Design Strategies, Processes

Introduction of a New Series: Instructional Design Patterns

“Christopher Alexander, an Austrian-born architect, had a simple, elegant idea. His idea was that people should name and describe solutions to common problems in architecture. He called this a ‘design pattern’.” – From Design Patterns – Coming Full Circles


There are patterns all around us. In the technical world, there are design patterns in architecture, in software engineering, in user experience design, or in anything that we can create a solution(s) to common problems. In Instructional Design, at the course level, as an example, we find design patterns in instructional design theories and models.

Design patterns exist so we can reuse the solution(s) to common problems and not reinvent the wheel. In this series, in each post, I would like to introduce an instructional design pattern. Some (especially the ones that focus on instructional methods) can be quite similar to Instructional Design Models but a little more approachable, so I hope it can be applied more readily in our work. I will base each of them on one or more instructional design or related models and theories or research evidence. The design patterns will not only about instructional methods, but also about other topics such as visual design, multimedia design, or eLearning navigation design.

I hope you enjoy this series.

Why is using instructional design patterns beneficial?

Each time a common learning problem is posed, imagine you just need to look up a library of instructional design patterns that are categorised according to your needs. After selecting the pattern(s) you want, you then only need to customise them a little and maybe organise them to fit your situation. That would save you a lot of time than coming up with a new design from scratch, wouldn’t it? Advantages of design patterns include:

  • Reduce time and cost in the development of learning products that address common learning problems
  • Allow more time for understanding your learners
  • Allow more time for creating features that best solve the problem and fine-tuning the learning products
  • Adhere to instructional design standards.

Where do we find patterns?

Patterns are everywhere if we just take a little time to observe what we see every day. Many fields also have created patterns to help make their work processes more productive.

In Daily Life

There are many patterns you can find in human behaviours and rules created over time to solve problems, e.g. traffic rules to solve traffic problems or basic etiquettes to show consideration for others. When we make a mistake, we say sorry. When someone does something nice, we say thank you. We stand in line when there are more than one person wanting the same service. There are amazingly beautiful patterns and symmetries we can see in nature, e.g. waves, snowflakes, flower petals.

In Architecture

The Design Patterns – Coming Full Circles article talks about the architect Alexander’s classic book A Pattern Language that describes patterns from micro level (individual spaces) to medium level (the relationship between buildings) to macro level (regional and town planning). The patterns can be combined together.

In Software Engineer

The idea of patterns has been applied to programming, especially object-oriented programming. For examples, refer to the Design Patterns – Coming Full Circles article.

In User Experience Design

Imagine you need to design a log in page or the activity of checking out a shopping cart, would you like to refer to tried and tested patterns?

“More and more, designers can rely on robust and comprehensive interaction pattern libraries for solving common design use cases.” – From The State of UX in 2017

Google’s Material Design is a great example of a cohesive set of design patterns. It is a design language and provides very comprehensive libraries of design patterns and guidelines for the design of Android apps and beyond.

In Instructional Design

We can also have design patterns at different levels. Next section will explain in more detail these levels. Examples you may have come across include instructional design theories and models (e.g. Gagne’s Nine Events of Instructions), instructional strategies, eLearning templates or any templates that help with your design and development processes.

The Taxonomy of Instructional Design Patterns

To help make the instructional design patterns more accessible, I will categorise them using different dimensions (see Figure 1). This will help make clear when the pattern should be used. Note that there is not one single best solution for a common problem.

Taxonomy lD Patterns

Figure 1. The taxonomy of instructional design patterns

Type of Instructional Design (ID) Pattern

Below is a broad categorisation of instructional design patterns.

  • Curriculum design: This type of patterns provides strategies for designing effective curricula which include different subjects comprising a course of study. It is about the organisation and sequencing of subjects in an effective way.
  • Instructional methods: This type of patterns provides strategies for designing effective learning experiences that are:
    • Either limited to a single subject and cover one or a few interrelated topics and skills (e.g. Gamification)
    • Or supporting an effective learning culture (e.g. Social media learning strategies)
    • Multimedia design: This type of patterns provides strategies for designing different medial elements such as graphics, audio, video, and interactions. See the section on Media type for a list of different media relevant for learning.

Learning Hierarchy

Learning Scope

This indicates the scope of the learning that a specified pattern will support.

