What do instructional designers do in higher education?

Sandra sitting at her computer in her office

The work and the placement of instructional designers vary from institution to institution. For instance, my former position was with the Library and Instructional Resources Services. My new position is with a Chancellor’s initiative for online teaching and learning. As for job tasks, if you’re the only designer on campus, you wear many hats. Conversely, you could be a part of a team with several designers. Most of the designers I know are mostly focused on designing and developing online courses, but this is not always the case. Course developers are generally instructional technologists or media specialists.


To illustrate specifically the work of an instructional designer, here are the activities listed from my resume:

  • Collaborated with faculty to develop 25 new hybrid and online courses for Theology and MBA graduate programs;
  • Conducted quality assurance reviews of all (80) online courses;
  • Wrote the Online Course Design Guide for faculty that addresses accessibility and copyright requirements, research-based practices for teaching and learning, and the collaboration process with the instructional designer;
  • Managed knowledge via Instructional Design LibGuide for faculty and students;
  • Trained faculty on educational technologies, andragogy, and how to make their online courses accessible;
  • Supported the Schoology learning management system (LMS) administrator with troubleshooting issues, developing supporting documentation and video tutorials, and LMS adoption (Previously served as LMS administrator for eCollege);
  • Participated in the development of the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan;
  • Wrote documentation for the College’s accreditation process for distance education, conducted quality assurance checks of reports in Compliance Assist, and served on the Strategic Planning Software Support Team with IT to develop methods and identify platforms for the interchange of input from all stakeholders; and
  • Served on the Educational Technology Committee and co-wrote the draft Educational Technology Framework and Distance Education Policy.


Sometimes instructional designers also teach, mentor, and provide service to the community even though it is not required for staff. Here’s a list of my activities:

  • Co-taught undergraduate interdisciplinary course (IDS394) on digital citizenship and fact-checking online data at my college;
  • Co-coordinator of the New Day Experience reentry project to reduce recidivism in Mobile County for which I supervised three undergraduate students for sociology internship course (SOC299) in 2018-2019 and mentored six student volunteers from 2015-2017;
  • Educause Games and Learning Steering Committee;
  • Board Member of Emerald Coast TESOL & professional development officer;
  • Mentor for Foley Center- Mentored 40  student volunteer English language teachers for the College’s migrant education night program; and
  • Board Member of college’s Friends of the Library.


Last, some instructional designers are also involved in research.  Read my Research Statement to learn about my activities.

What about you? If you’re an instructional designer, share how this differs or relates to your work.

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

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Online Course Design for Active Learning within the UDL Framework

A wordcloud in the shape of a Rubik's cube with these main words from the blog on active learning: learning, students, course, provide, can, and UDL.

This is a WordCloud based on my blog post on active learning.

Active Learning Defined

Active learning engages students directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction that’s student-centered, whereas passive learning occurs indirectly and without interaction. The latter is often, but not always, teacher-centered. Student-centered learning emphasizes learner control and manipulation of information, so students can actively use what’s learned. Students respond well when they have a participatory voice in their learning.

Active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. Examples of active learning include the following:

  • Studio model with a teacher or student observations and feedback (e.g., writer’s workshop, art production, portfolios);
  • Problem-based learning;
  • Group work (e.g., business proposals, case studies, mixed media presentations);
  • Debates;
  • Gaming and simulations;
  • Metacognitive strategies to monitor self-learning;
  • Transference of knowledge to new problems and situations; and
  • Assessments that require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

See the University of Michigan’s instructor worksheet to reflect on active learning opportunities you already use or would like to try.

UDL Defined

Universal Design refers to the consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities in regard to physical spaces, objects, and tasks. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recognizes those needs for course design. Its main premise is equal access to education and extends this to all types of learners. Active learning aligns with the UDL framework when lessons provide multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement (CAST, 2018). See my blog post on UDL to learn more and test your knowledge.

What does active learning look like online?

