goal will help excite and motivate students.

Rules are also important in this process; McGonigal explains that, “By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.”

Don’t be afraid to present your students with challenging material, because if we can eliminate their fear of failure by providing them with a clear purpose, rules and the tools to evaluate their progress, they’ll rise to the challenge.

These three elements—goals, rules and feedback—may seem a little abstract, so let’s explore some of the ways we might be able to apply them in the classroom. You may be surprised to find that gamification doesn’t always have to involve computer programs and apps.

For example, to help your students become more engaged in plant biology, you may want to start a garden. Your goal could be to throw a class party with food made from the products of your labor. For a rule that will encourage creativity, try making it an indoor garden. This project comes with its own built-in feedback system; as the students see their plants growing, they’ll see that they’re getting a little closer to their goal each day.

Additional  Tools

If you don’t have much of a green thumb, you might try different class activities. Apps like ClassDojo help provide students with feedback, no matter what activity or goal you choose to prescribe. Websites like Investopedia can help your students feel like Wall Street tycoons while getting a better handle on economics. Or, encourage your students to create a movie based upon a book you’ve read in class. With each of these tools and activities, you can easily provide rules, goals and feedback catered to your students’ needs to help them get and stay engaged.

At the end of the day, this is what instructional design is all about—assessing the needs of our learners and using our knowledge to meet them where they are. It’s a powerful tool for educators everywhere. We hope that implementing some of these techniques may help you on your way to creating the best possible environment for your students.


Blake Beus is the Director of Learning Solutions at Allen Communication Learning Services. Follow him on Twitter: @BlakeBeus.

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