Instructional Designer or Learning Engineer? It depends on how you brush your teeth

As people hear about the emerging field of learning engineering, they are often confused about how this is different than what they may already be doing, especially as an instructional designer or learning experience designer. How can you tell which one you are practicing? Well, the surprising answer is that it depends on how you brush your teeth.

When talking about this confusion with Erin Czerwinski, the Simon Initiative Product and Community Manager at the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, she offered the analogy of dental care. Erin shared that it wasn’t until middle adulthood that she realized that the purpose in brushing your teeth wasn’t just to move the brush around your teeth for two minutes and call it done. Instead, she now brushes each tooth individually. She compared this to the differences between instructional design and learning engineering: instructional designers follow well-established and evidence-supported procedures for designing and delivering instruction, but they don’t necessarily use data and the learning sciences to maximize learner potential. Let’s unpack this metaphor a bit.

When I brush my teeth, I use an Oral-B toothbrush, which I selected after consultation with my dentist, dental hygienist, and my own consumer research. I gently move the spinning brush head around the entire surface of each individual tooth for 4 seconds before moving on to the next. After the two minutes are up, I rinse my mouth, then run my tongue over my teeth to feel the surface for anything I’ve missed. I then go back and clean up those areas. Making this change has affected my dental health: instead of multiple cavities every year, I haven’t had a cavity in many years. As an educator, I use the learning sciences to select evidence-based approaches to engage my students in learning activities, but I also collect data whenever possible to check their understanding and make modifications to my instruction based on the data. This has improved outcomes for many more of my learners.

I’m also an instructional designer. However, I have learned to adopt the learning engineering mindset and approach in my design practice. ICICLE, the International Consortium for Innovation and Collaboration in Learning Engineering defined learning engineering as:

“a process and practice that . . .

  1. applies the learning sciences,
  2. using human-centered engineering design methodologies, and
  3. data-informed decision-making
    . . . to support learners and their development” (Goodell, 2022).

What this means is that I don’t just use traditional models of instructional design, like ADDIE, backwards design, formative feedback, differentiated instruction, etc. to determine how I will help learners achieve the course outcomes. Instead, I use all the tools at my disposal, including those mentioned above as well as searching for ways to instrument learning processes and gains to determine in the moment how students are making sense of course material and adjusting instructional design to accommodate the needs of a particular set of learners, with a particular set of assets and challenges, in a particular context, in a particular learning environment to increase learning outcomes for each student. Each learning context is unique with its own set of assets and challenges, so each course needs to adjust to the students who enroll and the system in which it is offered. We all have a mouth, teeth, and gums, but each is unique with its own actions and needs.

My teeth are different than yours. Sometimes they’re sensitive, so I need to use a prescription toothpaste that helps to conserve the limited amount of fluoride I have on my teeth due to my genetics and well water. Not everyone needs the same toothpaste. Similarly, we can’t just design learning opportunities as a one-size-fits-all product that every learner experiences the same way. Some students have shorter attention spans, slower processing speed, poor vision, more distractions in their environment, lack of interest in the content, or gaps in prerequisite knowledge. I look for ways to surface this information with my students so that I can modify the course to better suit their unique needs. This can be as complex as completing learner analyses and collecting data from the student information system, or as simple as adding an interactive question to a lecture video asking students to tell me how the concept I just presented relates to something they already know or what they want to learn more about.

Learning engineering is a systematic approach to understanding the entire learning context, the unique set of learners and instructors, specifying a particular challenge, and using the learning sciences to design appropriate learning encounters that are instrumented to illuminate the internal workings of the student mind. A dentist can easily look in my mouth to visually locate cavities, but sometimes they need x-rays to see inside or between teeth. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a scanner that can tell us what students know, so we need to illicit their understanding in other ways. Instead of just using evidence-based instructional practices, learning engineering calls on us to use evidence-generating instructional practices. Effective learning is more about getting information out than it is getting information in. By asking students to share representations of their knowledge, whether it is simply responding to a multiple choice question, answering a deeper prompt verbally or in writing, or even building models of their understanding, we get to see their understanding and help them adjust, but there is the added advantage for the student of strengthening their understanding with effortful recall.

Learning engineering has helped me to identify missed opportunities in exchanges with learners. I see helping students to achieve learning outcomes as challenges to solve, rather than opportunities to impart knowledge. Rather than just creating a set of multiple choice questions to check whether students get the right answer, I now carefully construct distractors for each question that identify misconceptions. I use generative AI to help me develop these. Now, it’s not just whether the student understands a concept, it’s how they understand a concept or why they don’t understand it.