Active learning can take on different formats, levels of engagement, and levels of complexity in setup. It can be for individual or group work. Online educators use the community of inquiry (COI) framework to ensure students are engaged with the content, each other, and the instructor to maximize learning. Social presence (SP), cognitive presence (CP), and teaching presence (TP) are the essential elements to the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). This means that online learners are involved in cognitively challenging activities for CP (i.e., analysis, synthesis, evaluation), are able to interact with classmates for SP (e.g., discussions and projects), and that the teacher or student moderator is present in some way through communication, guidance, and feedback for TP. This aligns with the UDL goals to foster collaboration and community and to provide options for comprehension, communication, and executive functions (CAST, 2018).

Collaborative computer-mediated instructional strategies require interactive technologies such as videoconferencing tools for office hours and feedback, forum tools for asynchronous discussions, shared drive for collaborative documents, and portfolio or other platforms (e.g., blog, Google Sites, wiki) to share student work. These digital activities require clear guidelines for interacting with each other, the content, the teacher, and the tools in order to be effective (e.g., group roles, peer review criteria, schedule, samples, tool guides). Designing these opportunities for all students to access, build, and internalize information requires forethought.

Set the Stage for Active Learning

Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. A best practice is to provide an introductory course overview with your syllabus, schedule, and protocol for interactions (Quality Matters, 2018). For some examples, see my blog on Student and Teacher Expectations for Online Courses. Share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset. This aligns with the UDL’s Checkpoint 9.1: “Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation” (Cast, 2018).

Dweck (2009) described those who underestimate their ability to learn as possibly having a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn as having a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to be corrected; their ego isn’t tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset don’t pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning shouldn’t take any effort because it’s tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. Students with a fixed mindset may be resistant to active learning. See my blog post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students. This process aligns with mastery-oriented feedback promoted by the UDL to sustain effort and persistence (CAST, 2018).

Second, make sure students know how to use the learning management system (LMS) prior to high-stakes assignments to reduce anxiety and to reduce the cognitive load for the overall task. Here are some useful tasks to help familiarize students with the LMS:

  • Student acknowledgment form submission to try out the assignment tool (i.e., course expectations),
  • ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion,
  • Syllabus quiz to ensure students have read it (also practice test proctoring software if utilized in course), and
  • Poll practical experience on the course topic to better understand students’ prior knowledge on the subject and drive instruction to meet students’ needs.

This aligns with UDL’s Checkpoint 7.3 to provide a welcoming course climate and predictability of tasks (CAST, 2018).

Content Delivery

The lecture, demonstration, or direct instruction of a skill is a passive learning event unless students are provided ways to interact with the content. Consider using EdPuzzle, PlayPosit, or Camtasia Studio to engage learners while watching a video lecture or demonstration with questions to answer before preceding to the next segment. The former two premium tools provide instructors with learner analytics such as level of engagement, successful attempts, and grades.

Instructional strategies. Strategy selection depends on various affordances and constraints such as time and resources. For example, an activity-centered lesson is based on an interactive task and requires collaborative tools and student groupings. Content-centered lessons are passive tasks where the student generally only interacts with the content, the exception being discussions of content. Experience-centered activities require a hands-on approach to developing something or serving/working with others. The learner-centered activity provides the learner with more autonomy over their pursuit of knowledge and includes metacognitive actions for self-regulation of learning; the affordances and constraints for this type of activity are highly dependent on the task.

Overall, the best practice is to utilize a variety of instructional strategies to address learner preferences through multiple means of engagement and expression for the UDL. Here’s a list of online instructional strategies for each type.

Analysis of case studies

Critically review an article

HyperInquiry* team project

Academic controversy** assignment

Develop a book trailer on topic




Write a literature review

Complete modules on topic in computer-adapted program

Write essay

Make a presentation

Discuss content with peers and instructor


Develop questionnaires

Develop a personal model of topic

Participate in a simulation

Develop a workshop

Develop a wiki on topic

Produce a podcast on topic

Develop a how-to guide on a procedure

Write a blog post on topic

Serve others as a mentor, tutor, or volunteer on topic

Curate an art exhibit

Peer-review of papers or projects

Students create m/c questions for review

Design a project

Evaluate a program

Write an autobiography of your interaction with topic

Complete self-evaluation

Develop a personal learning network

Capture reflections in journal, audio, or video

Curate digital books and articles on topic for lifelong learning

Notes. *HyperInquiry is like a Webquest but at a deeper level of inquiry (Dempsey & Litchfield, 2001). **Academic controversy is a debate where students eventually take both sides of an argument.

