Instructional Design

Iterative Design Models: ADDIE vs SAM

ADDIE, meet SAM. SAM: Meet Addie. Even if you’re acquainted with the two most common iterative design methods for eLearning, you could be left wondering which is which and eventually, which will be your BFF when it comes to creating compelling eLearning experiences. 

Of course, as with much of eLearning design, the answer to the question is: It depends. Before you decide which iterative design approach is right for you, it’s worth taking the time to get to know ADDIE and SAM a little better. 

Creating engaging eLearning experiences has obvious benefits for your learners. After all, adding dazzle requires time and attention to design. While there are many paths to perfect instructional design, iterative design models can help you get organized before testing and executing your plan. The two most well-known iterative design models, ADDIE and SAM, represent very different methods for designing eLearning.  

Choosing whether ADDIE or SAM is best suited for employees and learning goals presents an interesting debate for designers.  Let’s take a look at the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of each to help you settle the age-old ADDIE vs SAM debate. 

Understanding Iterative Design Models 

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth breaking down: Merriam-Webster defines iteration as “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to the desired result.”

Before you write it off as old-school, you should know that choosing an iterative design model keeps your learning content fresh and on-target. It might seem like a stodgy approach to a creative solution, but without an iterative design process, it’s likely you’d end up with eLearning solutions that look great, but miss the mark on content. . 

Trying to peel back the layers and questions when it comes to ADDIE vs SAM is a matter of understanding when each model makes the most sense. In some cases, you might even find that a combination of the two fits your needs exactly. It’s easier to piece together your iterative design model when you know the ins and outs of both common methods and how they’ll best serve your next eLearning project. 

The ADDIE Model: A Traditional Model for Instructional Design 

The ADDIE method was developed for military applications in 1975 and, with that in mind, you can see why it operates in the precise, successive way it does. The ADDIE model (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) incorporates a succession of iterative steps. It’s sometimes referred to as a “waterfall” design method, where each phase of the model needs to be completed before spilling into the next. With ADDIE, the team carefully considers, debates, and implements each step before moving onto the next one.

It’s not uncommon for each step to undergo several iterations before the team is satisfied.  Imagine writing and editing the first draft of a book, one chapter at a time. Instead of writing the book and editing it when you’re finished, you move more precisely to perfect one chapter at a time before beginning the next. Sure, it takes time and can be emotionally (and professionally) draining, but it’s all in pursuit of the perfect result. 

The phases of ADDIE are cumulative, meaning that each step builds on the previous step. It’s methodical and ideal for Type-A list-lovers. It’s a great approach for projects that require measurable models or working with outside vendors. ADDIE keeps everyone firmly on the same page and only goes onto the next phase when the team is sure the previous one has met clear objectives. 

It’s not all sunshine and completed to-do lists, though: Unfortunately for the perfectionists of the eLearning design world, project goals change and can throw the entire process all the way back to the analysis phase, slowing the development and busting the implementation calendar. What’s more, ADDIE is so exhaustive that if you do discover a mistake, you might be too deep in the project to quickly pivot or rethink your solution. 

SAM (Successive Approximation Model)

ADDIE is often described as “ready, aim, aim, aim, fire”; SAM (Successive Approximation Model), is more like “ready, fire, aim.” It was developed by Dr. Michael Allen of Allen Interactions and it’s meant to be a quicker, lighter, and more creative answer to the slower-moving ADDIE model. With SAM, you’re rewarded for thinking fast: If you think well on your feet and love the rush of meeting a deadline dead-on, SAM might be a better fit for your process.

SAM is a rapid development model that uses a continuous iterative design process throughout the lifecycle of development rather than taking it one linear step at a time. 

Here’s how it works: The SAM  model starts with a rapid prototype, with analysis and design happening at the same time at a fast and furious pace.  The first iteration of a SAM-developed eLearning might require an overhaul because unlike ADDIE, SAM doesn’t require buy-in at each stage. Instead, SAM relies on quick solutions, testing, and pivoting along the way. When you’re under the gun and have to get something out yesterday, SAM makes perfect sense. 

Still, there are risks that once the process is complete, missed steps or unrealized challenges could send you back to the drawing board for a total revamp. The key to surviving SAM is understanding that nothing’s carved in stone, no one is married to their ideas, and the principle that part of a solution is better than waiting around for the perfect answer. 

Related: Rapid development in eLearning tips

The Key Differences Between ADDIE and SAM 

Here’s a quick rundown of the major differences between the two most common iterative design models for eLearning:

Key CharacteristicADDIESAM
TimelineLonger deadline and plenty of time to perfect a solutionQuick turnaround or short deadlines; need to create a solution quickly
ObjectiveClear metrics and parameters for success, including ROI analysis Learner feedback, harder to quantify
Type of LearningWorks best for learning with strict parameters, such as compliance or safety trainingWorks well for training that can be difficult to measure, such as soft skills or self care
Design TrajectoryLinear: One solution is chosen and developedCyclical: Solutions are chosen and tested quickly; the process can repeat itself until the solution is perfected
Stakeholders and Key PlayersWorks best with vendors; offers clear objectives and replicable results. Tasks are more siloed and offer less opportunity to collaborateWorks best in-house in a collaborative environment where stakeholders are able to test, fail, and pivot their way to success

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between ADDIE vs SAM 

When choosing between ADDIE vs SAM, it’s not really a question of which iterative design model is superior, but choosing the one that makes the most sense for your specific eLearning project. In some cases, the rigidity and replicability of ADDIE means that, while you might have some extra time and headache upfront, you know you’ll be able to consistently execute a perfected solution time and time again. ADDIE works especially well when compliance or other precise topics are on the line: You know what needs to happen and can take your time in brainstorming, developing, and testing one perfect solution. 

If you have a little more wiggle room, however, SAM might be a better fit. With SAM, you can lead with learner feedback and utilize user motivation as a way to test, retest, and finally implement a solution. SAM is rarely perfect because of the two models of iterative design, it’s a more human solution. Thoughts, feelings, opinions, past experiences, and individual ideas can all be combined to create something that truly taps into learner engagement. 

Sometimes, you’ll find that the best model is a combination of both design models. Perhaps you use ADDIE to create a curriculum framework, for example. Then, SAM can be implemented to create compelling course design that helps your learners reach the desired objective. 

Choosing the Right Model for Your eLearning Project

Tight deadlines or a lengthy design process? One set in stone solution or lots of options? The project scope ultimately guides the iterative design model that works best for you. 

The battle between ADDIE vs SAM rages on between perfectionists who love the ADDIE model, and SAMsters who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and like the challenge of SAM. Both iterative approaches have their pros and cons and deserve a permanent place on your shelf of eLearning design strategies.