"How To" Guides

How to Become an Instructional Designer

Instructional design can be lucrative: positions often start at 60k and go up over 100k. Freelancers can easily start at $50 an hour and go up to $100, $150, $200 an hour depending on specialization.

Find out what instructional designers ACTUALLY do and how you can become one!

The official definition of instructional design is:

Instructional design is the systematic structuring and development of content and experiences to facilitate learning.

But I like to offer two additional definitions. The first:

Instructional design is all about creating effective learning experiences!

I like the phrase “learning experiences” because it encompasses every possible scenario where learning happens. It’s not just a sage on the stage anymore! Learning is active and engaged and it can happen on your phone, on your computer, through a video. The possibilities are vast.

The second:

Instructional design is the boundary between the science of learning and educational technology.

It’s critical to know how people learn – to be very familiar with educational psychology and basic neuroscience. It’s also important to know what’s possible when it comes to technology, because that’s how you are going to facilitate knowledge as an instructional designer.

OK, but what do instructional designers DO?

Those definitions aside, you are probably still wondering what exactly instructional designers DO! Here are some examples of possible tasks in a day-to-day job. An instructional designer might:

  • Uses a model like ADDIE to plan a learning experience
  • Converts in-person workshop to online asynchronous course
  • Interviews Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to gather content
  • Analyzes workers’ tasks at a factory (performance analysis) to prepare training for new workers
  • Records videos explaining processes
  • Evaluates efficacy of trainings
  • Select and implement a Learning Management System

Additionally, Arizona State University has a lovely graphic on the roles that instructional designers play.

Beyond educational psychology, neuroscience, and technology, it can also be helpful depending on what you do in your role to have some other skills. For instance:

  • Graphic design
  • Video editing
  • Audio editing
  • LMS experience
  • UX design (usability)
  • Accessibility
  • Little bit of HTML/CSS coding

What you do as an instructional designer will depend on where you work! You might do it all yourself, or you might only do design and pass off your learning experience to an elearning developer to build out.

So how do you become an instructional designer?

You don’t have to have a background in education or instructional design, though that will certainly give you a leg up. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum, as it is for most white-collar work. It’s possible to self-study to become an instructional designer. There are some free courses available and videos from people like me! There are certificates and master’s degrees available in the field as well.

What’s really critical as you pursue instructional design roles is to have a solid web presence. In particular, you need a portfolio. Your portfolio (and your cover letter and your resume) should be targeted for the kinds of instructional design roles that you want. If you don’t have any experience that’s OK! Build artifacts for your portfolio and explain why they are important. Browse LinkedIn for interesting jobs and use the keywords that they use. Freelance employment from agencies like Clarity Consultants or Upwork can also be a boost to your resume.

Learn an authoring tool like Storyline or Captivate or practice using a learning management system. There are many free trials of such tools available.

Above all, be open to failure. Failure is key to learning. Keep trying, keep revising, and ask for help if you need it!


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