What I Wish I’d Known Before I Became an Instructional Designer

Like many in the world of eLearning and Instructional Design, I entered the field through a wandering path. Finally, I’d found a job that benefits from my “jack-of-all trades” skill set, including:

  • customer service
  • design thinking
  • information literacy
  • marketing
  • problem-solving and troubleshooting
  • research
  • technology, including social media
  • training and teaching
  • technical and web writing
  • user experience

Also, I’m good at Tetris—a skill that comes in handy when you’re trying to fit content together.

While this broad experience is useful, instructional design requires some extra dedication. Before I started as an ID, it would have been nice to know the following things:

You’ll always be learning

Our job requires us to continually learn in order to be relevant. I’ve always been a motivated learner—I’m an avid reader, curious, and fond of “useless information.”

But I’ve had to step it up a notch. I’ve had to set goals to learn not only for my job but also for professional development.

To learn and keep relevant, I’m constantly:

  • Seeking out discussions with my co-workers and networking with professionals on social media
  • Reading books and blogs about instructional design and related topics
  • Watching instructional videos on Lynda.com and YouTube
  • Adapting what I learn into my instructional design
  • Researching professional associations to join

While I haven’t joined a professional association yet, it’ll be to network and keep up-to-date on eLearning and instructional design trends.

You’ll juggle many hats

While our team regularly collaborates, much of my time is still spent on my own projects. Whether it’s developing or redeveloping a course, communicating with a Subject Matter Expert (SME), instructing our student workers, or working on a special project, I always have something to do.

Also, we have an open concept office, so I’m often asked to troubleshoot an issue or help others on their project.

In other words, I’m never bored.

It’s worth it

When you’re down to the wire and trying to finish a course development before a deadline, it’s sometimes hard to see the bigger picture. (Read 4 Tips for Rapid Development.)

When I get feedback from the SME, instructor, and students, it’s easy to put it into perspective. The work I do is rewarding.

Final Thoughts

I’m at the beginning of my instructional design journey, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve learned so far. And I’m glad I’ve discovered instructional design: I’ll always be learning, always be involved in interesting projects, and yes, all of the work is worth the reward of knowing I’m helping others in the learning process.

Did you know what you were getting into when you became an Instructional Designer? What do you wish someone told you before you started your instructional design career? Let us know in the comments.

Author: Jessica Bishop, Instructional Designer

Jessica is a designer and writer focused on learnability, storytelling, sensemaking, wayfinding, and removing barriers to learning. A Michigan native, she likes crafting, reading, walking, and spending way too much time in the distant corners of the internet. You can also find her at JessicaMBishop.com.

14 thoughts on “What I Wish I’d Known Before I Became an Instructional Designer”

  1. Love your post Jessica! I didn’t realize that as an instructional designer I would need to be teaching others about pedagogy and strategies for making learning stick. When I look back at my first course development projects, I wish I would have known to take a more active role in discussing the “why” rather than “what” of the activities and assessments I was given for the course.

    1. That’s so true, Gwen! We teach our subject matter experts and instructors the best way to use our learning management systems, like Blackboard, as well as the ways different tools can build community and enhance learning. It takes some time to learn the nuances of why an activity works in online and blended, and I’m lucky to have a great team to support my learning.


  2. Jessica – love your post! I’ve been teaching for over 22 years and I’m going to be starting my Instructional Design career as soon as I am able to find a position. Your post was helpful and reminds me of my teaching experiences. You always need to be ready to learn and communication is key to everything.


    1. Hi Sandy,

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Instructional design draws on many disciplines, so your experience in the classroom helps immensely!

      Instructional design requires adaptability, and it’s essential to actively learn to stay relevant to the field. While it’s important to know the ins and outs of learning theories and applications, you must also know how to clearly communicate this knowledge with your clients, subject matter experts (SME), team, and shareholders.

