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Curriculum Design with Subject Matter Experts

by Lester L. Stephenson

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Trainers and Instructional Designers often receive curriculum design assignments to create courses, about which they know little or nothing.  Instructional Designers’ success depends upon their relationship with subject matter experts (SMEs).  Rarely do SMEs have training skills.  SMEs know what they do but are often unable to formally teach these skills.  SMEs can provide subject matter content Instructional Designers will never discover.  Instructional designers use this content to create useful courses.

Getting Started

Identifying the SME for each project is critical.  SMEs may not be the fastest workers on the job but will be the ones who complete their work accurately and completely.  SMEs are usually seen as resources for other workers due to their flexibility, strong communication skills, and ability to deal with disruption.  Required SME skills vary depending on the project.  The design for a technical course to operate a machine or production process will differ vastly from software training, sales, or customer service.

Advantages to Early SME Involvement in Curriculum Design

The best way to ensure success is to involve SMEs from the beginning, starting with the first planning session.  There are several advantages to early SME involvement, including:

  • It establishes rapport and lets SMEs know their contribution is important.
  • SMEs can help to focus the planning because they have detailed knowledge of the job task.
  • Early SME involvement helps eliminate differences of opinion about what the course should contain and who will make the ultimate decision on content.
  • Eliminating misunderstanding at the beginning will prevent confusion later that could cause training efforts to suffer.

Never assume SMEs understand how a training course is designed and produced.  Immediately after the first course planning meeting, take the time to fully walk SMEs through every step of the design process and show the deliverables that will come at each stage.  This enables SMEs to know what to expect and to understand how much time is required of them.  Instructional Designers’ goal is to help SMEs see and understand the level of proficiency learners need.

Usually SMEs are passionate about their work and most are eager to share their knowledge.  There is a risk SMEs will overload Instructional Designers with material.  Still, Instructional Designers must review every bit of it, even if faced with a large workload and even if much of the material will not be in the course.  First, it will help them get familiar with the course content.  Second, SMEs will soon figure out if the material is unread and credibility can be lost.  Respect SMEs’ efforts.  Remember, at this point Instructional Designers rarely understand what material is important.

Interviewing SMEs

An alternative to receiving a lot of raw content from SMEs is to interview them.  Prepare for interviews by making an effort to gain some understanding of the subject.  Do some research and try to find answers to the most basic questions before meeting with SMEs.  Ask questions about the job task from beginning to end.  Often, SMEs are too close to the process to see it from a course development view.  Instructional Designers will have to guide interviews by asking questions like:

  • Could you walk me through the basic process from beginning to end?
  • What information must learners absolutely know to do the job well?
  • Can you provide some real world scenarios and problems?
  • What information or support do people have?  Do they use it?  If not, why not?
  • What mistakes do new people make?
  • What mistakes do people make when they get over-confident?
  • How would you describe this to a 10-year old?
  • Which people are involved in the process or action?
  • What would happen if Person X didn’t do his or her part?
  • If a person doesn’t know a key fact, what can go wrong?
  • Is any part of the process optional?
  • What pressures are people under?
  • Are people rewarded if they achieve the desired performance?  How?

Take detailed notes during every interview.  Put the notes in a step-by-step format and ask SMEs to review.  Fix the errors—there will be errors, but SMEs will be happy to make corrections.  Once the job task instructions are approved by the SME, Instructional Designers should perform the job task using the instructions.  It is amazing how much Instructional Designers will learn when testing and validating job task instructions.

Creating an Outline and Staying on Task

After SMEs approve step-by-step job procedures, create a detailed outline of the course content.  Include descriptions of the scenarios and activities that resulted from the interview sessions.  Do not go any further until obtaining SME agreement on the proposed scope and sequence.

Keep the business needs for the course at the forefront of your mind.  Never forget the level of proficiency learners should receive from the course.  SMEs will likely have content they think is important but does not fit the scope of the course.  Work to reach a compromise.  Put the information into a Job Aid or make it available as a resource.  Perhaps the unnecessary information can become part of an advanced course.  If SMEs insist on adding information that’s outside the course objective, ask them to explain how that material fits with the business need of the course goal.  Never forget the critical need to avoid overwhelming learners with unnecessary information in effective curriculum design.

Remember, SMEs already have a full-time job.  Do not overwhelm them with endless, frequent meetings.  Plan carefully for necessary meetings so there is no need to constantly call or send emails to learn something that should have been asked early on.


Recognize the value SMEs bring to the process.  SMEs are the content experts. Instructional Designers are the learning experts.  Recognizing the difference greatly enhances these development collaborations.  Success depends on teamwork strengthened with good communication and compromise.  If SMEs and Instructional Designers work to keep course content focused on learners’ needs, relationships will be productive and positive.  The results will be effective courses that satisfy business goals.

About the Author

Lester L. Stephenson is a skilled technical writer, curriculum designer and trainer with particular experience in manufacturing. You can connect with Lester through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com