Formal instructional design (ID) theories, intended to guide instructional designers' decision-making and design practices, have grown in abundance in recent years. These ID theories are based on learning theories that form the foundation for applied work in the field. However, researchers are concerned that these theories may not be applicable to the day-to-day practice of instructional designers. While some studies investigate the application of ID process models, studies of learning theory and ID theory in practice are rare. Consequently, there is little information about the nature and extent of the gap between our field's theory and its practice. This qualitative study investigated whether theory is actually being used by practicing instructional designers and why. Researchers interviewed seven practitioners on three occasions and examined the artifacts of their work. Drawing upon hermeneutic, phenomenological, and ethnographic traditions of inquiry, results were analyzed, generating eight themes and four suggestions. These themes highlighted that these practitioners generally valued learning and ID theory, but also found theoretical ideas from other disciplines applicable. Few referenced theory regularly and most did not spend much time updating themselves on the theory of the field. Most said they rely on intuition to make design decisions in their work, and that theory is one among several significant influences that impact their decisions. Most said that their training in theory would have been more useful if it was more practice oriented. The four suggestions were (a) to create reference implementations of new theories in multiple context via industry partnerships, (b) to create theories that adapt to practical pressures, (c) to allocate significant time for learners in ID training programs to apply theory in practical settings under expert theoretical guidance, and (d) to expand professional development opportunities for practitioners that focus on exemplary implementations of theory in practical settings. The overarching implication of this study is that the relevance of theoretical work to practitioners is directly impacted by the practicality of the theory in the hands of typical practitioners and that more measures can be readily implemented by theorists and by those who train and mentor practitioners to bring this about.



College and Department

David O. McKay School of Education; Instructional Psychology and Technology



Date Submitted


Document Type





instructional design theory, instructional design practice, learning theory, theory practice relationship, qualitative research