      Best wishes for your studies,


  3. Hi Jessica… great post! I am a current graduate student of instructional design, and fortunately, I do have—at least to some degree—an idea of what I am getting into as I embark upon this journey, and this is largely attributed to great professionals like yourself.

    As a total beginner in this field (and to blogging), I do not yet have any personal experience to draw from. Even still, I have done some research that may be of value to other beginners and professionals alike. One such study “empirically [validates] the capabilities required for competent ID professionals” (Klein & Jun, 2014, p. 41), and the other explores peer review as a useful tool in strengthening the skills and learning experiences of novice instructional design students (Brill, n.d.).

    To other readers who might want to know “what they are getting into” in the field of instructional design, the first study reveals that the five most important instructional design skills are as follows: 1) Connecting objectives with interventions and appropriate assessments; 2) Establishing goals and objectives that are measurable; 3) Working well with teams; 4) Identifying strategies that yield desirable outcomes; and, 5) Designing curriculums. Communication, interpersonal, and interviewing skills are also said to be of value, and designing instructor-led courses, compared against designing for emerging technologies, is deemed to be lesser significant (Klein & Jun, 2014).

    For students of instructional design—and to those that facilitate this process—the second analysis mentioned provides compelling evidence that integrating peer reviews on a continual basis positively correlates to positioning students “to be able to respond flexibly to the complexity of ID problems in practice” (Brill, n.d.). It bears noting, however, that limitations exist within this study including its small sample size and the quality of feedback received from fellow students. Nevertheless, this approach is said to foster a culture of learning and to strengthen the collaboration skills needed for success in our industry.

    I welcome your feedback on this provided research, and I hope that someone may find value in this information, just as I have found your insight to be extremely valuable. Thank you also for mentioning Lynda.com. I have never heard of this site prior to reading your post, but will be certain to bookmark and explore it more soon.

    Like you, I am also currently exploring professional associations that I may join. Do you have any favorites yet? I am mostly leaning towards ATD, but I am still open to other possibilities.

    I am excited to be a part of such a gratifying field where I get to constantly learn and help others to be successful. Thank you so much again for all of this useful and relevant information!

    -Ahisha, The Ecstatic Learning Fanatic

    Brill, J. M. (n.d). Investigating peer review as a systemic pedagogy for developing the design knowledge, skills, and dispositions of novice instructional design students. Etr&D-Educational Technology Research And Development, 64(4), 681-705.

    Klein, J. D., & Jun, S. (2014). Skills for Instructional Design Professionals. Performance Improvement, 53(2), 41-46. doi:10.1002/pfi.21397

    1. Hi Ahisha,

      As you mentioned, it’s definitely a journey, and we’re lucky to have access to our colleagues in the instructional design field. Their experience with instructional design processes is one of our best resources when it comes to building our own.

      Even though you might not feel like you have a lot of experience, our field allows us to adapt what we’ve learned in other areas of our lives. In the workplace, you’ll use a combination of what you’ve learned in your instructional design program, your experiences, and the expectations of your stakeholders and clients to guide your design. I’d look for practical ways to gain experience through the application.

      As you learn about the instructional design skills needed on the job (such as the five you mentioned), it’s important to think about how you will apply these skills when you get to the workplace. For example, you might find that you need to translate what “connecting objectives with interventions and appropriate assessments” means to a subject matter expert (SME) who cannot differentiate what’s essential to know and what’s nice to know. This is where you’ll need the communication, interpersonal, and interviewing skills that you cited.

      Lynda.com is a fantastic place to gain technical skills that you might not learn in your instructional design program. The videos on the site follow instructional design best practices, so it’s a great place to observe what works in them as well.

      ATD is the top instructional design association that I want to join—it’s well-respected, and it has fantastic webinars, trainings, and other useful resources. That being said, my pocketbook needs to deepen before I can afford to join. I’ve also considered associations in adjacent fields (user experience (UX), technical writing, etc.) in order to gain transferable skills. Since I currently work in higher education, I have that option to consider as well (although I might consider corporate work in the future).

