This post is my master list of book recommendations, compiled and updated for 2021 from my previous book lists and book reviews. These are some of my favorite instructional design and elearning books, plus recommendations from readers of my blog. This update includes several new additions to my previous lists, bringing it up to 51 books.
I use Amazon affiliate links when I recommend books. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but I receive a small percentage when you purchase a book from my links. That income helps me break even on the cost of hosting and maintaining this blog.
- Instructional Design
- Scenarios, Simulations, and Storytelling
- Visual Design and Usability
- Agile Project Management
- Learning Science
- Psychology Research
- Performance Consulting
- Games and Gamification
- Consulting and Freelancing
- Learning Communities
- Other Topics
Getting Started in ID
Training Design Basics by Saul Carliner is a perfect book for people just getting started in the field. It’s my recommendation for current students or are switching to instructional design or training from another career. Read my full review about this practical book.
The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean. This book 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.” The book includes practical tips on working with SMEs and avoiding 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. However, they’re very helpful to beginners who want to do more than just the same type of course and interaction for every situation.
Improving ID Skills
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.
First Principles of Instruction. This is 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.
ISD From the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design by Chuck Hodell was suggested by Phrodeo, who is using it as a textbook in a course she’s taking.
Streamlined ID: A Practical Guide to Instructional Design: Miriam Larson suggested her textbook, co-authored with Barbara Lockee.
e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, now in its fourth edition. This 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. Have you ever wondered if formal or conversational style is better for learning (conversational)? Have stakeholders asked 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.
Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company. All of Allen’s books are focused on helping people design e-learning that is interactive, engaging, and useful.
The E-Learning Uncovered series has been my go-to authoring tool reference books for years. E-Learning Uncovered: Articulate Storyline 360 is the most recent edition of the Storyline books. They also have an updated book for Adobe Captivate 2019.
Scenarios, Simulations, and Storytelling
Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Train is by Rance Greene. It provides a systematic process for creating stories for training. Even if you don’t consider yourself a storyteller, you can learn to create stories to support learning with this book. Read my review of Instructional Story Design.
Short Sims: A Game Changer by Clark Aldrich teaches you how to create short branching simulations. These interactive learning experiences can often be built in weeks rather than months. The supporting resources for the book include a number of actual short sims so you can see samples for inspiration. Read my full review of Short Sims.
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.
StoryTraining: Selecting and Shaping Stories That Connect by Hadiya Nuriddin is about finding and crafting the right stories to support and enhance learning.
TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks was also recommended by Robert Beck. He says, “If IDs keep in mind the elements of a powerful story and how to deliver a spellbinding presentation to an audience, they’ll likely design an effective training product.”
Visual Design and Usability
Connie Malamed’s Visual Design Solutions is my favorite book on visual design. It’s the best book for all of those of us who need to communicate visually in our elearning but lack the formal training on how to do so. Unlike a lot of visual design books out there, this is focused specifically on visual design for learning. Read my full review of Visual Design Solutions.
Connie’s previous book, Visual Language for Designers, was helpful to me in learning about the fundamentals of visual design.
Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book is a perennial recommendation for learning the basic principles of design and typography.
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman isn’t a visual design book, but a user experience design book about the psychology of how we interact with objects. This book is a frequent recommendation for IDs interested in improving the usability of their courses.
Agile Project Management
Leaving ADDIE for SAM is a favorite in the field. Several people recommended this book. (Including some who said they wished their organizations would pay more attention to it and move to a more agile approach).
Agile for Instructional Designers: Iterative Project Management to Achieve Results by Megan Torrance. This book details her company’s approach to project management that is flexible enough to accommodate change even late in the process. It’s not exactly agile software development (for one thing, most IDs work on multiple projects simultaneously). In fact, she calls this LLAMA: a Lot Like Agile Management Approach. You may discover that you’re already doing a lot of iterative development (although maybe not with real users). Even so, the practical tips here can likely help refine your process.
General learning science
Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application is Clark Quinn’s latest book. This is a comprehensive overview of how we learn and remember, including strategies for learning design to take advantage of that research understanding.
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is geared more towards teachers, professors, and those interested in the psychology of how we learn rather than at instructional designers. The authors have done an amazing job of reviewing, summarizing, and organizing dozens of studies about how we learn. As instructional designers, we often work hard to make learning easier, but “desirable difficulties” can actually increase learning. I do wish the book had some visuals to help explain the concepts. As an instructional designer, you’ll need to reflect on your own about how to apply these ideas to your work. Most of the examples are from classrooms, either academic or corporate.
Patti Shank’s series
Patti Shank’s Write and Organize for Deeper Learning is about how to write to better support learning. The recommendations are backed by research, but the book is heavy on practical tips you can immediately apply without getting bogged down in citations. Read my review of Write and Organize for Deeper Learning.