Learning strategies. Learning strategies are ways students can engage with the course readings and other content to monitor their learning. Cognitive learning strategies include concept mapping, mnemonics, overlearning, metaphors, and similes. Embed these learning strategies into your instructional activities to build students’ brain schema on the topic and its relation to other subjects for long-term memory. Share this list of cognitive strategies with students. The difference between cognitive and metacognitive being concreteness versus meta-awareness respectively. Most students are likely familiar with structurally cognitive ones such as concept maps but may not be familiar with the others. Share this student learning organizer of metacognitive strategies. Tying learner strategies to your instruction will make it more inclusive.


Discussions can have well thought out open-ended questions provided by the instructor, student-generated questions, or no questions at all. For example, one instructor has had great success without providing questions in his online discussions. Instead, he tells students the purpose of discussions and that they’ll find suggestions for these by listening to his podcast or video lecture for that unit. To increase engagement in larger online courses, the University of California recommends short targeted discussions, role assignments, and subdivision of course material to get the students talking and keep them on task.

Roles. Provide structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, wrapper) and rotating those roles during the course. Additionally, this will prevent the same students from posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide SP to the online COI. See blog post on how to plan for an online COI.

Media. Use the audio or video recording features to share responses besides the text-based option to provide novelty and multiple means of representation. Ask students to provide a visual created by the student that illustrates their learning along with their reflection. See Google Drawing illustrating a students’ understanding of reading regarding semiotic domains. This provides both TP and SP for the online COI. The exchange of media will close the psychological distance between you and your students.

Monitor. For equity, a best practice is to create a matrix of teacher-student interactions to track your response efforts over the course of the semester. Monitoring your discussion posts will curtail various biases and ensure consistency. Use a spreadsheet to do this and include personal information shared in the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion to provide a more personalized context for meaningful interactions with each student.


Highly effective tasks are those which are situated within the actual task (authentic or simulated) or end goal for your course for near transfer of information to long-term memory. This is in contrast to far transfer tasks that are related but not exact. Situated learning occurs through different modes of co-participation based on situational factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Learning in one situational context may not transfer to another unless it closely mirrors it and the learner is properly prepared; therefore, authenticity is crucial to the learning situation (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

Groupwork. Student-led projects provide student agency in the design of their own learning. Provide the parameters, team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter), and peer evaluation forms to ensure everyone participates fully. Include expectations for group grade such as everyone provides proofreading of assignment prior to submission. Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing. Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.

Presentations. As for hybrid courses, maximize the face-to-face meeting by asking students to present their work to each other during seminar sessions in their level one courses. This is referred to as flipped learning when you use class time for student activities instead of teacher-centered activities. For fully online courses, students can share their media presentations (e.g., narrated PowerPoints saved as MP4 files, podcasts, video projects) with other students in a media hosting site that allows students and teachers to provide feedback, as well as tags, titles, and captions.


How can students demonstrate mastery besides multiple-choice tests? These are still useful for testing recall. However, to engage the learner in higher-order thinking skills, we should provide alternative assessments such as project-based learning, essays, portfolios, performance, products, and presentations. These don’t need to be end-of-term projects. Formative assessments can be formal or informal (practice tests, digital exit tickets, polls), which serve as comprehension checks and subsequent student feedback during the course. This is in contrast to summative assessments that test your cumulative knowledge on a topic at the end of the term. Formative assessments promote fairness by gathering evidence of students’ understanding throughout the course, which can be used to better inform/modify your instructional practices to meet students’ needs.