      Conferences are another great option for growth and networking. In 2017, I had the opportunity to attend the Quality Matters Annual Conference, and I learned a lot from that experience.

      Regardless of which association or conference you choose, you’ll want to evaluate the cost in light of the benefits that you get.

      Take care,


  4. Hi Jessica,
    I enjoyed your post. As I start to navigate the world of instructional design, I find what you wrote to be very valuable. Of the skills you posted, one particularly stood out to me – customer service. I believe that in order to be helpful and effective, excellent customer service skills are vital. As we create new learning modules, we will need to ‘sell’ them to leadership in order to gain buy in. Being able to have conversations that are respectful and helpful are key. Thank you for your insight.

    1. Hi James,

      You’re right, customer service, or serving the customer, is much more than “the customer is always right.” In order to be helpful, you have to listen to what’s truly being said. A customer doesn’t always know what they’re looking for until they have the correct information; by listening, you “sell” the customer the correct product to save them time, money, and hassle.

      While you might not have the answer (or a desired answer), you need to find a way to find a “yes.” In instructional design, you might have a subject matter expert (SME) who’s adamant that their activity should be a discussion board. When you look closer, you might see that the provided questions won’t encourage discussion.

      With that assessment, your answer is “no.”

      But good customer service doesn’t stop there. The SME provided fantastic questions—for a journal reflection. You respectfully explain the pros and cons of each tool as well as how they might tie to learning outcomes. From there, the SME has the information to choose a different tool or to provide a different set of questions.

      All of this saves the customer (whether it’s the SME, client, or stakeholder) time, money and hassle, and you’ll earn their respect for taking the time to actually listen.

      Take care,


  5. Hi Jessica,
    Excellent information. I have been teaching for eight years on the elementary level, and I have just started taking courses in Instructional Design and Technology. Pursuing MSIDT has been a long-term goal that I am finally achieving. Although I encourage collaboration and engagement in the classroom, I want to create lessons and content using innovative ways for learners to have the best learning experiences, which they will apply in this globally diverse world today. As I further my studies in Instructional Design, I am becoming more familiar with what the job entails. Your post gives a breakdown of the skills and strategies needed as an ID. What I found fascinating about the field of instructional design is the continuous learning of the Instructional Designers. IDs must evolve and adapt to keep up with the changing world since technological advancement has precipitated globalization (Zaballero et al., 2015).

    Thank you for sharing the instructional sites (Linda.com and YouTube) that fostered your learning experiences. I will explore them.
    However, utilizing networking with professionals and social media is new to me. What advice would you give aspiring Instructional Designers who are new to blogging or professional learning communities? Your response is greatly appreciated.
    Thank you again for your informative post. It is very beneficial to me.

    Zaballero, A., Asino,T., & Briskin, J. (2015). Instructional design skills need to keep up with pace of change. TD: Talent Development, 69(6), 9. SSN: 2374-0663 Accession number: 102966731

    1. Hi Jeriline,

      When I wrote this post, I had been an instructional designer (ID) for less than a year. As I draw close to my fifth year, I can confirm you will continue to learn so much as an ID. I just started a LTD master’s program as well, and the additional contexts directly improve my design.

      Personally, I participate in ID conversations on Twitter, LinkedIn, and occasionally Reddit. Facebook has several groups with robust communities willing to discuss transitioning from education to instructional design. One of my favorite professional networks is The Training, Learning, and Development Community (TLDC): https://www.thetldc.com. They meet regularly through Crowdcast to discuss training and development trends and issues (sessions are recorded, and you can rewatch the video or listen to the podcast). They also have a Slack workplace where you can connect with others. I would also look for opportunities to build relationships within your program—mentors open so many opportunities.

      Congratulations on starting your (lifelong) ID journey!


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