Skip to main content

Mastering Instructional Design: Key Skills and Competencies for Success in an Instructional Design Program


A Master of Science in Instructional Design and Technology cultivates a wide range of skills that will serve you well as an instructional designer. Training and developmental specialists can expect faster career growth than average over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This career path is also versatile, with a myriad of opportunities in government, nonprofits, higher education, elementary schools,  corporations and even self-owned businesses.

But is an instructional design program right for you? That depends on whether designing quality instruction interests you and whether you’re invested in cultivating the necessary skills. Here are the core competencies an instructional design degree fosters:

Understanding of Learning Theories

There’s more than one way to learn and dozens of ways to teach. Instructional designers need a firm foundation in various learning theories to build courses and instructional tools around each theory. A good instructional designer can adapt to learners’ needs rather than impose their preferred style. 

Some of the styles you’ll learn about as part of your instructional design degree program include: 

  • Behaviorism 
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism 
  • Connectivism 


Instructional design is about identifying instructional challenges and designing solutions around them. For example, you might build a course for learners with dyslexia or brainstorm strategies to keep students engaged during distance learning.

Problem-solving requires significant empathy so you can see things from the learner's perspective. You may need to analyze performance gaps, conduct needs assessments and solicit learner feedback. A wide range of design skills will expand your capacity to creatively and comprehensively respond to learners’ needs. 

Critical Thinking 

Instructional design is not formulaic. There’s no such thing as a fill-in-the-blank approach, and one-size-fits-all learning always leaves learners out. Instructional designers must be able to think critically and flexibly. You will get practice with these skills in school, but a sharp and critical approach is helpful from day one. If you are always asking if there’s a better way to do things or are keen to include learners who are left out, you’re a perfect fit for this exciting career. 

Commitment to Finding Solutions

Every learner deserves a chance to realize their full potential. But the default methodology — whatever it may be — will not work for everyone. Instructional designers have two choices: Give up, or learn more to do more. 

During your career, you may experience a range of challenges. How, for example, might you design an online course for blind learners, meet the needs of deaf students or keep learners engaged when they’re distracted, overwhelmed or anxious? 

The first — or even fifth — intervention you try may not always work. Instructional designers must be committed to finding solutions that work for everyone. The more willing you are to innovate, the more successful you will be in your career. 

Multimedia Design and Development Skills

Multimedia design is the foundation upon which much instructional design is built. You must be proficient in various design tools and technologies so that you can use video, audio, image and text to create compelling courses and assessments. Creativity is key because it inspires learners. Some of the technologies you may need to use include: 

  • File-sharing programs
  • Slide-sharing programs 
  • Graphic design software 
  • Authoring tools 
  • Video editing software 

Communication Skills 

Instructional designers must be good communicators because the job is about understanding and communicating information to learners who may process it in many different ways. Some of the skills you’ll need to cultivate and master include: 

  • Successful verbal communication
  • Quality written communication
  • Succinct and efficient communication
  • Visual, audio and video communication 

You’ll gain experience practicing different ways to communicate information so you can adapt your approach based on results.

Instructional Strategies and Techniques

Learning comes in many flavors, and it doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, if you can make it fun, you can keep learners motivated even when they’re struggling. Familiarity with various instructional strategies and techniques allows instructional designers to choose the most appropriate methods to engage learners and achieve the desired learning outcomes. Some of the techniques you’ll learn about include: 

  • Microlearning
  • Scenario-based learning
  • Gamification 
  • Flipped classroom 

User Experience Design

Quality instructional design is about delivering an exceptional user experience. Instructional designers must master user experience design principles to build intuitive, learner-centered learning experiences. Some design skills you’ll focus on include: 

  • Usability, accessibility and inclusivity 
  • User-friendly interfaces
  • Engaging interactions 
  • Intuitive navigation 

Collaborative Skills

Instructional designers rarely work alone. You will work with a team, meaning you will need to collaborate with a range of personalities, accept input, adjust your communication style to others’ needs and accept and provide feedback. People prefer to work with people who treat them well and make them feel valued. If you’re a people person, you may thrive in this career. Your graduate degree in instructional design can help you hone your collaboration skills. 

Project Management

Instructional design requires significant project management expertise. You may work on many long-term, complex projects with different stakeholders, timelines and deliverables. Efficiency and effectiveness are hallmarks of proficient project management. Be prepared to establish project scopes, develop and implement project plans, manage resources and be accountable for how you spend your time. 

Why the Right School Is Key

Whether you want to climb the corporate ladder, get ahead at work or master entirely new skills, a career in instructional design can be inspiring and lucrative. However, it’s not enough to choose the first school you stumble across. 

The right school provides financial aid help, emotional support and flexible curriculum options to help you where you are now, while also ensuring you get to where you hope to go. 

Some questions to ask before applying to a school include: 

  • What specific courses does this school offer, and how will they help me achieve my career goals? 
  • What is the graduation rate? 
  • What is the post-graduation employment rate? 
  • What are my course options? Can I take online or evening classes? 
  • What is the application process and how long does it take? 
  • What support does this school offer to adult and returning learners?

SNU is committed to helping each student realize their full potential. If you want to learn more, download “The Ultimate Career Planner for Instructional Design & Technology Graduates.”

New call-to-action


Request More Information

Have questions about SNU or need help determining which program is the right fit? Fill out the form and an enrollment counselor will follow-up to answer your questions!

Text With an Enrollment Counselor

Have questions, but want a faster response?  Fill out the form and one of our enrollment counselors will follow-up via text shortly!