  • Learning culture: This article provides a definition of learning culture in an organisation.
  • Curriculum/Programs (i.e. a collection of many courses and experiences)
  • Courses
  • Course elements (e.g. presentation, pages, navigation, help, interactions, activities, assessment)
  • Media elements (e.g. images, audio, digital documents, print documents, digital interactions, videos, interactive videos, animation, virtual reality, augmented reality)

Course/Resource Duration

Duration of a program is closely related to the amount of knowledge/skills that need to be covered. Below are the different types of programs categorised by duration and listed in an increasing order. Note that these categories can overlap. In this context, duration indicates the amount of actual instruction, not the length of time from the beginning to the end of a course.

  • Micro course: from minutes to 30 minutes
  • Mini course from 30 minutes to a few hours
  • Short course: up to a day
  • Medium-length course: from a day to a few days
  • Long course: a few weeks, e.g. a semester-long university course

Education Level

This indicates the education level that a specified pattern will support.

  • Kindergartens
  • Elementary education
  • Secondary education
  • Post-secondary education/Higher education
  • Adult learning

Learning Context

Definitions of formal learning and informal learning can be controversial. This article refers to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training’s definitions of formal, non-formal and informal learning in Cedefop (2014).

Formal learning:

“Learning that occurs in an organised and structured environment (such as in an education or training institution or on the job) and is explicitly designated as learning (in terms of objectives, time or resources). Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically leads to certification.”

Non formal learning:

“Learning which is embedded in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically does not lead to certification.”

Informal learning:

“Learning resulting from daily activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support. Informal learning is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective.”

Delivery Mode

As technology rapidly develops and expands, we will have more to add to the list of how we deliver learning experiences. Here are what we may find:

  • eLearning
  • mLearning
  • Instructor Led Training (ILT)
  • Virtual ILT
  • Blended
  • Virtual reality/Augmented reality

Learner Characteristics

Examples of learner characteristics include:

  • Prior knowledge and skill levels: This is a very important factor to consider.
  • Background (e.g. culture)
  • Technology skills

Type of Content

There are different ways to categorise content. I use Smith and Ragan (2005)’s eight types of learning: declarative knowledge, concepts, procedures, principles, problem solving, cognitive strategies, attitudes, and psychomotor skills.

An Example of the Taxonomy Application

Let’s apply this taxonomy on the classic Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. See Figure 2 for which criteria are applicable for Gagne’s Nine Events of Instructions.

Criteria Usage Card Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction

Figure 2. Application of the taxonomy on Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

Structure of Articles on Instructional Design Patterns

Each post on an instructional design pattern may (but not always) include the following items.

  • A statement of the common problem that the design pattern will solve
  • A brief overview of the design pattern
  • An usage criteria card specifying the criteria for the design pattern (i.e. when to use the pattern – using the taxonomy of the patterns described in the previous section)
  • Guidelines or principles of the patterns
  • Correct and incorrect implementation
  • Theory and/or research behind the design.

How to use patterns?

Depending on the learning problems, you can either simply replicate pattern(s) or make some modifications. In many cases, you will find that you will need to use a combination of different patterns. The less modifications you have to make, the more beneficial the use of patterns is. If you have to modify the patterns significantly to fit your situation, then maybe it is better to design from scratch.

What’s next?

I look forward to sharing with you the first instructional design pattern in the next article of the series.


Cedefop (2014). Terminology of European education and training policy: a selection of 130 terms. 2nd ed. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

Design Patterns — Coming Full Circle – The Startup – Medium“. Medium. N.p., 2017. Web. 3 June 2017.

Design Patterns — Coming Full Circle, Part Two – The Startup – Medium“. Medium. N.p., 2017. Web. 3 June 2017.

Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional Design. 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons.

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  • Reply Paul Adams January 11, 2019 at 2:49 am

    Hi, I’m and ID working in the software industry and very familiar with the concept of design patterns. I came to the conclusion that our team needs something similar to enable rapid development of our e-Learning projects.

    Have you posted anything else on this topic? I would liker to know more about your thinking on this.

    • Reply Hien January 16, 2019 at 10:00 pm

      Hi Paul, thanks for your comment. I haven’t had a chance to post more on this. You mentioned you work in the software industry. What topics do you normally need to design training for? If you want to do rapid eLearning development, have you thought about using eLearning templates? For example, you can build templates around a few designs that work well for the types of topics you need to build eLearning for. Templates can be at module-level or interaction-level.

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