Using Theory as a Learning and Instructional Design Professional


instructional design, instructional design theory


Practitioners in the field of learning and instructional design are commonly told that “theories are the foundation for designing instructional solutions to achieve desired learning outcomes” (Oyarzun & Conklin, 2021). But if this is true, why do designers often report that theory is “too abstract and inapplicable” to address common problems of practice (Yanchar et al., 2010, p. 50)? Or, alternatively, that theories are so “rigid” (p. 51) and prescriptive that they lead to one-size-fits-all solutions that do not fit the circumstances in which designers are working?

In my studies, I have come to believe that part of the problem is that designers think about theory the wrong way. They often assume it is like a tool (a power drill, for instance, or a circular saw). In this view, theory has some kind of capacity built into it that is independent of the person using it. Anyone can pick it up and produce results (if they have received the proper training, of course). But this perspective misunderstands something fundamental about human-centered work like learning and instructional design. Theories do not solve problems. People do. This does not mean theory is useless. It just means it plays a different role in designers’ work than being a tool that they apply. So, if designers want theory to be applicable and usable they need to first put it into its proper place—a place that recognizes that they—the designers—are most central to the work of improving education, and not a set of abstract, theoretical ideas that are presumed to have the power to solve problems. From this perspective, theory becomes one of many supports for practice, but not the most important nor the most decisive.

My purpose in this chapter is to explain these issues. First, I review some of the challenges with the field’s traditional views of theory. Next, I offer a different view of theory that conceptualizes it as a support that helps designers strengthen their own capacities for better judgement. Finally, I briefly describe different kinds of theory that apply to learning and instructional design practice, and how they support designers’ judgement in differing ways.

Original Publication Citation

McDonald, J. K. (2024). Using theory as a learning and instructional design professional. In J. K. McDonald, & R. E. West (Eds.), Design for learning: Principles, processes, and praxis. EdTech Books. Retrieved from

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



EdTech Books




David O. McKay School of Education


Instructional Psychology and Technology

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor