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: Identifying and Designing Effective, Efficient and Engaging Instructionis David Merrill’s effort to distill the common principles from multiple instructional design theories. A shorter, earlier explanation of these principles 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.

Book Review: Design for How People Learn

Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learnis a great book for instructional designers because it actually is written using the principles taught. Some instructional design books use a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of approach: they talk about chunking content into manageable amounts, using effective visuals, and motivating learners, but they are filled with long, unbroken blocks of dry text. Design for How People Learn is an easy, fun read, with lots of visuals and realistic examples that touch on frustrating problems instructional designers face.

Design for How People Learn cover

Julie says, “I recently heard the advice for authors that you should write the book you want to read but can’t find. That’s basically what I did.”

Lots of Images

Images are interspersed in every topic. It’s a lot of stick figures, but you’d be surprised at how effective stick figures can be at conveying a concept. For example, chapter 2 “Who Are Your Learners?” includes a series of stick figures facing different inclines representing the challenge of a course. It’s five variations of a single stick figure with a single angled line depicting a hill, but it still gets the point across. You can see how a novice learner is facing a steeper hill than an expert. I was a little surprised to not find any screenshots of actual courses, but the book doesn’t feel like it’s missing them.

When I was reading this book, I realized that I suddenly started using a lot more visuals in the course I was developing. The way the images were done in the book gave me more inspiration for my own course. Even if you’re an experienced instructional designer who is already familiar with most of the research and principles, this book is valuable as an example of well-done graphics for learning.

Stories and Examples

Although the book doesn’t include screenshots or examples of actual courses or training materials, the stories and examples do depict actual problems instructional designers face. For example, there’s an example of a new manager who has gone through training but isn’t applying the coaching skills taught. You’re given a description of her performance and asked to consider whether this is really a problem that can be fixed by training. It’s very realistic; you’ve probably seen or experienced a similar situation yourself. You can connect it to your experience, and it’s easy to see how this applies in your work. Julie explains benefits of using stories later in the book, but she applies the principle throughout.

Accessible Research

The book includes lots of research about how we learn and remember, but it’s very accessible. The language is approachable and often humorous. The research is always framed in terms of “OK, so what does that mean for me when I’m creating a course? What do I do with that research?” I admit that there weren’t a lot of surprises for me in the research; it was mostly information I was already familiar with. I expect anyone with a masters degree in instructional design or who does a lot of independent reading and study would find it to be the same. However, those who are just getting started in the field or are accidental instructional designers will find to be a good foundation of research principles. The references at the end of each chapter are a good resource to dig deeper.

More Info

The Table of Contents and a sample chapter on motivation are both available on Julie’s site.