12+ Books for Instructional Designers

If you’re looking for some reading to improve your skills or get started in the field of instructional design, check out these books.

ID books

General Instructional Design and E-Learning

Design For How People Learn by Julie Dirksen is one of my favorite books in the field. I’ve recommended it many times. It’s easy to read and understand. It makes research about learning accessible in ways you can apply immediately. The illustrations are charming and reinforce the concepts well. Read my review for more details.

The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean is especially good for career changers and those who landed in instructional design from other fields. It provides a model for the range of skills that fall under the umbrella of “instructional design.” It includes practical tips on topics such as working with SMEs and avoiding “clicky clicky bling bling” or flashy interactivity and multimedia for the sake of being flashy. The design models in chapter 4 are probably familiar to many with experience in the field but very helpful to beginners who want to do more than just the same type of course and interaction for every situation.

Designing Successful e-Learning by Michael Allen tells you to “Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting.” All of Allen’s books are focused on helping people design e-learning that is interactive, engaging, and useful.

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer is one of the first books on e-learning I bought, and I still refer to it when I need evidence to justify decisions to clients. If you’ve ever wondered if formal or conversational style is better for learning (conversational) or if your on-screen text should replicate what’s on the screen (no, it shouldn’t), this book explains it with the research to back it up. It’s not perfect; the authors do sometimes disregard research that contradicts their own findings, and they sometimes make their principles seem more absolute than they probably are in real life. However, it’s still a solid reference.

First Principles of Instruction is David Merrill’s effort to distill the common principles from multiple instructional design theories. This is available as a free PDF.

Games and Scenario-Based Learning

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp explains how to do more with gamification than just badges and points. Karl summarizes research and game theory and explains how substantive elements of games like narrative can be used to improve learning design. I wrote more about this gamification research previously.

Scenario-based e-Learning by Ruth Clark is similar to eLearning and the Science of Instruction in that it summarizes research findings. This book is specifically focused on developing scenario-based e-learning, including everything from simple branching scenarios to complex simulations.

Learning Communities

Building Online Learning Communities by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt is aimed more at online instructors than instructional designers, but it’s a wonderful resource for IDs working in higher education or supporting online and blended learning communities.

Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John Smith is about how technology can enable communities of practice.

Other Topics

Learning Everywhere by Chad Udell is a fantastic resource on mobile learning, providing everything from a big picture view of broad categories of mobile learning to specific technical considerations and pitfalls. You can read my review of the book for more details.

Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth is full of visuals and explains how to “show your work” by sharing what you’re doing and learning using social tools. The book explains the benefits of creating a culture where people share their processes and discoveries.

E-Learning Uncovered: Adobe Captivate 8 by Diane Elkins, Desiree Pinder, and Tim Slade sat on my desk for multiple weeks because I used it so often that it wasn’t worth bothering to put it back on the shelf. This book was an immense help to me in learning Captivate 8. I’m sure their other books on Storyline 2, Lectora, etc. are equally valuable.

More Reading Lists

If that’s not enough, these reading lists will give you additional ideas.

Your Selections

Did I miss one of your favorite books? Leave a comment with your suggestions.

No, I Won’t “Tweak” Your PowerPoint Slides

I got a call from a prospective client. She and I spoke briefly once when she was looking for a pool of instructional designers to call on for specific projects, but we haven’t worked together yet. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s never worked with any instructional designers before.

“Hi, Christy, it’s Lynn. I need some help finishing up an e-learning course. The PowerPoint slides just need to be tweaked—editing the onscreen text, adding some animation, prepping the script for voice over recording, and syncing everything together. Are you available?”

“Your timing is good, Lynn. I’m just wrapping up some other projects and have some time now. Tell me some more about this project.”

“It’s about 200 slides. Here, let me email them to you now so you can take a look. The content is basically finished, and it just needs some polish. Can you do that?”

“OK, I’m looking over the slides now.” Some parts of the presentation have good visuals, but large sections are text obviously copied word-for-word from the employee handbook. Often, the same text is in the voice over notes as on screen. The slides contain no practice activities or assessments. “Is this a face-to-face course that you want to convert to online?” I ask.

Dense text on a slide describing benefits. No amount of "tweaking" will make this much text effective e-learning.

No amount of “tweaking” will make this effective e-learning.

