Instructional Design for Engineers

How Engineers Can Build Better Courses

About Me

Teaching faculty, subject-matter-experts in a variety of fields, how to use technology to enhance learning, is similar to teaching developers, subject-matter-experts in engineering, how to design internal courses. The same instructional design principles apply. I talked to my learning and development counterparts at various companies about their struggles with developer training. I grabbed all my favorite books about instructional design and cognitive studies, reread them with my new Developer Education perspective, and created a comprehensive list of best practices to apply to instructional design specific to Corporate Developer Education.


  • Analysis — What are your desired outcomes, timelines, constraints, audience, and goals of this training?
  • Design — Outline, storyboard, prototype, and bounce ideas off your potential audience.
  • Development — Create your course.
  • Implementation — Conduct your training.
  • Evaluation — Evaluation should happen throughout the process, but you should always be refining your training based on feedback from participants.

Adult Learning Theory




Big Three

  1. Time — Not enough hours in the day. Can you be more concise in your training and personalize it to what I need to know, right now.
  2. Resources — Cannot find the training I need. Can you curate the resources I need, maybe even predict what you think I may need.
  3. Management — Overloaded with work and management does not prioritize learning. Can you have a day of learning? Can you build a culture of learning at your company?

Cheat Sheet






Diffusion of Innovation (Everett Roger’s)

  • Relative Advantage — Is this new idea better than the current process? Why?
  • Compatibility — Does this idea align with how our company works and its goals?
  • Complexity — How difficult is it to understand or use?
  • Triability — Can you do a proof-of-concept? How can we test this will work?
  • Observability — How can we measure that this was successful?

Dunning Kruger Effect

A strategy to tackle this is by creating a pretest to help engineers spot their weaknesses. Have someone who knows nothing about the content try to take your pretest. If they score higher than 40%, then you need to re-write your pretest.


Expert Blindspot


Feeling Smart


Implicit Egotism

Informal Learning

Lean Learning

Just-in-time Learning

Learning Communities & Networks

Learning Culture

Learning Objectives

  • Do all our courses have learning objectives?
  • Are the objectives useful, things they would do in real life?
  • Is there a way to prove if that learning objective was accomplished?
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy — Have a series of questions that tests if people can do the following with your content? (remember, understand, analyze, apply, evaluate, create)

Learning Styles

Make Learning Visible

For example, “Bob created this awesome thing. Bob took these classes.”

You are not rewarding Bob for taking the classes; you are rewarding Bob for what he accomplished after completing the courses.



Motivation Gaps

Motivational gaps can happen if:

  • A learner does not buy into the outcome of the training.
  • The end-goal does not make sense.
  • A learner has anxiety or concern about the change.
  • A learner is distracted by other pressing items.
  • A learner doesn’t have enough big picture context into the importance of their participation.
  • The content is presented in a challenging way. For example, a difficult font to read.

Pace Layering

You also need to identify fast and slow skills. Fast skills are like throw pillows, and slow skills are like moving walls. Identify if the skills you are trying to build are fast or slow and manage your expectations accordingly.

Psychological Safety

The same thing happens for engineers participating in training who are afraid to ask questions and risk being judged for not knowing the answer already. Without psychological safety, you cannot create a culture of learning and both your presenters and participants will have challenges. Provide your presenters the skills and confidence they need to be successful or offer them other modes of teaching that may feel more comfortable. For participants, set up an opportunity to ask anonymous questions at the end.


  • It sparks a survival instinct (stresses you)
  • Is unusual and breaks a previous pattern (seeing a purple dog)
  • Triggers a previous memory (relatable)
  • Is important to the learner (worthy of focus)

The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to:

  • Explain why it is important to them.
  • Incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.
  • Integrate it with previous relatable experiences so the memory can be attached to and triggered by related items. (Context)
  • Incorporate visuals — “Don’t tell me, show me.”
  • Chunking learning makes it easier to digest and retain. (For example, this article is chunked by headers)
  • Attempt to teach the topic yourself. Being a facilitator will reinforce the topics you are presenting and make you a stronger subject-matter-expert.
  • The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be. Can you spark all the retention tricks listed above during the learning activity?

Another consideration for retention is that we are more likely to remember items at the beginning and the end of a training due to primacy and recency effects in our brain.


Skill vs. Knowledge

Social Learning

My favorite example of this is with onboarding documents. The manager provides a generic onboarding document. The new employee contributes to that onboarding document, and that is replicated for the next person. The onboarding document continues to evolve as you hire more staff without the manager having to continually keep it updated or knowing everything that a new hire may find of value.

Social Proof

If people you trust recommend something, then you are more inclined to participate. If colleagues can see the classes, other peers have taken, they will be more willing to register. You see, this in eCommerce and social media frequently.


Talking to Learners

A good question for engineers, who have been at your company for at least a year that could benefit our new-hires is “what do you wish you had known when you first started as an Engineer at Netflix?”

Technology Acceptance Model (TAM)

  • Is the new tool genuinely useful?
  • If it is useful, how will the learner know that?
  • Is the tool easy to use?
  • If it’s not easy to use, is there anything that can be done to help that?

Unlearning & Relearning



Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012. Print.

Eagleman, David. Incognito: The Secret Lives of Brains. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. Print.

Medina, John. Brain Rules. Pear Press, 2014.

Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. First edition. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014. Print.

Ritchhart, Ron,, Church, Mark,Morrison, Karin,Making Thinking Visible: How To Promote Engagement, Understanding, And Independence For All Learners. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.

Wiggins, Grant P, Jay McTighe, Leslie J. Kiernan, and Frank Frost. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.

Jasmine Robinson, Entrepreneur, IT Director, Professional Full-Stack Web Developer, Graphic Designer & Product Manager.

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