4. Instructional Design Principles


An overview of the SAM instructional design model for planning and developing high quality blended or online courses.


After reading and reviewing this chapter, learners should be able to:

  1. Define different delivery types.
  2. Understand the fundamental similarities between different design models.
  3. Outline the steps in the SAM instructional design (ID) model, with the support of Backwards Design approaches.
  4. Understand the sub-steps and analysis considerations of each step of the SAM ID model.


  1. Introduction Definitions
  2. Instructional Design Models
  3. SAM Overview
  4. SAM Step 1: Evaluate
  5. SAM Step 2: Design
  6. SAM Step 3: Develop
  7. Interview with an Expert: Michael Simonson on the U-M-T model
  8. End-of-Chapter Resources

Section 1: Introduction

When starting an online course design project, it is critical that course developers have a clear understanding of what constitutes quality online learning and an approximate amount of time required to design and develop an online course. Some institutions use a rubric to help guide quality instructional design such as the Quality Matters (QM) rubric. The QM rubric consists of eight general standards that range from course overview and introduction criteria to accessibility and usability criteria.

This eBook will use two instructional design models to guide the learning:

  • Successive Approximation Model (SAM), by Michael Allen (1993)
  • Backward Design (BD) Model, by Grant Wiggins Jay McTighe (1998)

Both of these models highlight the importance of starting with the end first. They design backwards from the learning objectives to ensure that all content is directly aligned to the course learning goals. These models start with analyzing and clarifying what competencies and course outcomes are desired, and then mapping back so that all learning content and assessments directly support those end goals. This means that the course developer should begin the design process with measurable and clearly written course-level outcomes that will be mapped or aligned to all assessments, instructional materials, activities, and/or technologies utilized in the course. By knowing where we want learners to end we can thus design the best pathways for getting there.


In this chapter, the following definitions will be used:

  • Blended-learning – A delivery model where a portion (40%-60%) of the course contact hours are face-to- face (f2f) and the remaining are conducted via online eLearning activities and Learning Management System (LMS) software. Synonymous with: Hybrid Learning, sometimes called a form of distributed learning.
  • Instructional Design (ID) – An organized procedure for developing instructional materials, classes, or pro- grams. Synonymous with: Instructional Design Systems.
  • Educational Technology – The study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources (according to the Associ- ation of Educational Communications and Technology [AECT]).
  • Electronic Learning (eLearning) – Use of electronic media and devices through networks or interactive telecommunications systems to connect learners, resources, and instructors at varying levels of technology in- tegration and delivery formats including distributed learning, blended-learning, synchronous or asynchronous online courses, digital collaboration, Web 2.0 integration, and Knowledge Management. Synonymous with: Internet-based training, online learning, distance education, CBT, WBT.
  • Online Learning – A class where 40% or less of the course hours are f2f, with the greater portion of the course hours being delivered via online asynchronous or synchronous eLearning activities and LMS software.
  • Technology Integrated Face-to-Face (TIF) Learning – A term for face-to-face (f2f) instruction utilizes technology and/or web-based electronic media to support teaching and learning processes. Synonymous with: Distributed learning.
  • Learning Management System (LMS) – LMS is a term used for any learning management system an educational program uses, and can include, but is not limited to: Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, and Canvas.

Delivery Types

The three main delivery types are defined in the following Table and Figure.

Table: eLearning Delivery Modes

Table 4.1

Delivery Mode Definition
Technology Integrated f2f Learning Face-to-face (f2f) instruction that integrates eLearning (technology-based) educational experiences. In this model, classroom teaching is still the main essential component and makes up 80% or more of the course hours. A course is created to host the eLearning resources so as to supplement this teaching. Traditional f2f courses can implement a variety of LMS tools, including quizzes, assignments, communication tools (such as discussion forums), and group project work.
Blended Learning: A hybrid/mix of face-to-face instruction and distance instruction where a portion of the course hours are conducted online either asynchronously (different time and different places) or synchronously (same time but different places). From 20% up to 60% of the course hours can be online, while at least 40% of the course hours must remain face-to-face. Hybrid courses can also implement a variety of LMS tools, including quizzes, assignments, communication tools (such as discussion forums), and group project work.
Online Learning Online learning is where >60% of the course instruction is online using eLearning technologies and an LMS. There is minimal face-to-face interaction between the student and teacher, and all learning material is hosted in the LMS. The teacher and students communicate via the discussion forums, chat rooms, instant messaging, by phone and with email. The entire course is orga- nized in such a way that students are able to learn at their own pace yet respecting the deadlines for course deliverables.

