Instructional Theory (or Instructional-design Theory)

Donggil Song (


Academic researchers are trying to find or formulate a theory. Like other academic fields, in the Educational Technology and its relevant fields, researchers are trying to “theorize” something. According to the Merriam Webster online (, “theory” is defined as “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.” More specifically, the term refers to  

  1. an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events
  2. an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true
  3. the general principles or ideas that relate to a particular subject


It seems that a theory should explain something, should be true, and should be generalizable. Then, is this definition is applicable to the term, instructional theory (or instructional-design theory)?

The concept of instructional theory has been explained by Dr. Charles M. Reigeluth. According to Reigeluth (1999), an instructional theory is “a theory that offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop” (p. 5). Instructional theory has four characteristics as follows:

  1. is design-oriented,
  2. identifies methods and situations,
  3. includes component methods, and
  4. is probabilistic.


First, what is design-oriented? Simply, an instructional theory should provide direct guidance on how to achieve a learning goal. Since this focuses on the guidance, this can be called as means-oriented, and at the same time, this can be considered as goal-oriented because it concentrates on attaining a learning goal. So, instructional theory is both means-oriented and goal-oriented. Why is this different from the regular definition of “theory”? The answer is their purposes. The nature of instructional theory is prescriptive rather than predictive or descriptive; thus, the main purpose of instructional theories is to provide guidance to educators, whereas the purpose of descriptive theories is to explain something through cause-and-effect relationships. So, the main target audience of instructional theories is educational practitioners.

Second, as we discussed above, instructional theory focuses on direct guidance, which essentially includes methods of instruction, that is, how to teach, support, and facilitate learning. Most importantly, this should come with the situations. Obviously, a method of instruction cannot be effective in every situation and occasion, that is, it’s not universal, but situational. The situation includes the concept of instructional conditions, which consist of the nature of: (1) what is to be learned, (2) the learner, (3) the learning environment, and (4) the instructional development constraints.

Third, the methods of instruction can be broken into some components. That means, an instructional theory should provide detailed guidance with specific components to educators. The components can be: (1) parts of the more general method, (2) kinds of the more general method, and (3) criteria that the general method should meet.

Fourth, the main characteristic of instructional theories is that the instructional methods are probabilistic rather than deterministic. This means that the guidance and methods do not guarantee the success of the goal achievement because there are so many variable that we cannot control in real educational settings. Instead, instructional methods increase the chances of learning success. So, the goal of an instructional theory is to achieve the highest possible chance of the desired learning outcome effectively and/or efficiently.



For these reasons, instructional theory differs from learning theory (e.g. schema theory, which is descriptive), instructional-design process (which focuses on the process the practitioners should use rather than what the instructional should be like as instructional theories concern with), and curriculum theory (which is about what to teach rather than how to teach in instructional theories).



Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Volume II (pp. 5-29). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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