Testing is a learning event. Consider setting tests for multiple attempts to help students achieve mastery. This triggers new learning and/or review of content, as students revisit content for answers. Tolerance for error in course assignments also makes it more inclusionary. To prepare for a test, ask students to use the free tool PeerWise to create questions on the topic of study for each other to answer. Some instructors ask their students to submit questions for actual tests. In this scenario, students develop questions from the content according to its structure and importance.

Feedback & Guidance

Learning requires differing feedback loops offered at intervals throughout the course, hopefully, with just-in-time guidance. Feedback can come from intelligent tutors through computer adaptive programs, instructors, teaching assistants, peers, and subject matter experts from the professional field. Formats for feedback loops vary from discussions, recommended edits on a paper, rubrics, and assessments.

Rubrics. Rubrics establish the criteria and scale for various tasks such as discussions and assignments and make the expectations explicit. Rubrics provide consistency and speed with grading. Some electronic rubric features allow you to provide feedback at the criterion level and for overall performance. Additionally, you can tag your departmental student learning outcomes to these rubrics to help students understand why the task is important.

Scaffolded instructional feedback. Scaffolding instruction provides content in meaningful and manageable chunks of information. This entails providing visuals for structure, context, direction, and just-in-time definitions. For example, segment a lecture at viable points and ask reflective questions. For writing, break large tasks such as research papers into point-based phases of the writing process (e.g., outline, literature review with five citations, rough draft, final paper). Consider the UDL and design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, simulations).

Peer feedback. It’s critical to provide guidelines and criteria for peer feedback tasks. This involves establishing roles, a clear project description, rubric, and instructions for tools used. For writing, assign a peer review of draft papers utilizing MS Word tracked changes or Google Docs suggested edits. Instructors can request access to the documents for review.


In summary, for active learning, students need the following:

  • Preparation for learning events,
  • Situated learning environments for near transfer,
  • Planned multimodal interactions that are cognitively challenging,
  • Cognitive strategies,
  • Feedback loops, and
  • Metacognitive strategies to monitor their learning.

Review your understanding of active learning with this interactive reader developed by the UCLA Librarian, Douglas Worsham (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Dempsey, J. V., & Litchfield, B. C. (2001). Surfing below the surface of the Web: HyperInquiry. In B. H. Kahn (Ed.), Web-Based Training (pp. 229-234).  Englewood Cliffs, NY: Educational Technology Publications.

Dweck, C. (2009). Developing Growth Mindsets: How Praise Can Harm, and How To Use it Well. [Presentation]. Paper presented at the Scottish Learning Festival, Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/video/c/video_tcm4565678.asp

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3), 87-105.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Quality Matters™ Higher Education Rubric, sixth edition. (2018). Maryland Online, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

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Join me at AERA 2019 in Toronto

Sandra Rogers standing near AERA conference sign celebrating 100 years

I’ll be attending my second conference of the American Educational Research Association (#AERA19) this year. The theme is ‘Leveraging Education Research in a Post-Truth Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence.’  It will be held in Toronto, Canada from April 5-9th at the Metro Toronto Conference Centre. I was impressed with last year’s conference but a bit overwhelmed. Hopefully, with the help of their conference app, I’ll find the sessions I need.

View this link to see the poster for Dr. Khoury and my session: Rubric to Analyze Online Course Syllabi Plan for Engendering a Community of Inquiry: Round II. Come join me on Saturday morning, April 6, from 8:00 to 9:30am in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 300 Level, Hall C. It’s hosted by the Division C – Section 3b: Technology-Based Environments in the subunit for Distance and Online Education. I’ll be sharing copies of my Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric.

I’ve shared our research paper on the AERA online Repository.  Read this blog page to learn more about our study. My hope is that it will be replicated to validate the rubric and improve not only instructors’ syllabi but teaching and learning in distance education. Let me know if you’re interested in replicating our study.

Are you going to AERA? Let’s connect in Toronto!

Sandra Annette Rogers, PhD

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Instructional Design Graduate Assistantship Provided Apprenticeship

Dr. Rogers shows participants the various learning activities provided in StudyMate program
Sandra trained faculty at the University of South Alabama on various software programs such as Respondus’ StudyMate shown here.