Do you just use the toothbrush your dental hygienist gifts you at the end of your annual cleaning? Do you dutifully move the toothbrush around your mouth because you’ve been told that you need to do this to maintain good dental health? Or do you carefully select the equipment you will use to make sure your teeth are actually clean? Do you pay individual attention to each tooth, check to make sure it is clean, and then remediate when necessary? The answers to these questions may just help you to determine whether you have the mindset of an instructional designer or a learning engineer.


Goodell, J. (Ed.). (2022). The learning engineering toolkit: Evidence-based practices from the learning sciences, instructional design, and beyond. Routledge.

Responding to Novel Coronavirus: A Faculty Triage Guide for Decision Making

As more colleges and universities suspend in person classes or make plans to, faculty are left with the overwhelming prospect of continuing to teach in a new modality, while many of these faculty have limited or no experience teaching in distance education. Join 3 experienced instructional designers who have supported the transition to distance learners for hundreds of faculty in the University of Maine System as we share some practical and uplifting advice for how to make decisions about what to do with your course. Our hope is that you will leave this session with a clear understanding of what your next steps should be, a sense of calm and confidence, and some practical strategies for how to make the transition and where to find the resources you need.

Webinar Recording

Chat Transcript


Download the slides in pdf format.


You can contribute to the handout in google docs by adding your own resources here:

Your Feedback, Please!

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Keep Calm and Go Online

First, take a deep breath. With all of the anxiety surrounding the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and panic about how you will make it through the semester. Remember what your goal is: to share your passion about your subject with learners and help them meet your course objectives. You can still do this even with disruptions to your schedule and meeting format and I will share some suggestions with you here to do just that. It all begins with your goals.


Look back at your course objectives and student learning outcomes in your syllabus. What have your students already met? What remains to be addressed? Is there any flexibility with how these are met? Try not to get too hung up on following what you had planned for activities and assignments, as these are means to an end. You want to reach the same end but adjusting to distance learning will require perhaps rethinking the means. For each of those course objectives, you developed a strategy in your syllabus for meeting them by planning instructional activities, assignments, and assessments. Let’s look at how we can tweak that strategy.

In the table below, I have listed some common instructional purposes with traditional activities for meeting these goals in class, as well as some options for meeting these same objectives at a distance. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant to get your creative instructional juices flowing. As you will see, you likely are already doing some of the activities in the distance option columns, so no need to worry about entering a foreign land. Just begin where you are comfortable, and maybe try one or two new things.

Comparing In-Person and Remote Learning Activities

Instructional Need In Class Activities Synchronous Distance Options in Zoom Asynchronous Distance Options
Assessing and/or activating prior knowledge
  • Entrance tickets: Ask students to write down what they already know about the topic
  • Have a conversation about what students may know
  • Review earlier content/connections
  • Screen share a prompt or question while you wait for students to log in
  • Ask about previous knowledge in chat, for students to respond to
  • Create a guiding question or prompt before the content to help student contextualize
  • Create a checklist or a short video or text reminder of what was previously covered
Introduce students to content
  • Lecture
  • Presentation
  • Demonstration or whiteboard work
  • Reading
  • Lecture via Zoom
  • Screen share to present your PowerPoint
  • Use white boarding in Zoom or a document camera, and pen & paper
  • Read a passage over Zoom
  • Record an audio recording in 5-10 minute increments
  • Post written lecture notes
  • Create a presentation video
  • Add worksheets, or create a short video demonstrating a process
  • Assign Reading
Formative assessments and checking for understanding
  • Check faces for understanding
  • Clickers/Student response systems
  • Pop quizzes or quick-writes
  • Live survey
  • Use gallery view see student faces
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow thumbs up/down for understanding
  • Use the poll tool in Zoom
  • Create a quiz in Google Forms for live results
  • Ask students to submit at least 2 questions they still have
  • Create a quiz in the LMS or in Google Forms
Student ability to engage with instructor and ask clarifying questions
  • Students raise hands
  • Students enter a question in the Chat panel
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow the Raise Hand feature
  • Create a Q&A discussion forum in the LMS
  • Create a norm for students to reach out via email or messaging tool with questions
  • Give students a # to text with questions
Students exchange ideas with peers, engage in collaboration, reflect on content, and make connections with personal experience
  • Large or small group discussion
  • Pair and Share
  • Collaborative group assignment
  • Written responses or short projects
  • Large group discussion (be sure to review communication norms)Breakout rooms in Zoom
  • Links to collaborative Google docs/slides
  • Assignments submitted online
  • Discussion forum in the LMS
  • Small groups in LMS
  • Collaborative projects with Google Docs, Slides, or Sheets
  • Video-based discussion
  • Assignments submitted online
Students practice skills, with guidance
  • Worksheets
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Drafting
  • Hand-over-hand coaching and feedback
  • Worksheets and graphic organizers, shared in advance
  • Verbal guidance in large or small groups
  • Screen sharing drafts or collaborative Google Docs
  • Instructor coaching and feedback in breakout rooms
  • Digital worksheets and graphic organizers
  • Students share drafts, images, or recordings in LMS Groups or collaborative Google documents for feedback
  • Rubrics and detailed feedback is used, with multiple submissions enabled for revisions
Assessing student understanding and grading (summative assessments)
  • Papers
  • Presentations
  • Projects
  • Reflections
  • Exams
  • Breakout groups can work on Google projects and share out to large groups
  • Presentations
  • Individual projects and exams submitted online
  • Assignments, journals and exams submitted online
  • Group or individual projects and presentations submitted in Discussion forums
Modality Matrix developed by Anne Fensie and Heather Nunez-Olmstead.

