Many hands connecting

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

By Tully Privett

A colleague (and IDIG member!) recently pointed me to a report from Intentional Futures on instructional design in higher education. Their research was looking to clarify the role of instructional designers, the impacts they have on student success and provide new understanding about how IDs strive to improve education. While the entire report is filled with findings about all aspects of ID and the benefits to institutions, administration, faculty and students it also highlights some pitfalls and other barriers to achieving success in projects. If you are reading this from an ID’s perspective, you may not be surprised to find that the number one challenge IDs face in their daily responsibilities is difficulty in collaborating with faculty. These difficulties may be due to personal differences that strain the achievement of a good working relationship between an ID and a faculty member. However, the data collected and results from this report point to a larger misunderstanding – a misunderstanding I wanted to learn more about.

A quick literature search returned a cornucopia of articles that suggest numerous strategies for ID’s to overcome the resistance they sometimes perceive faculty bring to the working table. While these articles are insightful, they are written for IDs, and as a result are a tad biased and present half of a story. Like with any relationship, both sides need to heed the social lessons learned long ago in kindergarten. Here are the top five tips for establishing a productive rapport with faculty.

Tip 1: Meet people properly

It starts with the introduction. Building the road to excellent course design begins with building rapport and respect between all members involved. Rather than starting right away on discussion of the work ahead, start by getting to know one another. Talk about how you got to where you are today – your educational paths may have crossed somewhere along the way! Find out things you have in common. These can be anything from sports to pets; everyone has at least one thing in common and if nothing else, you can always talk about the weather! This is meant to create a sense of connection – if there are differences down the road, these will be much easier to address.

Check your assumptions at the door. We commonly complain that our frustration comes from working with a faculty member who feels IDs are not their equals. On the reverse, faculty are often unsure what ID really is and what an ID does. Oftentimes, IDs are used by faculty as LMS support or just-in-time help when they are feeling overwhelmed with the demands of building a course. These preconceptions that people bring are not conducive to a productive working relationship. IDs are generally highly educated. According to the Intentional Futures report, 87 percent have a master’s degree, 32 percent a PhD, and many have years of teaching experience and with academic research (Intentional Futures, 2016). Of course, faculty also are highly qualified subject matter experts, most often with years of intense research and a PhD. Both descriptions are generalizations and does little to understand the journeys and experiences both IDs and faculty have had to navigate through. This is why it is important to build in time for these ‘getting to know you’ conversations at the start and gain a better understanding of the people who will be working together. You just never know what wonderful experiences you may uncover about the other that could have a meaningful impact on the project, which leads me into lesson 2.

Tip 2: Take turns talking

This goes for any conversation. If one person is dominating the discussion the project will miss some important perspectives required to realize the best possible solutions. People are brought together on projects for their diverse skill sets and it’s only through inclusion that a project can truly benefit.

Let everyone talk. Not only is cutting someone off or finishing their sentence rude, it damages working relationships and the time saved is so minuscule it really just isn’t worth it. In fact, even if you feel what another person has said is pointless, it is important to them and should be heard without interruption. The best way to reach to a successful end of a project is together. This is why the development process should be broken down into manageable steps. IDs everywhere are familiar (maybe too familiar!) with the term ‘chunking’ when it comes to course design – but this is true of project management as well. Breaking things down helps everyone approach a project without becoming overwhelmed with all there is to do. It’s a learning experience after all. These smaller steps allow people to exchange ideas without adding the stress that comes with trying to change everything at once.

Praise each other. Taking a tip from Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, you have to accentuate the positive to ensure lasting mutually respectful relationships. Even if you find fault with someone’s ideas it is better to point out something positive first before raising any issues or concerns. Remember, everyone is committed to the project and its success. A benefit of this truth is that means everyone is by default committed to each other’s success as it is a group effort. A small compliment goes a long way in achieving overall goals.

Tip 3: Pay attention to others

For those of us in ID, this means understanding and paying attention to the different reasons why faculty might resist the process. They may be worried about losing academic freedom, or struggling with new technologies and learning pedagogies that they may not have heard of before. This can make it quite stressful for faculty grappling with course development and tight timelines. Eventually, it is the faculty member is facing the students and any problems are often viewed as their fault. Problems will arise but faculty and IDs who are both committed to student success can build effective learning experiences and provide solutions to instructional challenges. Faculty also need to come to these meetings with a better understanding of the benefits to teaching that IDs provide. With their shared goal of student success and through a better understanding of roles and responsibilities, faculty and IDs can get a shared sense of relief that their is both support and a commitment to creating wonderful learning experiences for students.

Tip 4: Think about others before acting

Despite attempts everyone may have made to ensure a wonderful, mutually respectful working relationships, there may be times of conflict. We’ve likely all been there. and it is not fun.

Be open and honest. If something is bothersome or you sense that other project members are experiencing difficulties it is best to not let them fester. Don’t be afraid to bring issues up. It’s usually best to resolve issues as quickly as possible. Earlier on they can be relatively easy to deal with as opposed to waiting until the issue snowballs and becomes more unmanageable. Recongize that people are going to make mistakes and forgive them easily when they do– hopefully they will for you too. If a situation is becoming stressful, take a short break before making another attempt. The break will allow tempers to cool providing space for new ideas and solutions to enter into the conversation. Remember that apologies go a long way to supporting a positive working relationship. Even if you believe it was primarily someone else’s fault, act as peacemaker. Remember that as adults we should feel comfortable discussing problems when they arise.

Tip 5: Cooperate (and communicate) with others

This means including everyone on the project in any communication. You may think that some details may not be important for some project members but this thinking can lead to misinformation and confusion. Be sure to identify who is responsible for what and the date for which they need to provide an update to the group. This will help everyone understand their responsibilities and provide accountability and due dates. The assigning of tasks can itself be a particularly stressful task, so make sure everyone is included in identifying what tasks speak to their strengths.

A few other important notes:

  • follow directions when requested
  • ask for help when you need it
  • be flexible and open to new ideas

Think about how to rephrase alternative suggestions as questions. People often say, “I think we should do it this way instead.” It can be phrased in a less confrontational and inclusive manner by phrasing it as a question, “What if we did this instead of that?” This is a more inclusive approach and encourages others to provide comments rather than defend a particular choice you have suggested.

It’s a wrap…

The tips and rules I’ve outlined may sound simple – but if we don’t follow them the after effects can be quite challenging. We could be perceived as being self-centered or uncaring. It’s even possible that other project members will find certain behavior annoying and distance themselves, which can leave tasks undone.

These strategies are provided to help foster relationships between IDs and faculty, but really can benefit any working relationships. Strong working relationships usually boil down to trust. For IDs and faculty, both need to trust one another in order to build something far better than either could do on their own.


“Instructional Design in Higher Education.” Intentional Futures, Apr. 2016,