She responds, “Yes, this used to be taught in a classroom. It’s part of the new employee orientation. We have a lot of new employees coming in, and we don’t always have a trainer available. Frankly, some of the trainers are better than others. We want to make sure everyone has the same experience. I had the best trainer write the script out in the slide notes for the narration so it would be just like what he teaches in class.”

“Well, I could do proofreading and animation to just tweak the slides, but I’m not sure that would be really effective. I don’t know what your budget is, but I think this course could benefit from some actual analysis and instructional design.”

“What do you mean by ‘actual analysis and instructional design’?”

“As an instructional designer, I don’t usually do projects where I’m just brought on at the end to tweak slides. I’m typically brought on board shortly after a client decides, ‘We need a course!’ Starting right from the beginning, I work with you to analyze the need, design the instruction, develop the multimedia, and manage the project until launch. I do a kick-off call with you to find out your needs. We talk about what business problem we’re trying to solve; needing a course isn’t a true business problem, so I work to uncover WHY you decided you need a course. For example, for an orientation like this, I’d want to know what’s working and not working in your current orientation. What do people leave orientation and still have problems with? What questions keep coming up over and over to HR?”

Lynn replies, “There are tons of questions with the benefits plan. People just don’t understand it, even after they read the handbook. HR ends up spending a lot of time walking people through all the options.”

“If people don’t understand it right now from reading the handbook, do you think they’ll understand it any better by having someone read it to them?”

“Hmm. I guess not.”

“Right now, you would probably get about the same results from having your new employees read the handbook on their own and take a quiz afterward. The slides are basically a pretty version of your handbook. Reading the handbook and taking a quiz wouldn’t only be cheaper to develop; it would be faster for employees to complete. People read faster than they can listen to voice over, so they can consume the same amount of content in less time by reading the document rather than watching and listening to the same thing online.”

“I see your point. But we don’t really have the budget to do a course from scratch.”

“You know, you probably will spend more upfront to do analysis and develop a more effective course. However, the final orientation would probably be half its current length because it would be focused on what employees need on day one to get started. That means employees would spend less time in orientation and be ready to do real work faster. We could also focus on the problems you really need to solve. If we can reduce the number of questions and problems HR has to deal with, we can free them up to do other work. That can save your company money in the long run even though the initial costs are higher.”

“You know, I might be able to justify that. Cutting down the time for new employees to get up and running is a big deal right now, so if we can help with that, I might be able to find some more budget. I need to talk to HR some more to find out if they have any other issues with new employees. I really thought instructional designers just did a little multimedia work at the end of the process. I didn’t realize you did so much.”

“Instructional design is more about being a partner to help you solve problems than just making slides pretty. You asked me to be a handyman and touch up some peeling paint, but I’m really an architect who can design you a house that better meets your needs.”

“Let me work on the budget and get back to you in a few days so we can talk about scope, OK? I’m not sure I can get enough to do everything you’d usually design, but maybe we can get something to do more analysis.”

“Sound good. I’ll look forward to hearing from you soon.”

This conversation is fictionalized, but it’s based on several real experiences. How do you handle it when someone asks you to just “tweak the slides”? How do you shift the conversation from just being an order taker to doing real instructional design work?

My History of Live Blogged Notes

When I attend webinars or participate in online courses and conferences, I usually live blog my notes. That helps me remember what I attended and what I learned, and it lets me share that knowledge with others. In a recent discussion about how I have learned about instructional design without getting a master’s degree, someone asked me what courses and webinars I’ve attended. Because I have done so much live blogging, I was able to provide proof of my ongoing professional development efforts. These posts go back to 2007, so some of the content and references are dated. Generally newer posts are at the top of each category.


Storytelling and Scenario-Based Learning

Synchronous Learning

 Attention and Motivation

Trends and Future Predictions

Games and Simulations

LMSs and Other Tools

Learning Communities

Other Topics

Image credit: Matthew Bowden http://www.digitallyrefreshing.com (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/145972) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Voice Over Script Review Checklist

I’ve written several posts with tips on how to write voice over scripts. This review checklist summarizes all of the tips from the previous three posts into a single Word document you can download and use yourself.

