5 Instructional Design Models You Should Know

Industry Advice Education

Instructional designers are responsible for creating learning experiences based on the unique needs of a specific audience or topic. While some design and develop curriculum for pre-K-12 and higher education organizations, others design instruction, including learning materials for professional products, processes, or skill development for government, nonprofits, and corporate environments.

For all these applications, instructional designers use evidence-based design models to ensure that products and experiences are efficient, effective, appealing, engaging, and inspiring, says Elizabeth Mahler, associate teaching professor and faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Professional Studies in Learning Experience Design and Technology (LXDT) program. 

“In the past, learning was very much behavioral. A teacher stood up in front of the class and students learned primarily through repetition and practice,” she says. “Over the past 50 years, we’ve moved on from an ‘instructivist approach’ to design models that ensure the design is aligned with the content, context, and the learner needs. There are a number of different models, and a good designer should be able to move from one to the other to ensure that a specific need is met.”

While a variety of models exist today, Mahler says the following five are key examples often used by learning designers today. Below we offer a look at each model, what sets them apart, and the integral components that learning designers may use in their approach to the design process.

1. ADDIE Model

Why It’s Notable 

ADDIE—which stands for analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation—is generally considered the most common design model and is the archetype for newer spinoffs.

Learn More: Responsibilities of an Instructional Designer (ADDIE Model)


  • Analysis: Establish the instructional problem and overall instructional goals, and identify the learner’s needs, including existing knowledge and skills.
  • Design: Outline learning objectives, instructional strategies, assessments, content, subject matter analysis, lesson planning, and media selection.
  • Development: Create and assemble content and instructional materials. Changes to the overall design may be made, based on continued evaluation of learner, context, and content needs.
  • Implementation: Develop training—including instructional guides—for instructors/facilitators, test or pilot key resources and materials of instruction—including technology—and consider needs in regard to budget and staffing. 
  •   Evaluation: Finalize formative and summative evaluation plans.

Interested in a Career in Instructional Design?

Northeastern’s MPS in Learning Experience Design and Technology can prepare you to succeed in this evolving field.


2. Backward Design/Understanding by Design (UbD)

Why It’s Notable

This model is based on the ideas and research of cognitive psychology. It aims to provide students with engaging learning experiences that facilitate their understanding while maintaining alignment to established learning standards. UbD is an iterative process that promotes constant reflection and improvement of curriculum.


  • Identify desired results (Stage 1): Consider goals, examine established content standards, and review curriculum expectations. Designers must prioritize based on long-term performance goals and skill objectives.
  • Determine assessment evidence (Stage 2): Distinguish between two types of assessment: performance tasks and other evidence. Performance tasks ask students to apply their learning to a new situation as a means of assessing their understanding. Performance tasks include traditional quizzes and tests.
  • Plan learning experiences and instruction (Stage 3): Plan lessons and learning activities to address the goals identified in the first stage.

3. Design Thinking Model

Why It’s Notable

This model of design is a solution-based approach to solving complex problems by understanding and empathizing with the learner. In becoming an ethnographer in the empathize phase, the designer hones in on the needs of the learner and the creative solutions that the design can offer as solutions.


  • Empathize: Gain an empathetic understanding of the problem by observing, engaging, and empathizing with people to understand their experiences and motivations. Empathy encourages designers to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs.
  • Define: Compile information from the Empathize stage to analyze and synthesize observations in order to define the problem.
  • Ideate: Identify new solutions to the problem using a variety of techniques.
  • Prototype: Produce inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product or features within the product to investigate the solutions. The aim is to identify the best solution for each of the problems identified in the first three stages.
  • Test: Test the complete product using the best solutions from the prototyping phase. These results are often used to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of the users. Alterations and refinement may continue to be made during this phase.

4. Fink’s Significant Learning Model 

Why It’s Notable

This model consists of six categories of learning aimed at creating meaning from experience. The basis of this model is rooted in the belief that, for learning to occur, there must be a change in the learner. This is a non-linear interactive model that identifies significant learning categories and how they impact the learner. 


  • Foundational knowledge: Establish a working knowledge of the ideas, language, and skills needed to pursue additional knowledge.
  • Application: Understand how to apply the learning.
  • Integration: Leverage the relationships between knowledge categories.
  • Human dimension: Learn about the relationship between people and information.
  • Caring: Nurture personal perspectives and affections to contextualize and improve learning.
  • Learning how to learn: Understand how to become a better student and establish fluency with learning as a process, cause, and human outcome.

5. ARCS Model

Why It’s Notable

The ARCS model—which stands for attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction—is a problem-solving approach to analyzing, sparking, and sustaining learner motivation throughout instruction.


  • Attention: Engage the learner’s attention in ways that include active participation, variability, humor, incongruity and conflict, specific examples, and inquiry.
  • Relevance: Establish relevance through concrete examples. These include using learners’ existing experiences, establishing present worth, detailing future usefulness, needs-matching, modeling, and offering choice.
  • Confidence: Help students understand their likelihood for success. If they feel they are unable to meet objectives, their motivation will decrease.
  • Satisfaction: Establish a reward system, whether it’s from a sense of achievement, praise, or entertainment.

These instructional design models are integral to creating efficient, effective, appealing, engaging, and inspiring learning experiences across industries. Instructional designers hoping to excel in this field should consider how Northeastern’s MPS in Learning Experience Design and Technology (LXDT) can set you on a path toward success.

This article was originally published in June 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.