Figure: eLearning Delivery Modes

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Section 2: Instructional Design Models

 Instructional design approaches should attend to the following important factors:

  • Equivalency – Designing for equivalent learning experiences is one of the most important concepts of high quality instructional design. A student should have an equivalent learning experience in an online course as to what they would do and learn in a face-to-face course (Simonson, Smaldino Zvacek, 2015).
  • Quality – The blended learning or online course should allow for high-quality learning experiences that attend to the 4 M’s; measurable, motivational, meaningful, and memorable (Allen Sites, 2012).
  • Success – The blended learning or online course should be designed in such a way that students can guide their own learning to successfully achieve the learning goals and competencies.
  • Reputation – As student schedules get busier they demand more online learning opportunities. Having a sound instructional design process ensures that the program will maintain its reputation for high-quality learning regardless of the delivery format.

There are many Instructional Design System (ISD) models used in different contexts and fields. Following are just a few of the most commonly used models:

All of these models have the same main factors in common:

  1. START WITH – Goals and Context Analysis Step: Start with the goals: what do we want to achieve? Where will the learning take place? With what tools?
  2. NEXT EVALUATE – Assessment Determination Step: Analyze or design how the student will prove they have achieved the learning; what will be assessed, thus leading to the assessment strategy or required performance criteria.
  3. THEN CREATE – Design Step: Determine the most important learning content, delivery platform, and tools, so as to achieve these previous two items.
  4. FINALLY – Develop and Implement (including revision): Create the learning objects, and use them with participants, and through feedback revise, redesign/develop, and improve as needed.

Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

This eBook will focus on the SAM Model, though recognizing that all the models listed above have similar function and basic factors, so aspects of the other design models mentioned make their way into the descriptions of each SAM step since they all cover much of the same design criteria.

The simplified SAM model follows the following three main steps, and a discussion in greater detail will follow

Key Concept: Be choosy when deciding on tools during the design process.

The flexibility afforded by eLearning makes it possible to include the latest technological developments accessible online. Among these are Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, social groups, RSS, video, podcasts, tagging and other socially-generated media on the Internet. But it is important to make the right tool choices for the right needs and for the right context. Do not use any tool just for the sake of using a tool. Make smart curriculum-based tool choices that fit into the instructional design and that map back to the learning goals to directly support student learning.

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Section 3: SAM Overview

The SAM model follows some of the proceeding main concepts: Learning is not static, therefore neither should instructional design methods be. Learning is never a linear path. “Boring instruction is costly, damaging, ineffective, and wasteful” (Allen & Sites, 2012, p. 4). Learning should be a circular process that is always repeating, analyzing, and improving. It should allow for agile creativity throughout the process such that, based on feedback, the teacher can easily improve the process and products without having to start over. The steps used are secondary to the quality of the learning result. Media, delivery format, and educational tools are a means to an end, learning achievement. Defining learning achievement is difficult as it varies from person to person, school to school, topic to topic, culture to culture, and country to country. For the sake of this eBook, learning achievement is described as context-based relevant skills useful to the student’s life, interests, and environment. The learning product and format is less important than learning achievement, which is based on the learning goals, processes, and results.

