Instructional Design vs. Curriculum Development: Key Differences

Updated June 24, 2022

Effective learning frameworks can influence learner engagement, incorporate new understandings and technologies into program offerings and communicate important learning concepts. Both instructional design and curriculum development focus on the creation of training processes and systems. If you're deciding between a career as either a designer or developer of educational materials or want to learn more about these roles, it's helpful to understand the key differences between these two areas.

In this article, we define what instructional design and curriculum development are, explain the duties of designers and developers, list the stages of the instructional design process and discuss the differences and similarities between these areas.

What is instructional design?

Instructional design focuses on determining which educational methods have the largest effect on learners' cognitive and behavioral development. Professionals can use their research to create new strategies and techniques that can help engage students and create valuable learning experiences. Designers often evaluate how they can use specific materials, technologies and methods to accomplish learning objectives. The design process often incorporates interactive content, activities and testing aspects that can help students stay motivated and learning effectively.

Instructional design comprises the design, development and delivery of learning systems based on research of how students learn. The field places heavy emphasis on finding the best ways to teach course material and engage learners.

What do instructional designers do?

Instructional designers create educational materials and courses for educators, businesses and agencies. While their exact duties can vary depending on their specific roles and employers, instructional designers often:

  • Create educational training materials, like student guides and teacher manuals

  • Redesign courses to improve efficiency

  • Develop courses or curriculums

  • Incorporate new technologies into curriculums and materials

  • Produce instructional management strategies

  • Review new research and advancements

  • Create educational content, like videos and podcasts

  • Evaluate feedback to design stronger programs

  • Conduct educator trainings

Related: How To Get a Job as an Instructional Designer

What are the steps in the instructional design process?

The instructional design process includes eight stages meant to help professionals design effective systems:

1. Research

The first stage of the instructional design process requires designers to collect information and determine the organization they're working for's needs. Typically, instructional design researchers consider the audience of their training material, the content requirements of the course, the influence of technology on their processes and the organization's expectations. By considering each of these four areas, designers can create educational programs and materials capable of accomplishing their employers' goals and engaging their target audiences.

2. Identify objectives

With their research complete, instructional designers can determine the objectives of their educational content. Learning objectives can provide a helpful framework for course designs because it ensures students receive exposure to the most important concepts. It also highlights the program's most important areas so designers can determine where to incorporate assessments.

Related: What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (And Pros and Cons of Using an SME)

3. Design an effective program

The third step requires designers to incorporate their research and understanding of learning objectives into an effective curriculum. They can use assessments, rewards and technology to diversify offerings and ensure proper engagement. To do this, instructional designers need to determine which approach is most effective for communicating a lesson or idea. They might use interactive content, visual aids or independent study to encourage certain behaviors and promote idea retention.

4. Develop visual aids

A lot of instructional designers choose to develop a storyboard for their processes and content. Storyboards can help designers convey their processes and ideas to stakeholders, and it gives educators an idea of how to incorporate the designer's ideas into their teaching. Storyboards can use text, images, voice-overs and icons to relay important ideas and strategies.

5. Create an example model

When designing learning modules for a client, designers can create a prototype that introduces some of their ideas. By letting them see the model, designers can help organizational leaders visualize the ideas in practice. The prototype is often more detailed than the storyboard and provides a functional glimpse of the proposed design.

6. Design training content

After the successful completion of their storyboard and prototype, designers can develop their training program. Typically, the training follows the ideas presented in the storyboard but goes into more detail. It includes all the activities, tests and support learners need to develop their knowledge.

7. Implement training processes

With a successful and approved design plan, instructional designers can see their plans in practice. Educators deliver course materials and training content to students. During this phase, it's often important to collect user feedback and to evaluate the effectiveness of the instructional design team's efforts.

8. Improve processes

Successful instructional design often depends on a commitment to continued learning and improvement. Designers can use learners' and educators' feedback and their own experience throughout the design process to inform their future actions and strategies. By determining if the training effectively met the organization's goals, instructional designers can enhance their processes and continue to develop quality offerings.

What is curriculum development?

Curriculum development is the process of updating courses and programs to improve teaching strategies and content inclusions. Development considers key factors like educational standards, content requirements and resource availability. Curriculum developers create content plans and processes for schools, colleges and universities, helping them improve the structure of their courses to incorporate new content.

What do curriculum developers do?

Curriculum developers work with educational institutions to create lesson plans and curriculums. Here are some common curriculum developer duties:

  • Research state and local standards to ensure compliance

  • Improve current programs and courses

  • Develop teaching plans and lessons

  • Evaluate existing offers

  • Observe students in their learning environments

  • Work with faculty on training programs

  • Incorporate textbooks, activities and technology into program offerings

Related: How To Become a Curriculum Developer (With Tips)

Instructional design vs. curriculum development

Even though the terms instructional design and curriculum development are sometimes used interchangeably, there are several key differences between the two areas. Here are some primary ways they differ:


The focus of instructional design and curriculum development isn't always the same. Often, curriculum design takes a wider perspective when evaluating standards, goals and criteria. Commonly, curriculum design refers to what people learn in their programs. With instructional design, the focus is instead on how students learn. Instructional design takes a more narrow view and looks at specific materials, methods and objectives.


Another aspect where the two fields differ is the skills professionals need to perform each job. While certain skills can help both instructional designers and curriculum developers, some abilities can be more valuable in one area than in the other. Here are some skills that can help instructional designers succeed in their careers:

  • Problem-solving: Problem-solving skills help instructional designers incorporate new research and ideas into their system designs. It helps them continually improve their methods and offerings and use feedback constructively.

  • Project management: Project management skills can also help designers focus on different project elements. Through all the phases of the design process, it's helpful to understand the project's requirements so designers can prioritize its successful execution.

  • Research: Research skills can help instructional designers compile useful information about advancements so they can apply the most up-to-date understandings about cognitive and behavioral psychology to their program designs.

Here are some skills that can be more helpful for curriculum developers:

  • Professional development: Staying committed to learning about industry advancements and developments can ensure curriculum developers have the most accurate knowledge to create their curriculums.

  • Communication skills: Communication skills can help developers work with faculty, educational leaders and their teams to develop the best possible course offerings.

  • Technological skills: Many curriculum development occupations require developers to use software and technology to create their program offerings. Technological skills can also help developers incorporate technology into their curriculums effectively.


The last area of difference is in how designer and developer's work applies to programs. Curriculum design covers what students need to know in their program offerings. It deals specifically with content and relies heavily on state and local standards to inform course decisions. Instructional design applies more to the methods of teaching. It might place more emphasis on learning activities and behavioral influence than on actual content.

Related: How To Write a Curriculum

Similarities between instructional design and curriculum development

Instructional design and curriculum development are often used synonymously and frequently overlap. Here are some ways the two are similar:


One area where instructional design and curriculum development are similar is in their goals. While specific goals can depend on the content type and organization they professionals are designing programs for, both designers and developers strive to facilitate learning and create effective methods for concept retention. With both roles focused on improving learning and effectively communicating ideas, they can each offer valuable support to the institutions they inform.


Other similarities occur in the development process for designer's and developer's learning plans. Both incorporate research and evaluation elements. These elements ensure they have all the information they need to create successful teaching materials. Evaluation helps both designers and developers consistently improve.

Related: Guide to a Career in Training and Development


The last area of overlap is in each role's involvement with the organizations they assist. Both positions rely on feedback from educators and often collaborate with faculty members at educational institutions to design courses. They might offer training services for educators or program leaders at companies. By doing this, designers and developers can ensure organizations execute their programs according to their vision.

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