The Foundations of Instructional Design

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The Foundations of Instructional Design

The Foundations of Instructional Design

While instructional design has its roots in education, there are a number of foundational theories that have affected its development:

  • CIP
  • Situational Learning
  • Connectivism
  • Constructionism


CIP stands for cognitive information processing, and it is a theory about how people learn based on memory. It is made up of three fundamental components:

  • Sensory memory: Information must first register with a learner and learners are selective in what they retain. Sensory memory relies on the learner's senses.
  • Short-term memory: After the information has registered in the sensory memory, it passes to what is known as short-term or working memory, which is limited. Learners can hold about seven pieces or "chunks" of information at one time.
  • Long-term memory: After short-term memory, the information moves to long-term memory. The information is remembered and applied over time.

An analogy often used to describe CIP is that of a computer; the mind acts as the computer storing the information that is obtained.

CIP not only relies on the different forms of memory, but how the information is moved through each memory stage.

Say a student is listening to an instructor present a fact in a class on motivating employees. The fact is that most employees are motivated by the ability to use their skills and abilities first and foremost, above pay. The information first enters sensory memory through hearing; that is, the learner hears the information as it enters sensory memory.

Then, attention is applied to the fact. The learner begins to process this information, and it moves to short-term memory.

Here, something called rehearsal takes place. Rehearsal is the repetition of the information in the short-term memory.

As the fact moves to long-term memory, something called encoding takes place. The learner may use imagery here. So the student in our example may imagine a scale with skills and abilities on one side, weighing higher than a stack of money.

Now the information has moved to long-term memory, where the student will use retrieval to remember and apply this fact to his or her job in the future.

Situational Learning

Situational learning is also sometimes referred to as social learning. This theory is based on learning as participation: participation with a community. The learner is a part of a larger community, which is part of an organization.

Examples of situational learning in practice include:

  • A classroom of students role playing a situation.
  • Workshops, where learners participate in small-group sessions.
  • A mentoring relationship in the workplace.

Imagine it's the first day of your new job. Your manager gives you some printed training materials, and then sets you up with a mentor, who works in your job role and has been at the company for many years. This would be an example of a situational learning experience.


Connectivism is a learning theory that says that the process of learning is connected to emotion, that both thinking and emotion influence each other. Furthermore, the learner's personal knowledge is connected to organizational learning.

Connectivism is based on the end goal of the learning process as the learner being able to do something, e.g., perform an action.

Connectivism also says that learning is a continuous process. We are always acquiring new information. New technology also facilitates new learning.

The connections that a learner forms when learning, the person's network, contribute to the process of acquiring knowledge.

An example of connectivism would be an activity in a classroom where learners present their knowledge or experiences on the topic. For example, if learners were in a class on how to increase sales, each participant could share personal experiences with how sales were increased. This might trigger some ideas for the other students.


Constructivism is a learning theory made popular by Jean Piaget that puts the learner at the center of the knowledge. Learner construct the information, from their own experiences, rather than just absorbing it passively.

Constructivism is another learning theory, like connectivism, that relies on learners to contribute to knowledge. This learning theory is seen as an interactive experience, with the instructor acting more as a guide and less as a lecturer.

A constructivist class on graphic design might have learners working in small groups to create a graphic scene versus an instructor lecturing at the front of the classroom. Learners would work together on their designs, drawing from each other's experiences as they work.