SAM is an evolution of ADDIE. Allen outlines the need for a new model that can be more agile and that allows for more creativity in the process, where one should analyze the learning product desired before defining the process for obtaining that product. “The goal is always about performance. What can people do with their new knowledge? What skills are necessary for success?” (p. XX). Like the last two models analyzed, this one focuses on the goals before designing the learning materials. It “begins with the end in mind” since “It is impossible to define the best path to traverse if you don’t know where you are going” (Allen & Sites, 2012, p. XX). As advertised, the SAM model is a modern and agile process allowing for quick creativity on the fly

The following figure is the full SAM model:


SAM Model In the preparation phase there are two steps gathering information and the SAVVY Start, in the iterative design phase there is project planning and additional design, and in the iterative development phase there is a design proof an alpha test, a beta test, and a gold. Finally the final product is rolled out

View this image at http://www.alleninteractions.com/sam-process


This model, however, is a more complex cycle of phases more in-line with professional instructional design programs. Instructors can use the more simplified SAM model to apply to individual courses, a model that breaks the design process down into three main steps.

The following figure is the simplified SAM model for that instructors can use to guide their instructional design projects:

Start, Evaluate, Design, Develop, End

View this image at http://www.alleninteractions.com/sam-process

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Section 4: SAM Step 1: Evaluate

The first step is to evaluate the needs, goals, required competencies, context, content, and learners, and to determine how the learners can show proof of learning acquisition. Following are some questions to ask during this step:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • What are the learning needs?
  • What is the learning context?
  • What will be the delivery type?
  • What are the learner technology skills? What technology help will they require?
  • Will there be prerequisite skills to provide? What tutorials will be needed for them to be successful with the technology or tools used in the course?
  • What type of Internet and course access will the learners have?
  • What should students be able to DO as a consequence of the learning?
  • What should students be able to KNOW as a consequence of the learning?
  • What should students be able to UNDERSTAND as a consequence of the learning?
  • What types of assessments will show proof of achievement?

Organizational Considerations

In addition to measurable and appropriate course-level outcomes, online course developers need to consider a design that is consistent with either a developer’s other online course(s), with other departmental courses, and/or courses within the same division. Working towards a common design template can aid students when discovering the purpose and structure of online courses. If structure and organization are at least similar across different courses, then students need not waste additional time re-learning such things as course navigation and can focus on what is important – the course content (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015).

Learning Outcomes

The course developer should begin the design process with measurable and clearly written course-level outcomes that will be mapped or aligned to all assessments, instructional materials, activities, and technologies utilized in the course (Allen & Sites, 2012; Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). When drafting course-level outcomes, it is helpful to review Bloom’s Taxonomy for appropriate and measurable learning outcomes verbs. It is important to write course-level outcomes that are not only measurable, but that are also suited to the level of the course. This means that course-level outcomes that use verbs such as “assemble” or “synthesize” are often not suitable for a low level introduction course.

Learning Outcome Verbs and Associated Methods

Learning Outcome Verbs and Associated Methods

Learning Outcome Verbs and Associated Methods

Bloom’s Understanding Action/Verb Learning Method Assessment
Creating assemble, create, design, develop, write, organize, synthesize case studies, debates, discussions, creative projects discussion, student, presentations, debates, lead tutorials
Evaluating appraise, argue, defend, select, critique, rank plan development, interviews, research, design and build model, portfolio, student presentations,
Analyzing compare, contrast, criticize, examine, test case studies, simulations, discussion, labs essays, portfolio entries, compare and contrast questions
Applying choose, demonstrate, employ, illustrate case studies, scenarios, procedures video with self-evaluations, problem set
Understanding classify, describe, explain, translate readings, demonstration, discussion student presentations, short-answer questions
Remembering define, duplicate, list, recall, recite, state lecture, memorization, video, web information student recitations, labeling graphics

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Section 5: SAM Step 2: Design 

This step is where all the learning processes and products are designed. The story boards for videos and screencasts are created. The types of assessments and assignments are outlined. The overall course organization, layout, and order are visualized. You create the design of your course, unit, or module.