Voice Over Checklist

Voice Over Script Review Checklist

Feel free to edit this document to match the requirements of your specific organization as long as you retain attribution to me with a link. If you improve this document, I’d love to hear about it.

Here is the complete list from the checklist:

  • The script has been read aloud
  • Script flows well; no awkward or clunky sentences
  • No grammar errors
  • Conversational tone
  • First and/or second person (I, we, you) are used
  • Contractions are used if style allows
  • No overly complicated sentences; variety of sentence length with shorter sentences
  • Pronunciation guides included for jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and numbers
  • Emphasis in sentences marked as needed
  • Punctuate to mark pauses
  • Readable spacing, font, and font size (at least 12-14 pts)
  • Screen names clearly labeled
  • Numbers are written out as you want them said
  • Lists are written in conversational sentences (first choice) or punctuated for clarity and ease of reading aloud (second choice)
  • Serial comma used for all lists
  • Latin abbreviations are written out or noted: e.g. (“for example”), i.e. (“that is”), and etc. (“et cetera” or “and so on”)

For further explanation of the above points, review the previous posts in the series:

  1. Writing Style Tips for Voice Over Scripts
  2. Formatting Tips for Voice Over Scripts
  3. Voice Over Script Pitfalls

I want to give Jill Goldman of Goldivox one more shout out for being so helpful in putting these posts together.

Voice Over Script Pitfalls

Instructional designers sometimes run into pitfalls when writing voice over scripts. Jill Goldman of Goldivox is a voice over professional who graciously agreed to share with me the issues she sometimes sees in scripts. I’ll share her perspective in block quotes below, along with my own tips.

This is part 3 of my series on writing voice over scripts. Read the rest of series:

Watch for these common pitfalls in your scripts:

  • Numbers
  • Lists
  • Abbreviations
  • Emphasis
  • Grammar Errors

I find it helpful to do one separate review of my scripts where I specifically focus on these pitfalls, usually after I’ve done any final editing for conversational style and flow. In the final post of the series, I’ll provide a QA checklist of all the tips to help you with your reviews.

Wooden model with microphone

Photo Credit: julianrod via Compfight cc


One of the most common pitfalls in voice over scripts is writing numbers. Jill says:

Please write out how you’d like it read. Also, beware of the correct way of reading numbers out loud. That is definitely a pet peeve of mine (many voice-over professionals don’t read numbers correctly either). For example: 2010 can be read as “two thousand ten” or maybe “twenty ten,” or even “two zero one zero” in some cases.

Include an explanation of how you want the number read in your pronunciation guide. (If you’re not sure how to include and format pronunciation help, see my previous post on formatting voice over scripts.) Alternatively, you can just write it out in the text of the script the way you want it read.

  • Example with pronunciation help: For each $1 [voice over: dollar] spent on this method, organizations save $4.30 [voice over: four dollars and thirty cents].
  • Example written out directly in script: For each dollar spent on this method, organizations save four dollars and thirty cents.

Decimals and fractions have basic standards in voice over, but there are options depending on the needs of your organization and audience.

2010 is NOT “two thousand AND ten.” The word “and” in a number indicates a fraction (or more of the number that will be coming after a decimal point). For example, “359.42” would be “three hundred fifty nine, and forty two hundredths” or if it is money, “three hundred fifty nine and forty two cents.” Or perhaps you want it read as individual digits, as “three five nine point four two.”

Dates can also be read several ways. Would you like 11/26/14 read as “eleven twenty-six fourteen” or “November twenty-sixth, twenty fourteen”? I think the second sounds much more natural in narration, even though it looks clunky in writing.

Be careful with phone numbers in your scripts.

With telephone numbers, if you are giving me “1-800-555-4900,” usually we know the “one eight hundred” part (but if you rather it is “one, eight zero zero,” let me know). The “555” is easy enough, but please tell me if you want it to be “four, nine, zero, zero” or “forty nine hundred.” These kinds of seemingly little things can create a lot of stress and waste a lot of time.


In addition to numbers, lists are the other most common place for running into trouble in voice over scripts. It’s so easy to create a bullet point list in writing, but those lists really don’t sound good in voice over. (Let’s leave aside the topic of how effective those bullet point lists are in e-learning in general. That’s a whole other topic.)

If you have to do a list, Jill says it helps her to include a colon or other punctuation to indicate the beginning of a list.

