25 Rules Of Thumb Deemed Important In Instructional Design

id-rules-of-thumbWhat rules do instructional designers rely on to solve design problems? What insights become patterns for future use?

Research has shown that during problem solving, experienced instructional designers will adapt procedural ID models to each situation and rely on previous experience as the need arises, particularly when uncertainty is present (Kirschner et al., 2002). But what rules of thumb do they fall back on and which ones are most important?

I recently came across a fascinating study by two instructional design professors—Cindy York and Peggy Ertmer—who have been looking into these questions. A few years ago, the professors attempted to verify and gain consensus on which heuristics (rules of thumb) experienced practitioners think are most important in the instructional design process (York and Ertmer, 2011).

Their study used the Delphi technique to gain consensus on what was important. This technique solicits opinions from participants in iterative rounds of questions until they reach sufficient consensus. After three rounds of questions and feedback on 61 heuristics, the authors ranked them by mean ratings of agreement, which ranged from 4.26 to 5.88 (out of 6.0).

The first 25 heuristics are listed in the table below along with their mean consensus rating.

Heuristics Important in ID Practice (York and Ertemer, 2011)Mean rating of agreement (out of 6.0) as to importance
Know your learners/target audience.5.88
Determine what it is you want your learners to perform after the instructional experience. What is the criterion for successful performance?5.88
There are things that need to be determined at the front end in order to make you successful at the back end.5.80
Be honest with the client.5.71
When designing instruction, consider the context in which the learning will be applied. Ask yourself, ‘‘How can I put learning into context?’’5.68
Negotiate the scope of the project with the client and create a statement of work upfront.5.66
When designing instruction, consider active learning. Ask yourself, ‘‘How can I make learners more actively engaged?’’5.65
You have to be sensitive to the context and the culture of the client.5.63
Approach the design problem with the end in mind. What are the deliverables? What are the learning/performance outcomes?5.60
You need to build trust with the client. This can be done through explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it is of value to them.5.51
Figure out who all the stakeholders are in the room. And figure out who is not in the room that is still a stakeholder.5.49
The team is critical. Involve the right people at the right time.5.46
As a designer you need to listen more than you talk.5.43
Know your learners’ prerequisite knowledge.5.43
You need to manage the client’s expectations.5.43
When verifying information, you often will learn more information.5.41
Consider utilizing scaffolding in your instructional experience Give the learner the tools they need to succeed.5.41
You may have to mock up something to show the client to make sure that you get all of the desired outcomes right.5.40
Determine what will keep the learner motivated during the instructional experience.5.40
Ask yourself, ‘‘Is instruction the solution to this problem?’’5.40
Verify all the information you receive from the client to prevent miscommunication.5.31
Sometimes the client will not tell you all there is to know about a problem.5.29
The client thinks it is much easier to move from the conceptualization to the
implementation than it actually is.
Ensure that design speaks to a value chain of learning, i.e., that learning contributes to behaviors and that behaviors contribute to organizational or business results.5.23
You have to determine if the client really knows what they want.5.19

The study cautions that all heuristics were not necessarily used by all designers. But these are what the designers agreed were important to use in practice.

What rules of thumb would you add to this list? Add in the Comments section below.


Kirschner, P., Carr, C., van Merriënboer, J., & Sloep, P. (2002). How expert designers design. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 15(4), 86-104.
York, Cindy and Peggy Ertmer (2011). Towards an understanding of instructional design heuristics: an exploratory Delphi study. Educational Technology Research & Development, 59:841–863.

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  1. Jeff Dalto says

    One thing I try to think about a lot is “what can I leave out and supply as job aids instead.”

    I was surprised that the pre-requisite knowledge item was so far down on the list below.

  2. Misha Milshtein says

    Great rules! Many are used here in SweetRush.

    Here is an important one from the engineering world – know and understand the technology to be used on the project. Learn the power and respect the limitations – this will help you in creative and technical treatment design of your courses.

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Jeff,
    I like to do that too … streamline the eLearning and move additional materials to job aids, reference manuals, etc. Sometimes it’s the only way to deal with the stream of SME knowledge.

  4. Dave Courvoisier says

    I’m surprised nothing much is mentioned of the end-product presentation itself. Don’t many of those ELearning modules require the contracting-out of video and voice-over services in the final product? Wouldn’t your list include choices that improve the quality of the final presentation?

    Dave Courvoisier

  5. Robert Penn says

    I’ve learned the hard way how important this one is: “Figure out who all the stakeholders are in the room. And figure out who is not in the room that is still a stakeholder.” Those stakeholders who only materialize late in the project can cause problems since they have no buy-in to the process and objectives of the project. It’s important to find these stakeholders can get them involved early.

  6. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Robert,
    Oh yes, I’ve had that experience too. Thanks for the great reminder to always find out early in the process who else needs to approve or review a learning product or experience. Sometimes the most important people, not understanding the process, only want to see it at the end!

  7. Connie Malamed says

    There are actually 60 rules of thumb listed in the article, so that could be one of them. I didn’t want to list all 60, thinking that there could be copyright issues. Thanks for adding a very important one!


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