Some important factors in the design stage are:

  • Chunking of content
  • Organization of the course content into the online course
  • Planning the learning processes vs products
  • Creating story boards of videos and screencasts
  • Determining how student learning will be assessed
  • Finalizing the order of the course topics

And some important design considerations are:

  • Technology Considerations:
    • File Types: Try to use universal file types that people can open on any device, such as a PDF file type or the eBook file type
    • Prerequisite Skills: Design in tutorials and guides for any skills students need to do the course assign- ments.
    • File Size: From the evaluation step, know what type of Internet access students will have, and make sure that file sizes are not too large for them to download. If possible embed or stream items already on the web, making learner access easier as they do not have to download the content at
    • Accessibility: Think about not only learning challenge access to the course content, but also about different learning
    • Second Language Learners: Think about the understanding of second language learners and make sure that directions are accessible for all.
    • Mobility: Learners like to be able to access their content from multiple devices and locations. Think about ways to make the content more mobile-ready.
  • Interactivity Considerations:
    • Peer-to-Peer: Design in ways for the students to connect, share, and help each More peer-to-peer sharing will lower dropout rates and improve student satisfaction.
    • Peer-to-Professor: Design in multiple ways for the students to connect with the instructor for
    • Communication Strategies: Design in ways for students to get announcements, tutoring, help, and information about the course on a weekly
    • Multiple learning Approaches: Design in ways for the students to learn the same topics in different ways so as to attend to different learningInteractivity Considerations:
    • Tool and Method Substitution: Have a backup plan for tools and software so that if one is not working, another can be introduced in its place.
  • Layout Considerations:
    • Chunking of Content: Make sure that the directions, rubrics, videos, and content students need to complete a given task or assignment are all chunked and organized together. Do not make them go searching around the course to try and find what they
    • 2-3 Clicks: No content in a course should be more than 3 clicks down. At that point it is too deep and will be very hard for the learner to Content that can be 2 clicks or less to get to from the main page is much easier for learners to locate.
    • Learning Nuggets: Break learning topics down into “bite-sized” learning nuggets. An hour long video can be broken down into 10-minute subtopics, or a lecture can be broken down into 15-minute And make it easy for students to mark where they have left off, and return to it later.
    • Colors: Think not only about Universal Access when choosing colors in a course, but also about eye strain. Red-on-black might seem like a good idea but learners will not thank you for
    • Flow: Think about the organization, ordering, and layout of the content. Items should be in logical places, and topics organized in a reasonable flow of content. In a face-to-face course the instructor can guide the learning through the content and manage the flow of content, but in the online course the student must be able to do that
    • Scrolling: Avoid the long page of never-ending scrolling. It is too hard for learners to find what they need. Concise, short, simple to read, follow and find content is the
    • Autonomy: Design for learner autonomy. This is essential! The instructor is not present to help guide student learning in the online course, so students need to easily be able to do it They should have access to all they need to be successful.
  • Quality Considerations:
    • Equivalency: This eBook will repeat this important factor time and again because it is a key All online and blended learning should have equivalent learning experiences to the face-to-face course.
    • Hands-On: Design in ways for students to get hands-on experiential If the face-to-face course took a field trip to a National Park, then have them go to one on their own or with their family, and take pictures to share in a discussion forum. There are many ways to design in personal learning experiences for the students.
    • Real Learning: Remove fluff and filler. That is the reason this eBook advocates the backwards design approach. Start with the elearning goals and map all learning experiences, assignments, and assessments directly to the learning outcomes and required competencies. This way learners are not wasting their time.
    • Community Connections: This eBook has an entire section dedicated to building strong online learning communities which, in turn, support student success and help reduce dropout
    • Avoid Plagiarism: The best way to avoid cheating is to create assignments and assessments that are so interesting and personalized that students cannot cheat. Good design prevents plagiarism.

Online Course Organization

When considering the organization of a course, it is helpful to know what options are available to course developers within the  LMS. If it is clear that the instructor will be providing a significant amount of content that isn’t from   a textbook, then various LMS objects could be used to better organize and present the information beyond simply uploading individual files. Providing alternate means of accessing the same information will also meet quality elearning standards regarding accessibility and usability criteria.

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Section 6: SAM Step 3: Develop

In this step the designs from step 2 are created, implemented, piloted, tested, and then redesigned as needed. This is where the processes vs the products will be produced.

