Instructional Design Q&A With Jim O'Hara


Taking time for great instructional design can elevate your students' learning to new heights. Explore the principles of  instructional design and learn about new developments in the field from AMTA National Convention speaker Jim O'Hara, curriculum and training specialist at the National Holistic Institute.

Why is taking the time to implement effective instructional design critical to the overall learning experience?

Students don’t learn just by being given information. A crucial factor is the totality of the structured experiences presented to them—this includes creative presentation of relevant information, interacting with the material, working in small groups and receiving feedback.

Are there instructional design models that you recommend above others? Why?

One model I like, in terms of content, is called Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe). Simply put, it means begin with the “end” in mindteach to your main goals or objectives.

In vocational schools, the overall objective is training in skills that lead to employment. So, what are employers looking for? What are their customers looking for? What are the skills and knowledge we want to convey?

In massage therapy, much work has recently been done to answer those questions. The Entry Level Analysis Project (ELAP) determines the essentials to be taught in an entry level massage curriculum. The results were based on input from many sources, including employers and clientsexactly what we are talking about! For details of the project, please visit: www.elapmassage.org . Note: ELAP does indeed focus mainly on the “content” of the curriculumwe educators still need to focus on designing the learning experiences.

So now that we have a resource for content, what are some resources for designing the learning experience itself?

Here are some common themes you will find in the literature today on adult learning and instructional design:

  • Adult learners all come to us with various experiences—honor that. Note that even our 19 and 20-year-old students fall in this category!
  • Adult learners need to feel they are in a “safe” environment with no shame for mistakes.
  •  Adult learners often do well in small groups, in learning from each other.
  • Ongoing feedback is important so that the learner does not approach a final evaluation only to find out they have been on the wrong track all along.
  • New material must be given in “bite-sized” amounts so as not to overwhelm the learner.  I call that “scaffolding”learning, one step at a time.
  • New material must periodically be solidified or “owned” by the student through an activity.
    - I call this “anchoring.” These can be short, and fairly frequent.
    - EG – “Turn to your partner and explain in your own words the difference between an origin and an insertion for muscle attachments.”
    - EG – “Lie down on the floor in supine position and try to pull your belly button back to your spine with your fingers resting lightly on your abdomen. You will be feeling your Transverse Abdominis.”
  • Today’s students, especially millennials, require updated technology in the classroom as part of their learning experiences.

Tell us how the emergence of new technologies impacts the way you approach instructional design?

There is an ever-growing body of excellent technology out there to support massage education. This can range from streaming updated videos in the classroom to kinesiology apps that students have on their phones to their text books being e-books.

Our students like their electronic devices because they are available 24/7, quick, convenient, fun, easy to carry around, able to give them instant information, etc. It’s this simple: If we don’t incorporate into our learning processes the methods by which our students learn “out in the world,” then we will lose them!

What parts of our curriculum can be supported by such technology and devices?

My recommendation: Start incorporating small pieces of appropriate technologies as soon as possible and let that grow. Many publishers of massage textbooks have tech resources associated with their products, but I suspect they are underutilized.

What are some of the hurdles to implementing instructional design in a massage therapy class setting? How can instructors overcome these challenges?

Implementing changes in the classroom depends on many things, most importantly the structure in which the person teaches:

  • Is the instructor the only one teaching this class?
  • Is there an existing system in the school for curricular changes?
  • Are there funds available for introducing or upgrading technology?


Most obstacles can be overcome with patience and perseverance at the service of your Vision. So, have a vision of where you want to go!

In the meantime, the instructor can experiment (within school protocols) in their own classroom, especially in the realm of creative ways for students to deeply interact with the material of the day. And, finally, please check out the online classes in teaching and class design offered by AMTA.

Save the date!

For more face-to-face and interactive education options like this, be sure to save the date for Teachers Day at the AMTA 2015 National Convention, August 19-22, in Pittsburgh!  

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