March 2, 2017
Revisiting the Systematic Design Model
March 2, 2017
Revisiting the Systematic Design Model
Newbie 14 posts
Followers: 5 people

“If you don’t know where you’re going,” the Scarecrow said to Dorothy, “it doesn’t matter which road you take.” ~ The Wizard of Oz

It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.” ~ Peter Senge



In their book The Systematic Design of Instruction, Walter Dick and Lou Carey list three reasons for using a systems approach to design. First, from the very beginning it causes the designer to focus on what the learner should know and be able to do when they have finished the course.

instructional system designSecond, a systems approach also recognizes the connection between each component.

Third, a system should be an empirical and reliable process. Instruction is designed for multiple uses and with replicable outcomes.

Dick & Carey have written the book on Instructional Systems Design (ISD). As you will find, however, many people have written “the book” as well. ISD in reality is another variation on the steps of the scientific process:

  1. Identification of the problem
  2. Review of the literature/what is known about the problem
  3. Formulating a hypothesis
  4. Testing the hypothesis/collecting data
  5. Analyzing the data
  6. Interpreting the results
  7. Evaluating the results and process

Every profession has a paradigm that the professionals point to that reflect their beliefs. Currently, in the online course design world, the paradigm is the systems model.

Dick & Carey are absolutely right with their three points. And one of the strengths of using a systems design is that you have a step-by-step process to follow to make sure you cover everything. It keeps you from approaching the course design process like the Scarecrow in the quote listed above. 

But note: you can still produce low-quality instruction while following every step of a design model faithfully. As Senge quote states, “it is not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.”

So what is that extra needed step which will ensure success? Think about that as you work through the materials in this section.



course designWhen designing online learning units, it is still necessary for learners to acquire specific knowledge prior to moving on to more advanced levels of performance. In the classroom lectures are often used – on the Web the linear presentation of materials is not effective. In the place of a written lectures, micro-videos, audio files, instructional articles and/or sites that distill the major concepts addressed in the lessons are more appropriate.

Online instructional units should be short and concise modules conveying relevant, critical information to support concepts, procedures, and/or performance-based skills. An instructional unit should be written specifically to communicate the content-knowledge necessary for improved, more advanced performance.

When designing instructional units:

  • Ensure that each instructional article, web site, media source or game supports the learning objectives/goals of the course.
  • Get the learner’s attention immediately by clearly making the topic relevant to something important within the learner’s frame of reference (e.g. job, studies, professional development).
  • In the body of each unit introduction provide an introductory paragraph, one or more explanatory paragraphs, and a summary paragraph.
  • Integrate questions or other interactive activities — such as exercises, problem-solving situations, games, or short simulations into the body of the unit.
  • Always limit the unit to one or two main ideas or concepts.
  • Use only the most important “need-to-know” supporting details.
  • When possible, support the unit content with audio and/or video clips containing relevant information, such as background information, “how to” instructions, or examples that further clarify key learning points.

Recommended Design Checklist

It is suggested that the following items be taken into consideration when developing courses.

Critical Element



Course Outcomes

These are the necessary terminal knowledge, skills, dispositions, and abilities a student must demonstrate in order to successfully pass the course. Course outcomes should define and contextualize the enduring student cognitive performance(s) and qualify the essential criteria for successfully meeting the outcome. Ideally, course outcomes would be derived from the larger program outcomes and vision.

Course outcomes are measurable and represent appropriate scope, complexity, and rigor for program and course level. Course outcomes visibly map to program outcomes and embody framework principles (example: multi-dimensional, enduring, relevant, and terminal).

Learning Objectives

These are the specific, itemized goals describing the various student performances and expectations of the module. These should be more concrete, measurable, and have fewer dimensions than the course outcomes for purposes of accurate measurements. Ideally, learning objectives are derived from the course outcomes and, as a whole, represent a logical path to those terminal knowledge, skills, and abilities that illustrates a trajectory in student cognitive performance from the beginning of the course to its conclusion.

Learning objectives are measurable performances assessed in the module and all map at least one of the course outcomes. Objectives are unidimensional and discrete and provide a logical learning path to outcomes.


Vehicles are critical components of the pedagogical approach. These are the activity types employed in the course (e.g., short papers, blogs, journals, wikis, discussions, problem sets, etc.).

All activities are pedagogically appropriate for the type of student performance of experience desired. The contextual purpose of the activities is transparently communicated.

Cohesive Design

The course contains the big picture, enduring topics, principles, or questions that are threaded throughout and bring a sense of cohesion to the course.

Employs central themes, draws connections to previous topics, and stages future learning to create cohesion between modules. Course narratives purposefully and meaningfully guide students along the learning path.


This is the “home page” of the course, in which the salient course information (e.g., course description, course purpose, outcomes, connection to personal and professional contexts, special navigation issues, etc.) and learning path are advertised to the student. See the appendix of this document for a sample conceptual map.