Teaching online can initially feel like herding cats if you haven’t planned carefully and accounted for some unique aspects of distance learning. Important things to consider include the digital divide, communicating expectations, tools, logistics, and videoconference etiquette. Let me share some advice as an experienced cat herder.

Technology Accessibility

Technology can be both a bridge and a barrier to access for people, and this is an important concern when providing instruction at a distance. Not only do you want to ensure that you are not creating additional barriers to your course content, but this is now an opportunity to create additional access that might not have been available before. Electronic text is a fairly universal medium that can be read on a screen, printed out, or read aloud via a screen reader. It can be accessed on a computer, on a mobile device, through Wi-Fi, or SMS. Whenever possible, provide electronic text equivalents of your course content and try to ensure that everything can be downloaded at one go for students who have limited access to Wi-Fi.

Make the Implicit Explicit

Teaching online requires explicit communication. People new to distance education often do not realize how much is implied in our everyday interactions that can easily get lost in the translation online. Be specific about what you want your students to do each week. Include activities that are graded and those that you expect them to do even though they are not graded. Many students really appreciate checklists to follow so they know they are meeting your expectations. If you want them to submit something, be sure to tell them where to send it and when it is due, including the date and time.

Start Small

You don’t need to learn a lot of new technologies to make this temporary transition to distance learning. Faculty who have been teaching online for years and have a toolkit full of resources have spent years learning and compiling those resources. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a week. If you only know how to use email, begin there by sending out course materials and asking students to email you assignments. If you are comfortable with your school’s LMS, post your materials there, create assignment drop boxes, and places for students to interact and ask questions.

Don’t make too much work for yourself. When you ask a question in class, only a small percentage of your students respond. When you ask a question online, every single one of your students will respond which will vastly increase your workload. Plan carefully for what you want students to submit to you so you can make the time to review it and provide feedback. Prompt feedback is especially important for students at a distance as they can feel disconnected and concerned about their performance.

Web Conference Etiquette

One new technology you might be interested in experimenting with is Zoom, or another web conferencing platform like Skype or Google Hangouts. If you plan to conduct your class synchronously, this will be a must. If you plan to conduct your class asynchronously, this can be helpful for office hours, study groups, and providing one-on-one support to students. Here are a couple of quick tips for participating in a web conference that you can share with your students:

  • Test your equipment and connection in advance. Make sure your microphone (and video, if desired) is working.
  • Use a headset or earbuds if possible. This will reduce the amount of audio feedback.
  • Practice using the app before the first meeting. Find out where the mute button and chat are.
  • Stay muted unless you are speaking. The software will automatically switch to your video feed if you make a noise, like cough or if your dog barks.
  • If you are on camera, remember that you are on camera. Please turn off your camera if you are eating, blowing your nose, or walking around the house. This can be very distracting.
  • Follow a protocol for joining the conversation. For example, use the Raise Hand tool in the Participants window, unmute and wait for people to stop talking, or type, “Next, please” in the chat. There may be a time delay so you can interrupt someone without realizing it if you just start talking.
  • Be present. Try not to be distracted by other windows, applications, or your surroundings.
  • Let others in your environment know that you are joining a web conference, so they do not interrupt, keep noise to a minimum, and stay off camera.

