Discovering Instructional Design 3: A Systems Approach

In my previous post on instructional design, I explored the¬†philosophies and disciplines that have influenced learning theories. In this article, we’ll begin to look in detail how these principles and concepts are synthesised in the Systems Approach to ID.

A Systems Approach to Instruction

The process of instructional design specifies all the interrelated learning components that collectively constitute a specific training program for one content area.  The generic high-level process is typically characterized as having four basic stages, each of which can be further divided into smaller constituent elements:

  1. Analysis
  2. Development
  3. Implementation
  4. Improvement

According to Paul Saettler (1990), the systems approach to instruction emerged in the later 1950s and in the 1960. It grew from the then-current focus on integrating contemporary technology into learning environments including language laboratories, (the quaintly-named) teaching machines, programmed instruction, and Computer-Assisted Instruction. Most systems approaches are similar to computer process flow diagrams (see Figure 1). The instructional designer steps through the process during the development of the four stages. With its foundations in the military and business worlds, the systems approach involved setting goals and objectives, analyzing resources, devising a plan of action, and continuous evaluation/ and modification of the program during implementation.

Systems Approach to ISD

Figure 1. A Systems Approach View of Instructional Design


Several types of analysis are undertaken when using the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) strategy to learning program development.

Training Needs Analysis (TNA)

This focuses on:

  • the business goal related to the training need (e.g. more sales, higher productivity, employee retention, product knowledge, customer satisfaction, reduced costs, employee satisfaction).
  • the improved or new performance needed to realize the business goals

Performance Analysis

This process:

  • reveals the differences between what people are actually doing and what they should be doing
  • identifies those differences that can be eliminated by instruction.

Note: Not all performance-related issues can be enhanced by training.

Task Analysis

The outcome of a task analysis is a step-by-step description of what a skilled person does when performing a task, whether the task is cognitive or psychomotor in nature.

The purpose of a task analysis is to develop an understanding of what competent people actually do (or should do) when performing a task. From this understanding, we can deduce what others have to be taught to enable them acquire the skills to perform the task competently.

The instructional designer often undertakes a task analysis with the assistance of a subject matter expert (SME), who identifies and illustrates key elements and tasks related to the skill or activity. Here are some useful approaches to elicit an effective analysis of a task under investigation:

Work Behaviors

The SME demonstrates the steps or aspects of the process required to complete work-driven tasks. These can be organized in many ways (for example, chronologically, by level of complexity, frequency etc). The instructional designer records what each step or process is called, and its place in the overall structure of the activity. The instructional designer documents:

  • how often the task is done
  • what percentage of users will need the task
  • how critical the task is
  • task complexity

Expert Behaviors

Here the SME demonstrates tacit tips and tricks that are not usually documented in source materials. Expert behaviors typically have lower frequency and higher complexity ratings.

Analytical Behaviors

The instructional designer asks the SME to describe decision-making processes that are performed during the task. As useful inquiry strategy to follow is the 4WH1 approach (“How?, Why?, Who?, Where?, and When?”).

Next Time: The Affective Domain



Saettler, P. (1990). The evolution of American educational technology . Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.