Introduction situates the course within the larger body of knowledge and defends its relevance for professional and personal contexts. Narrative includes a conceptual map or other creative representation of the essential nature and approach of the course.


Alignment is the extent to which the summative assessments align to the course outcomes. Alignment to course outcomes is essential for comprehensive measurement and data mapping of the course outcomes.

All key performances of the summative assessments map back to at least one course outcome, each outcome is summatively assessed, and alignments are made explicit for students.


Authenticity of assessment concerns the emulation of real-world performances.

Summative assessments fully represent or emulate real-world performances or applications.

Summative Grading Metrics

Methods of calculating numerical grades on summative assessments.

All summative grading metrics are valid and reliable for the constructs being measured. Metrics include annotations (i.e., glossary, exemplars, etc.) to build clarity of expectations and objectivity in scoring.

Formative Assessments

These are low-stakes opportunities that scaffold to the summative assessments.

Formative opportunities are low-stakes, directly align to summative assessments, and represent true practice opportunities.

Formative Grading Metrics

Methods of calculating numerical grades on formative assessments

All formative activities indicate a grading metric. All grading metrics are valid instructional tools that align to the summative grading metrics.


Weight is the distribution of graded components that make up the final course grade.

Assessments are given appropriate weight to ensure that the summative assessments are critical for passing the course. The grade weight schema aligns with the programmatic vision or guidelines.


This is the extent to which the instructional materials have direct relevancy to the assessments of the course.

All instructional materials have direct relevancy and set students up for success in the assessments. Materials also represent innovative or creative approaches for creating student engagement and success.


This includes the appropriateness of the workload for the level and complexity of the course.

Course activities, materials, and workload reflect appropriate difficulty and complexity for the level of the course. Creative methods for distributing workload without inhibiting rigor are employed.

Instructional Clarity

This is the intelligibility and ease of consumption of all directions and instructional communications in the course.

Directions provided to students and instructors are clear and consistent. Directions exemplify positive, economical, and effective communication.

Content Accuracy

This is the extent to which the content of the course reflects the most current and accepted body of knowledge in the field.

Content underwent review to ensure accuracy, and contributors were appropriately qualified and credentialed.


These are the various formats in which instruction is provided (e.g., resource types, platforms, deliverable types, etc.) that allow for multiple learning styles to be addressed and actively engaged.

Course activities and materials employ innovative or creative modalities for providing students with multiple modalities for active learning.


The use of technology for grading and providing immediate feedback to students

The appropriate evaluation of higher-order critical tasks is automated using innovative and creative practices.


The overall “look” of the course and technical accuracy of the communications with respect to standard conventions

Course embodies the professionalism and polish of the institution and effectively promotes the brand.

Tools and Technology

These are any special applications, widgets, tools, or other technology employed in the course.

Course fully integrates emerging tools and technologies in a way that significantly improves engagement.


2020-09-01 04:57:54
2020-09-01 04:57:54

Glad I found this article as there is a lot of goodness to capture.

In the checklist, under the introduction row, there is mention of a sample conceptual map and I am not sure where to find it. Would love to see one, if there was a way to get it still.

Thanks so much,

2018-08-22 21:10:14
2018-08-22 21:10:14

Very informative.

2018-08-17 18:01:20
2018-08-17 18:01:20

Nice article. I think one of the aspects of the Dick & Carey model (current) is the inclusion of formative evaluation, as it moves their model beyond a “stage model” and more into the realm of a system, as you describe.

2018-05-24 20:56:42
2018-05-24 20:56:42

Great ! There’s nothing more practical than good theory ( I think Niels Bohr said something like that ).

2017-03-03 11:49:11
2017-03-03 11:49:11

Thanks for sharing your thoughts & steps on how to apply this design model in our eLearning designs.

Shambu Nashi
's comment
2017-03-03 12:43:21
2017-03-03 12:43:21
Shambu Nashi
's comment

You are welcome. I hope you found some nuggets that you could use in the narrative.

2017-03-02 22:56:46
2017-03-02 22:56:46

While other models have validity, I still continue to reference Dick and Carey! It’s more than 20 years now. The review you’ve shared was a nice “ride down memory lane”. I believe in their analysis phase tasks as it solidifies your learning plan and ensures you’re building content the SMEs and project sponsors want.

's comment
2017-03-03 12:42:04
2017-03-03 12:42:04
's comment

Great points Letitia. I use to require that all of my students read and apply the Dick and Carey model. The book has been republished several times over the last couple of decades, and there have been various iterations published by other writers, but the general concepts have not changed across editions and/or authors.

Although I no longer teach in higher education I still use the model as a foundation for my own development work, and continue to introduce the method to junior IDs I had the pleasure of mentoring.

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