Table 4.3

Products Processes
Videos Inquiry based learning
Handouts Peer-to-peer interactivity
Podcasted audio lectures Project based learning
Digital flash cards Discussion requirements
Interactive images Project methods

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Section 7: Interview with an Expert

Dr. Michael Simonson: U – M – T Design Approach

Dr. Simonson is a program professor in the Instructional Technology and Distance Education program with Nova Southeastern University. Here he shares his preferred design approach for a university level 3-credit semester course:

In the traditional university, the 50-minute class session is the building block for courses. Usually, 15 classes are offered for each semester credit, and a 3-credit college course would have 45 class sessions in a 16 week semester. Distance delivered courses often do not have class sessions. It is proposed that the topic be the fundamental building block for instruction. Topics are organized into modules that are further organized into units that are roughly equivalent to a semester/course credit traditionally offered using 15, 50-minute class sessions (Orellana, Hudgins & Simonson, 2009).

When courses are planned, the designer might want to use the Unit, Module, and Topic approach or model (UMT approach), as explained next. Unit, Module, Topic Guideline:

  • Each semester credit = 1 unit
  • Each unit = 3-5 modules
  • Each module = 3-5 topics

A typical three-credit course has 3 units, 12 modules, and 48 topics. Working definitions of unit, module, and topic

are as follows:

  • Unit. A unit is a significant body of knowledge that represents a major subdivision of a course’s content. Often, one unit of a course would represent 4 or 5 weeks of instruction, and would be equivalent to a semester credit. For example, a unit in an educational statistics course might be Descriptive Statistics.
  • Module. A module is a major subdivision of a unit. A module is a distinct and discreet component of a unit. Generally, a unit such as Descriptive Statistics might be divided into three to five major components, such as Statistical Assumptions, Measures of Central Tendency, Measures of Variation, and the Normal Curve. Modules generally are the basis for several class sessions and are covered in about a week of instruction and study in a typical 15 week college semester.
  • Topic. A topic is an important supporting idea that explains, clarifies, or supports a module. A topic would be a lesson or an assignment. Topics in a module on Central Tendency might be Median, Mode, and Mean. These three terms can be used in a variety of ways. Of importance is the idea that topics form modules, modules form units, and units are the main subdivisions of courses.

End-of-Chapter Resources


  1. What course product types (videos, handouts, quizzes, learning objects, etc) are best suited to which learning processes (Project based learning, inquiry based learning, etc)? Are some products the best choice for a given learning process?
  2. Take a learning outcome for your course and look at the Bloom’s Taxonomy graphic and table in this chapter. What action verbs are used in your learning outcome? What level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is expected of the students? What types of activities or assessments would suit the learning level?
  3. What learning processes best suit your course? Which products would you choose to use?


Begin designing one learning unit for your blended or online course. It should contain elements and considerations from each step of the SAM model, which are outlined in the sections of this chapter. There are also key considerations of the planning and design process in the Planning the Perfect Online Course chapter as well.

Those two chapters walks you through the planning and design process.

As you complete this task, keep some of these (though not limited to) important considerations in mind:

  1. Media selection: what tools will best suit the learning outcomes.
  2. Blooms Taxonomy: what level are students expected to achieve. How will your students get to that level? Will you scaffold activities or lessons to achieve that level? What learning methods, activities, and assessments will you use for that plan?
  3. Interactivity: How will you design in ways for students to have peer-to-peer connections, learning opportunities and communication? How about peer-to-instructor?
  4. Pre-requisite Skills: What skills do students need in order to successfully complete this unit?
  5. Design considerations: does the unit plan address design considerations as discussed in this chapter.


  • Virtual Learning: learning that can functionally and effectively occur in the absence of traditional classroom environments (Simonson & Schlosser, 2006)
  • Blended Learning: Allen and Seaman (2003) defined a blended learning course as “having between 30% and 80% of the course content delivered online” while they considered an online course as having “at least 80% of the course content delivered online” (p. 6).
  • Equivalency: the online course should offer an equivalent learning experience to a face-to-face course. Not the SAME learning experience, but equivalent


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