This year, I’m celebrating my 5th anniversary as an instructional designer (ID). Prior to this career path, I was an educator for 18 years, so the transition was not difficult. As I reflect on the success I’m enjoying at Spring Hill College (SHC) now, I want to acknowledge the invaluable practical experience gained as an instructional designer during my doctoral program at the University of South Alabama (USA). I had a graduate assistantship with the Innovation in Learning Center (ILC) at the USA for 2 years.

Besides benefitting from tuition remission and a stipend, the apprenticeship provided me with the opportunity to work beside skilled IDs,  collaborate with a dozen of my classmates, and interact with faculty and students to address their needs. The assistantship purposefully had us cycle through various project teams, train-the-trainer sessions, and production tasks. Specifically, I was able to add these experiences to my resume:

  • Assisted the director of online learning with designing, developing, and delivering professional development and teaching tips for faculty to support student online learning via Sakai learning management system (LMS);
  • Moderated and maintained the online competency-based certificate course for faculty (Sakai 101: The Basics Online) and the orientation course for students (USAonline Student Course);
  • Supported the LMS administrator by answering technical calls from faculty and students; and
  • Served on the accessibility, resources, and USAonline teams to produce corresponding questionnaires, job aids, video tutorials, and reports (to include photography).

This apprenticeship grounded my doctoral studies, as I was able to think of developing trainer scripts based on Gagne’s 9 events of learning. See my previous post on a Pixlr workshop training plan.  Additionally, the formal and informal interactions with my peers provided opportunities to learn from each other, as the ID program is an interdisciplinary one. For example, my peers had advanced degrees in engineering, English, math, sociology, and IT. Many of my peers and co-workers from the ILC continue to shape my understanding of ID today through networking, professional development, and subject matter expertise on research interests.

If I didn’t have this well-rounded training and hands-on experience along with my doctoral coursework, I probably wouldn’t have had such as good start at my current workplace. For example, I was the first ID hired with a degree in the field at SHC. The previous person serving in the capacity of ID was actually the learning management system administrator and instructional technologist. All of the framework for collaborating with instructors as the ID (e.g., Online Course Design Guide, benchmarks, needs assessments, knowledge management, training), needed to be created from scratch. These documents initially relied on my ILC work experience but have since shifted to include the mission and identify of SHC. Nevertheless, I’m forever indebted to the ILC and my cohort of peers during my graduate assistantship!

Magis Instructional Design Model for Ignatian Pedagogy

Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Engraving by C. Klauber. Wellcome M0005653

The Magis Instructional Design (ID) Model for online courses was developed by Sandra Rogers (2015) with input from the Jesuits at Spring Hill College, as subject matter experts, and her professor in instructional design, Dr. Davidson-Shivers. It’s unique in that it addresses religion, spirituality, and social justice in addition to intellectual growth.

Jesuit school educators include techniques for reflection within their units of study in order to challenge students to serve others (Korth, 1993). According to one theology professor, Jesuit educators focus instructional activities on experiential learning to engender the cycle of experience leading to reflection and further action. This is based on the dynamics of Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises from which Ignatian pedagogy is derived.

The principles of Ignatian pedagogy include context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation (Korth, 1993). Further action and service to others are for the greater glory of God. Magis means doing more for God’s Kingdom (Ad majorem Dei gloriam). The Magis ID Model is an alternative to existing ones in that it embeds the following Ignatian pedagogical layers into the systematic design of instruction to develop learners into caring leaders by addressing the whole person:

  1. Analyze human learning experience online/offline
  2. Establish relationships of mutual respect online/offline
  3. Tap into learner’s prior knowledge & experience
  4. Design optimal learning experience for the whole person
  5. Assimilate new information
  6. Transfer learning into lifeworld
  7. Encourage lifelong learning & reflections beyond self-interest
  8. Learners become contemplatives in action

Online Community of Inquiry

Designing for a community of inquiry (COI) loop will address the Ignatian principles of teaching to the whole person. A  COI exists when you have social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. These are essential elements to the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). This means that learners in an online environment are involved in activities that are cognitively challenging, are able to interact with their classmates, and that teaching is present in some way through words (e.g., text-based discussion), voice (e.g., podcasts), or person (e.g., webcast). The teaching can be delivered by student moderators or the instructor.