For example, here are some things that Jill says make her life easier:

  • Clearly written scripts in a conversational tone
  • Screen names clearly marked
  • Pronunciation notes for numbers and abbreviations

However, rather than using a list like the above, try to rewrite it so it sounds more like someone speaking. You probably don’t talk in bullet points in normal conversation. Why shouldn’t your voice over sound more like a real person? Even if you display a bullet point list on the screen, your voice over shouldn’t read that list word for word. Change the bullet points to complete sentences and create a paragraph like the example below.

Example rewritten bullet point list: Jill says several techniques in scripts can make her life easier. She appreciates clearly written scripts, especially those that use a conversational tone. Screen names that are clearly marked make editing recordings easier. Including pronunciation notes for numbers and abbreviations reduces ambiguity in your scripts.


Jill notes common problems with abbreviations:

Slash marks, abbreviations, and things like “e.g.” or “i.e.” – type it out as you want us to read it. Do you want me to say “slash”, or do you want me to say “or”, or “and”, or maybe even just read the two words with nothing between, such as “input/output.” Do you want me to say “e.g.” or “for example”? “i.e.” or “in other words”?

At my first ID job, the team of editors changed every instance of e.g., i.e., and etc. to equivalent words (for example, that is, and so on, respectively). We were forbidden from using those abbreviations in voice over scripts. I’ve always kept to that standard myself. I think it sounds much more natural to say “for example” than “Eee Gee.”

For other abbreviations and acronyms, include pronunciation notes. Maybe everyone in your organization knows that “NIAAA” is “N-I-Triple A,” but a voice over professional may not.


Emphasis is a harder pitfall to catch. Even if you read your script aloud, you already know what it should sound like in your head, so you might not realize someone else wouldn’t read it the same way.

Jill explains:

What drives me crazy? Sentences that can be read in different ways, depending on what part of the sentence needs emphasis. Usually I can figure it out, but if it is an unfamiliar subject, it is harder to figure out. If you know which word in a sentence you want to be emphasized, please mark it in some way to let me know. Italicize it, or capitalize it, or underline it, something to guide me.

It may seem like it takes extra time to think about and add in markings for emphasis. Think about the process though: the voice talent records the sentence without understanding where you want the emphasis to be. When you review the audio and realize it doesn’t sound the way you want, you have to take time to document the issue and ask for the talent to re-record that line for you.

With experience, it gets easier to notice the places where your writing could be emphasized different ways. If you have a good tip for identifying those potential problem spots in a script, please share it in the comments below.

Grammar Errors

One major pitfall in voice over scripts is poor grammar or sentences that don’t make sense. These can slow down recording and editing. As I mentioned in my first post of the series, reading your script aloud is the most important step you can take to improve your scripts. That will help you catch the worst errors, as will having someone else read your scripts.

However, sometimes errors still slip through. I asked Jill how she prefers to handle these sorts of errors when she finds them in a script:

I’ve learned from experience that it is usually faster for me to record the script as written, and then also provide an alternate take or two, giving the line as I think it was meant to be written. Then, if I’m the one doing the editing of the audio, I can go back and ask the client which they preferred when I’m done, and just edit out the takes that were not the right ones, and leave in the correct version (whether it was the originally written way or not).

If I’m not the one who is going to be editing the audio, I will usually leave in the extra takes, with an audible “side note” saying something like “alternate take” or “alternately” or just “OR.” I try to alert the audio editor about places where I’ve done that, but if it is someone I’ve worked with frequently, I don’t always do so. They know to listen for those spots.

Sometimes I can’t even begin to figure out what the writer really meant to write. I’ll usually still try to come up with alternates, based on what I think the writer will tell me, but sometimes the writer will rework the sentence entirely at that point, and I’ll need to go back and record the corrected line again. This does slow down my end of the work, though. So, needless to say, please check and double check your writing. Even read it aloud, so you can catch spots that don’t work. Have someone else look at it, too, and read it aloud. The more carefully you have the script proofread before it comes into my hands, the more smoothly it will go on my end. This will save you money…

Obviously, it’s faster to fix these errors before you send the script. You may find it helpful to discuss with your voice over talent a process for addressing errors. I’ve received alternate versions as Jill describes for both errors and emphasis, and this process has worked well for me.