The Bottom Line

You can do this! What is the experience you want your learners to have? How do you want them to feel about your course content? How do you want them to think about it? What do you want them to be able to do? Maintaining academic continuity requires us to go back to the essential purpose of our instruction. You can lead your students to the same destination, but you will take a different path to get there. Reach out to the knowledgeable guides on your campus to help you plan the journey and be flexible about this expedition. Keep your focus on the destination—the learning outcomes. It may take longer to get there, some students might stumble along the way, and the experience will be different. Just keep calm and go online!

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Building relationships with students through weekly reflection

reflection and relationships

I care about each one of my learners, and I tell them that, but how do I show them I care? Most of my students are nontraditional so they often face significant barriers to success in higher education. I want them to know that it is possible for them to succeed and I understand their challenges and want to help them. Many of them don’t believe they are “college material”, so I want to help them develop this identity and make them feel like they belong. To achieve all of these aims, I have to build a relationship with each learner. How can you develop a relationship with a student you only see once a week in person, or never if it is an online class?

My strategy developed by accident when I was trying to help my students develop their self-regulation. I recognized the importance of self-regulated learning in distance education and came across Paul Pintrich’s (1995) theory of self-regulated learning (SRL). He suggests that students regulate their actions, feelings, and thinking as learners and that the better they are at regulating these domains, the more successful they will be as students. To help students improve SRL in these areas, he suggests the following:

  1. Students need to have greater awareness of their own behavior, motivation, and
  2. Students need to have positive motivational beliefs.
  3. Faculty can be models of self-regulated learning.
  4. Students need to practice self-regulatory learning strategies.
  5. Classroom tasks can be and should be opportunities for student self-regulation

(Pintrich, 1995, p. 9-11)

In his later work, Pintrich (2004) identified four phases of learning where students self-regulate: planning, monitoring, controlling, and reflection and added an additional domain of context. The table below from his article describes each of the areas and phases of self-regulation.

Table I. Phases and Areas for Self-Regulated Learning
  Areas for regulation
Phases and relevant scales Cognition Motivation/Affect Behavior Context
Phase 1
Forethought, planning, and activation

Target goal setting

Prior content knowledge activation

Metacognitive knowledge activation

Goal orientation adoption

Efficacy judgments Perceptions of task difficulty

Task value activation

Interest activation

Time and effort planning

Planning for self-observations of behavior

Perceptions of task

Perceptions of context

Phase 2

Metacognitive awareness and monitoring of cognition

Awareness and monitoring of motivation and affect  

Awareness and monitoring of effort, time use, need for help

Self-observation of behavior

Monitoring changing task and context conditions

Phase 3

Selection and adaptation of cognitive strategies for learning, thinking

Selection and adaptation of strategies for managing, motivation, and affect

Increase/decrease effort

Change or renegotiate task

Phase 4
Reaction and Reflection

Cognitive judgments


Affective reactions


Choice behavior

Evaluation of task

Evaluation of context

(Pintrich, 2004, p. 390)

I decided to take this table and add questions that students could ask themselves to regulate their learning and came up with this:

I share this file with my students each semester and tell them that I am going to help them with self-regulation to help them be more successful. Each week, they complete an exit ticket where they answer the questions from the last row “Reaction and Reflection”. I created a template in a Google Doc that I copy for each student and share with them privately. This way, only the student and I can see what they write and they can feel free to be candid. I can then read and comment on these, and they can comment back. The same file is used each week, so we have a running conversation that goes on the whole semester. Here is what the document looks like:

Here is a link to the Google Doc that you can copy and use yourself:

It takes about 2-5 minutes to read and comment on each one, so with a class of 20 students, I set aside an hour a week to do this. This is probably the most valuable hour in my whole week. I’ve shared this with faculty who have large classes, and they have their TAs help them read through the exit tickets.

The students really share a lot with me that I wouldn’t know otherwise. They tell me what they are learning, what questions they have, how they are feeling, lessons they’ve learned, and even suggest things about the course that I could change to make it better. I’ve implemented lots of changes in my courses on the fly based on comments students make in their exit tickets. I get weekly updates on the things that are posing a challenge to their success and I get to offer suggestions and encouragement. I really feel connected to each learner, and they feel connected to me. I tell them I care about their experience and their success in higher ed, and now they know I do.

If you do something similar, share it below! If you try this with your classes, please let me know how it goes.


Pintrich, P. R. (1995). Understanding Self-Regulated Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1995(63), 3–12.

Pintrich, P. R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 385–407.