Bernard et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 74 online course interactions and found substantive research outcomes indicating the positive effect on learning when online educators build these types of interactions into their courses: student-student, student-teacher, and student-content. These interaction treatments (ITs) were defined as the environments and not the actual behaviors that occur within them. Through ID processes, one can design and develop these types of environments for distance education. Table 1 displays the main components of a Jesuit education, COI, and ITs, and their interrelationships.

Table 1

Comparison of Jesuit Education and Research-Based Best Practices

Jesuit Education of the Whole Person Mind Body Spirit
Necessary Elements for an Online Community of Inquiry Intellectual Presence Social Presence Teaching Presence
Research-based Best Practices for Interaction Treatments Student-content interactions Student-student interactions Student-teacher interactions

Designing Optimal Learning Experiences for the Whole Person

The Magis ID Model analyzes the type of instructional strategies used in distance education to ensure they address the whole person through cura personalis (mind, body, & spirit). Strategy selection should vary to meet the needs of diverse learners and engender higher-order thinking for cognitive presence. Selection depends on various affordances and constraints such as time and resources. For example, an activity-centered lesson is based on an interactive task and requires collaborative tools and student groupings. Content-centered lessons are passive tasks where the student generally only interacts with the content; the exception being discussions of content. Experience-centered activities require a hands-on approach to developing something or serving/working with others. The learner-centered activity provides the learner with more autonomy over their pursuit of knowledge and includes metacognitive actions for self-regulation of learning; the affordances and constraints for this type of activity are highly dependent on the task. Ideally, online educators should provide active learning activities to enhance cognitive transfer of new information and skills learned to long-term memory.

Contact Dr. Rogers (srogers@shc.edu) at Spring Hill College to learn more about this ID model and how it’s being used to develop distance education courses.

Application of Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction to WDE Gaming

Application of Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction to Well Designed Educational (WDE) Gaming 

(This chart was published in my dissertation. See references below.)

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (1985) Comparison to WDE Gaming (Adapted from Becker, 2008 and Van Eck, 2006) Mental Processes (Gagné & Driscoll, 1988)
Gain attention Capture attention with movement, scenes, sounds, speech, and health status updates Reception
State the learning objectives Inform learner of quest and related game documentation to include limitations and cutscenes (e.g., set mood) Expectancy
Stimulate recall of prior learning Present stimulus through environmental structures that provide familiarity with obstacles or behaviors of characters Retrieval to working memory
Present content Present content according to the objectives of the game such as storyline embedded within the virtual environment Selective perception
Provide guidance Guide users with storylines, profiles, help section, map, sale of higher-level gear as you level up, hint books, friendly gamers’ verbal and nonverbal input, NPCs’ model language, and partial clues for quests found in gameplay Semantic encoding
Elicit performance Require adequate knowledge to advance to next level Responding
Provide feedback Provide feedback via speech, sounds, visuals, text, or motion directives including no motion Reinforcement
Assess performance Assess users’ performance as they progress to end goal and achieve reward for knowledge and skill Retrieval and reinforcement
Enhance retention Interweave past learning experience with new challenges; otherwise, repeat prior mistakes Retrieval and Generalization


Becker, K. (2008). Video game pedagogy: Good games = Good pedagogy. In C. T. Miller (Ed.), Games: Purpose and potential in education (pp. 73-122). New York, NY: Springer.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Gagné, R. M., & Driscoll, M. P. (1988). Essentials of learning for instruction (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rogers, S. A. (2017). A MMORPG with language learning strategic activities to improve English grammar, listening, reading, and vocabulary (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10265484)

Van Eck, R. (2006). Building artificially intelligent learning games. In D. Gibson, C. Aldrich, & M. Prensky (Eds.), Games and simulations in online learning research & development frameworks (pp. 271–307). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Cognitive Perspective of Flow Theory and Video Games

Icon of game consul

Flow Theory

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) flow theory is based on several interrelated psychological constructs: ability, attitude, cognition, emotion, motivation, and personality. When perfectly combined in a task, they catapult a person into a state of flow commonly known as being in the zone. Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as an optimal experience. He found that people around the world had shared descriptions for flow such as the joy it yields, episodes of unfettered concentration, suspension of time, and spontaneous automaticity during an experience. Flow occurs differently for different people. For example, individuals who aren’t good at playing games, or find the game uninteresting, wouldn’t experience flow during gameplay.

