Principles of Instructional Design for Medical Writers

Principles-of-Instructional-Design-for-Medical-WritersThis blog is based on content presented by Deborah Anderson, PhD, MT(ASCP)SH, at the AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Conference.

The term “instructional design” may not sound familiar to some medical writers, simply because they were never formally taught this concept during their education. However, many writers incorporate the principles of sound instructional design in their medical writing without realizing it. In most instances, they develop these skills while learning on the job. 

As trends have shifted toward shorter and faster educational formats, effective medical writers are also incorporating microlearning into their toolkits.

What Is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is the practice of creating content that ensures efficient and effective learning. For medical writers, this means that—before the writing process—they must think about the goals of education, the needs of the learners, and what the end product will look like. 

Goals of Education

Large educational programs are usually broken down into smaller educational activities, each with its own learning objectives and tasks. These learning objectives should specifically describe what the audience will be able to know or do better after the completion of each activity. Medical writers should strive to understand what each activity aims to achieve and how all the educational activities will work together to meet the goals of the entire program. Tasks and post‑activity assessments are often used to determine whether educational activities are successful in helping the learners achieve the learning objectives.

Learners’ Needs

Medical writers should learn as much as possible about the learners. They will want to consider:

  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is their level of knowledge and education? 
  • What are their educational needs? 
  • How will this educational activity contribute to their work or everyday life?
  • Are there language barriers or cultural differences to consider?

All of these factors have an impact on how medical writers should construct the content.

End Product

Medical writers should also ask about the format of the content before writing. The following questions will help shape the end product and ensure that the content is developed and presented to the learners in the most accessible and usable form:

  • Will the activity be presented electronically or printed?
  • Will it be viewed or read on a laptop, tablet, phone, or some other device?
  • Which technology and programming capabilities will be used to build the activity?
  • Will the medical writer have assistance from graphic designers and software programmers?
  • Will interactivity with the audience (for example, live surveys) be feasible? And to what extent?
  • Does the activity need to be monitored?

Incorporating Microlearning (Bursts of Engaging Content)

As the pace of daily life has increased, learning trends have shifted toward shorter and faster educational formats. Microlearning is a type of educational product that includes 3‑ to 5‑minute bursts of content presented to learners via the written word, graphics, or videos. To be effective, microlearning activities must be

  • Bite‑sized. Content should be focused, take no more than 3 to 5 minutes to view, and stand‑alone without other educational pieces.
  • Content‑focused. The activity should provide just the right amount of information the learners need to achieve the learning objective (note that “objective” is singular; microlearning is specific to a single learning objective.)
  • Learner centric. Content should be delivered with a platform that allows the learners to become engaged and immersed in the activity to drive the learning process.
  • Accessible. The activity should be immediately available when the learners need it, and it should have the flexibility to be delivered to whatever device the learner is using.
  • Relatable. Content that evokes strong feelings and emotions is more likely to leave an impact on the learners.
  • Easy to retain. Content should be relevant to the learners’ lives, which makes it easier to remember.

Examples of microlearning videos include powerful snippets that teach viewers—in just a few minutes—specific information about a topic, such as how to switch a phone to low-battery mode, how to fill out a consent form, what the structure of a heart valve is, how a diabetes drug works, and how a pulmonary embolism is formed. 

Communicating highly complex medical content to a professional audience in 1 or 2 microlearning videos is not a replacement for a full-fledged learning program, but it can be an effective way to explain difficult topics or provide an alternative method for achieving learning objectives.

Because microlearning techniques can disseminate quick, effective, and powerful messages to large audiences, clinicians and medical writers may also use them to help explain a specific disease, therapy, or clinical trial to patients or the general public.



Haifa Kassis, MD

Haifa Kassis, MD, is a freelance medical writer who specializes in continuing education for health care professionals. She has served as the 2020-2021 President of the AMWA New England Chapter and as editor-at-large for the AMWA Journal since 2018.