A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Design

Closed notebook representing learning designer guide

By Jana Krige: Senior Learning Designer |

Starting as a learning designer (LD) in the rapidly changing world of online learning feels like stepping into a tornado, especially when you’re new to the role and trying to figure it all out as you go. Naturally, you’ll develop your strongest skills from hands-on experience—trial-and-error, hit-and-miss, please-let-this-work experience—but until then, there are a few things you can do to feel more prepared for the journey ahead. Here’s a basic design process breakdown to make your first couple of projects a little less daunting.

Exploring Discovery

The first part of designing any new course can be referred to as the discovery phase. This is when you, as the learning designer, and the course instructor start to brainstorm a vision for the course and note any ideas or concerns that arise. Here, you will also share previous course examples, tools, and media options at your disposal to help the instructor develop a mental framework of what we do as a company.

Building a Blueprint

After the discovery phase, you and the instructor will start to build a blueprint for the course. As a learning designer, you will lay out the course structure in its various modules, topics, and modalities.

    First, you’ll need to determine your course outcomes, i.e., whatever you want the learners to do once they’ve completed the course, such as “Build a functional mobile application using Java” or “Formulate and adapt public health policies.” You should have around three to five course outcomes. This part of the process is rooted in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    Note: A good learning outcome will always start with a verb, such as explain, apply, create, identify, list, describe, and so on, and it will be measurable. Here’s a great verb list to get you started.

    Then, once you’ve finished your course outcomes, you will break each outcome into smaller steps to form a series of module titles and topics, and set about creating around three to five module outcomes for each module.

    For this next part, you’ll need a bit of learning theory. There are decades (centuries?) of theory behind learning design. From one learning designer to another, I encourage you to read as much as you can to find the learning theories that work best for you. For now, let’s focus on the need-to-know elements to get you started using David Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction.

    According to Merrill’s theory (1), effective learning takes place when:

  • learners are engaged in solving real-world problems;
  • existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge;
  • new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner;
  • new knowledge is applied by the learner; and
  • new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

So how does Merrill’s theory help you? When you’ve completed your module outcomes and laid out module topics, you will use the above learning principles to outline a learning cycle (a series of learning activities) for each topic to make sure the learner achieves the module outcomes.

Consider the first topic from the first module. How can you introduce the topic to the learner in a way that relates it to their reality? Through a short introductory text, video, or clip from a popular TV show? Then, how can you activate their existing knowledge of the topic? By conducting a short survey, initiating a discussion, or telling an analogous story through motion graphics? And so on. You’ll soon discover that the modality isn’t that important; it’s all about how you use the tools at your disposal to help learners achieve their outcomes.

Putting It All Together

Once you’ve created your blueprint, you’ll collect all the necessary content from the instructor and start writing out new information for each module item, whether it’s a video script, comprehensive reading, quiz, etc.. There’s a lot of room for creativity here, so make it your own. Once each module has been written, you’ll work with your team of graphic designers and learning technologists to transform a pile of documents into a beautiful, living course. It may not be perfect the first time around, but it’ll be good, and you will have learned so much while creating it.

That’s the short version. In reality, things don’t always go as planned, and you’ll invariably need to improvise and adapt as you move through the process. But with these tools, you’ll be able to navigate your first project and get the shiny, coveted experience that’ll form the foundation of your career as a learning designer.



Jana Krige: Learning Designer
Jana Krige: Learning Designer

Jana Krige is a Senior Learning Designer who is passionate about applying learning theory, creative problem solving, and empathic, plain-language writing to create an engaging and memorable learning experience.