Instructional Design of Flow

As an instructional designer, I want to create optimal learning experiences. Flow theory has components similar to those used for effective instruction based on cognitivism. For instance, Sweller, Van Merriënboer,  and Paas’ (1998) cognitive load theory recommends reducing distractions (extraneous elements) and delivering germane and intrinsic elements of instruction in manageable chunks. This correlates to the component of enjoyment in flow theory in that a person can only fully enjoy a task if they’re capable of completing it. Flow theory has eight main components that engender enjoyment: manageable tasks, deep concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, learner autonomy, the metamorphosis of self, and suspension of time. These components parallel best practices for instruction.

To make learning more enjoyable, I’d apply Miller’s s (1956) seven-plus-or-minus-two principle regarding the limitations surrounding the amount of input that can be remembered at any given time. Adherence to Miller’s principle will make a task more manageable. Additionally, I’d use Gagne’s (1985) nine events of learning to establish the optimal cognitive conditions for effective learning to occur. Three of Gagne’s events (state objective, provide feedback, and provide practice) closely correlate with the enjoyment phenomena of flow theory (task has clear goals, task provides immediate feedback, and sense of control). Furthermore, the aspects of clear goals and feedback also correlate to the self-regulation of learning. Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies. The selection of important information aids deep concentration for possible enjoyment of the optimal experience.

Educational Games

A vehicle for cognitive learning experiences with flow potential would be well-designed educational games. Elements of good game design include goal-oriented, stimulating, active learning that is anchored in instruction (Shute, Reiber, & Van Eck, 2012). While playful (fun) learning has similar elements, the key difference is active learning, as many playful activities passively follow the teacher’s directives. Another difference is the challenge aspect of gaming that adapts to the learners’ abilities, whereas playful learning is free form. A challenge provides learners with intrinsic motivation and the pathway to achieving learner autonomy to make their own way through the world (Thai et al., 2009). This is different from traditional learning activities that are teacher-directed. Chatti, Jarke, and Specht (2010) described this as a knowledge push, whereas knowledge-pull is akin to gaming where the learner gravitates toward knowledge.

Videogames, in particular, have similar characteristics for creating a context for flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge are the characteristics necessary for unified flow experience. In my opinion, these are the flow characteristics that can be found in gameplay: (Rogers, 2017)

  1. Clarity with explicit gaming context, rules, feedback, and goals;
  2. Centering with narrative providing storyline;
  3. Choice with multi-levels of play, numerous episodes, variety of characters and actions, and guilds;
  4. Commitment via resets (do-overs) and new virtual identity; and
  5. Challenge via incremental task difficulty and reward system.

The challenge for instructional designers is to determine how to use the potentiality of videogames to engender flow for educational purposes. Based on the aforementioned research on cognitive learning best practices and flow theory, we have a theoretical basis to move forward.


Chatti, M. A., Jarke, M., & Specht, M. (2010). The 3P learning model. Educational Technology and Society, 13(4), 74-85.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus-or-minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Rogers, S. A. (2017). A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game with language learning strategic activities to improve English grammar, listening, reading, and vocabulary (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10265484)

Shute, V. J., Rieber, L. P., & Van Eck, R. (2012). Games…and…Learning. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (pp. 321-332). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Sweller, J., Van Merriënboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10(3), 251–296. doi:10.1023/A:1022193728205

Thai, A. M., Lowenstein, D., Ching, D., & Rejeski, D. (2009). Game changer: Investing in children’s play to advance children’s learning and health. New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Gooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.

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