History of Instructional Design

Much of the foundations of the field of instructional design was laid in World War II, when the U.S. military faced the need to rapidly train large numbers of people to perform complex technical tasks, from field-stripping a carbine to navigating across the ocean to building a bomber—see "Training Within Industry (TWI)". Drawing on the research and theories of B.F. Skinner on operant conditioning, training programs focused on observable behaviors. Tasks were broken down into subtasks, and each subtask treated as a separate learning goal. Training was designed to reward correct performance and remediate incorrect performance. Mastery was assumed to be possible for every learner, given enough repetition and feedback. After the war, the success of the wartime training model was replicated in business and industrial training, and to a lesser extent in the primary and secondary classroom. The approach is still common in the U.S. military.

In 1956, a committee led by Benjamin Bloom published an influential taxonomy of what he termed the three domains of learning: Cognitive (what one knows or thinks), Psychomotor (what one does, physically) and Affective (what one feels, or what attitudes one has). These taxonomies still influence the design of instruction.

During the latter half of the 20th century, learning theories began to be influenced by the growth of digital computers.

In the 1970s, many instructional design theorists began to adopt an information-processing-based approach to the design of instruction. David Merrill for instance developed Component Display Theory (CDT), which concentrates on the means of presenting instructional materials (presentation techniques).

Later in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s cognitive load theory began to find empirical support for a variety of presentation techniques.