Patti Shank’s Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning is a summary of tactics you can use to create memorable, relevant practice opportunities and provide constructive, beneficial feedback for learners. Everything in the book is backed by research and written to be immediately usable by instructional designers and trainers. Read my review of Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning.
Manage Memory for Deeper Learning is Patti’s third installment in her series sharing research-based tactics for designing learning experiences. This book is focused specifically on how to design around the limitations of human memory.
Patti’s latest addition to the series, Write Better Multiple-Choice Questions to Assess Learning, is specifically about multiple choice questions. It’s easy to write weak multiple choice questions, but it’s hard to write really strong, valid questions. Patti has taken what she’s learned over the past few years of teaching a course on multiple choice questions
Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions by Clark Quinn. Clark addresses some of the big myths in the learning field. (No, our attention spans really haven’t shrunk to shorter than a goldfish, and generational stereotypes don’t lead to better learning results.) It’s a quick read, with a brief summary of each myth or superstition. As I explained in my review, this is a good reference for when stakeholders ask you to design based on these misconceptions.
Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner’s Evidence-Informed Learning Design: Creating Training to Improve Performance debunks myths and fads about learning. It also explains techniques that are supported by research, specifically in the context of workplace training.
Daniel Pink’s Drive explains three principles of motivation that go deeper than just rewards and punishments: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. More money won’t always motivate behavior change (in fact, sometimes it might be counterproductive). Helping people improve their skills can be even more motivating, and that’s certainly part of what we should be doing as instructional designers.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is about why some stories and ideas are memorable while others aren’t. Robert Beck says, “Its principles are ones that I often turn to for reminders of how to make learning more compelling and memorable.”
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck is about growth and fixed mindsets and how the way we praise people affects their success. This book would be especially of value to teachers and those working in higher education.
Atomic Habits by James Clear isn’t about learning or memory. So why is it on my book list? It’s about changing behavior–and isn’t that what most workplace training is supposed to achieve? While this is written for individuals who want to change their own behavior, much of this could be applied to improving workplace performance. If you’re looking for ways to change the work environment to encourage specific behaviors, this book is worth reading.
Cathy Moore’s Map It explains her action mapping process in detail from start to finish. This is about how to move away from passive content presentation and into training that provides real challenges and practice. She also discusses when training isn’t the solution and other approaches would be more effective. In that respect, it’s more like performance consulting than just instructional design.
Mike Taylor recommended Dana and Jim Robinson’s Performance Consulting. Mike says this book isn’t very recent, but it remains relevant.
Games and Gamification
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.
Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games by Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp. They provide tips for moving beyond shallow “points, badges, and leaderboards” gamification. This is about how to design games that meet learning objectives, rather than generic game design or tool-specific tips.
Consulting and Freelancing
Richard Watson has published three ebooks on the practicalities of freelancing in the elearning field. All three combine Richard’s personal stories about his freelancing journey with practical tips for creating and running a freelance business. I reviewed the complete series of ebooks.
- Launching Your E-Learning Freelance Career
- Marketing Yourself and Finding Great Clients
- Managing a Successful E-Learning Project
Joel Gendelman’s Consulting Basics was a critical resource for me when I made the leap from being an employee to being a freelance instructional designer. I recommend this book to people who are just getting started in the freelance world. The tips are practical and concrete. My own consulting agreements borrow heavily from the examples provided in this book. This book is focused on freelance training and training design work.
Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting is about treating consulting as a business and building relationships with clients.
Building Online Learning Communities by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt is aimed more at online instructors than instructional designers. However, it’s a solid resource for IDs working in higher education or supporting online and blended learning communities. Because it’s an older book, some references may be outdated.
Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John Smith. This is about how technology can enable communities of practice. You can now download the ebook for free.
AI in Talent Development by Margie Meacham is about the benefits, uses, and risks of AI in training and related areas. If you want to explore the ways AI could make your life easier by automating tasks or personalizing training recommendations, this book provides tools and recommendations to get started.
Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth. This book explains how to “show your work” by sharing what you’re doing and learning. The book explains the benefits of creating a culture where people share their processes and discoveries.
The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever of Common Craft explains how to make information easier to understand. Luis Flores suggested this, explaining, “As we create leaner and quicker learning experiences, being able to distill content is a skill that is indispensable.”
Ieva Swanson recommended The Essential Persona Lifecycle by Adlin and Pruitt. I have seen examples of personas used effectively for different projects, including creating a learning portal.
Did I miss one of your favorite books? Leave a comment or reply to this email with your suggestions.
Image: Colorful Stack of Books in Library from Storyblocks
Originally published 1/17/17. Last updated 11/11/21.