An Introduction to SAM for Instructional Designers

The ADDIE model of instructional design is probably the most well-known approach for crafting learning solutions. ADDIE stands for Analyze, Design, Development, Implement, and Evaluate. But ADDIE isn’t the only game in town these days. One popular alternative to ADDIE is SAM, which stands for Successive Approximation Model. 

Created by Allen Interactions, SAM offers an instructional design approach consisting of repeated small steps, or iterations, that are intended to address some of the most common instructional design pain points, like meeting timelines, staying on budget, and collaborating with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

So what is SAM? And how is it different from ADDIE? Is one better than the other? Let’s dig in and uncover some answers to these questions.

What's the difference between ADDIE and SAM?

ADDIE and SAM are two different instructional design models that share some similar language. To get a better understanding of the differences between the two, it’s helpful to understand how each of them works; let’s start with ADDIE …


ADDIE provides instructional designers with a roadmap for creating training. It’s a systematic approach—rather like a production line with each step dependent upon the successful completion of the previous step.

To borrow some terminology from project managers, ADDIE is a “waterfall approach.” And in a traditional waterfall method, analysis, design, development, and evaluation are all treated as ordered steps in the larger product development process. I put together a quick image using the ADDIE acronym to try and illustrate the waterfall concept a little more clearly …

ADDIE Waterfall DiagramWhile a waterfall model, like ADDIE, is preferred in many organizations, some folks say this sequential approach contributes to many of the challenges faced by instructional designers, including:

  • Prolonged development cycles: Ever had your project come to a screeching halt in the development phase? It’s not uncommon for new training or technology requirements to emerge in the project development phase, bogging down your productivity with re-work.
  • Communication challenges with SMEs and stakeholders: Regardless of how thoroughly we storyboard our designs or explain how they’ll function, SMEs and stakeholders are left trying to imagine what the end product (e.g., an e-learning course) will look like and how it will behave. They don’t get a complete sense of these things until they see a fully functional release, which usually happens closer to the end of the development process, when you’re out of time and money. This means that many of your conversations with SMEs and stakeholders can end up turning into tough talks about trade-offs.
  • No time for testing: When projects run out of time or money, what’s the phase of the process we tend to skimp on? In my experience, it’s testing. Shortchanging this step may save us some time, but with risky downsides, like a training product that doesn’t work—or work effectively—to address a critical performance gap.


Unlike ADDIE’s five big sequential steps, the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) is a more cyclical process which can be scaled from basic (SAM1) to extended (SAM2), to suit your needs.

SAM1 is the basic SAM process. It can be a good fit for smaller projects that don’t require a lot of complicated technology (e.g., video or custom programming) or for smaller teams. This flavor of SAM is a cyclical model with three iterations on the familiar instructional design steps of evaluation/analysis, design, and development.SAM1 Agile DiagramUsing this basic, iterative approach, everyone’s ideas and assumptions can be discussed, prototyped, and tested early on bringing you closer to a useable product more quickly.

And what if your project is more complex? That's where SAM2 comes into play.

SAM2, is an extended take on SAM1. It consists of eight iterative instructional design steps spread across three project phases: Preparation, Iterative Design, and Iterative Development. For a quick visual of the SAM2 process, check out the Allen Interactions diagram, here.

In addition to the incremental steps within the project phases, probably the most notable feature of the SAM2 model is the preparation phase that consists of two steps: gathering information, and holding a brainstorming and prototyping meeting known as a “Savvy Start.” 

For both SAM models the emphasis is on using an iterative approach to creating the end product right from the start—all while continually analyzing and refining your work as it’s being produced. 

While ADDIE is typically applied following a linear, waterfall methodology, SAM is considered to be an “agile approach.” Proponents of using an agile approach to creating e-learning claim that following models like SAM can help to alleviate many of the challenges we discussed above—mainly a lack of visibility for the project team into the instructional design process, and a potential for protracted development time frames. 

Which is better—ADDIE or SAM?

When it comes to evaluating which design model is a better fit for you and your team, it really boils down to what you're trying to achieve and what your work environment will support.  Many instructional designers I talk to work in organizations that have embraced agility in theory, but not so much in practice. Trying to apply an agile approach like SAM, or even incorporating more iterative development practices into the mix, may be difficult when your environment doesn’t encourage rapid feedback or flexible processes. In those cases, ADDIE’s waterfall model may be a better choice.

More Learning

This is just a very quick introduction to SAM—a modern alternative to your old pal ADDIE. Whatever design model you follow (and there are more than just ADDIE or SAM), weighing your options for more thoughtful, responsive development practices can be a great way to build collaboration and grease the wheels for smoother training rollouts.

Whether you’re brand-new to instructional design or just trying to stay on top of emerging trends, turn to E-Learning Heroes for everything you need to get up to speed. Start by digging into these related articles from the archives.

An Introduction to ADDIE for Instructional Designers by Nicole Legault

How ADDY, not ADDIE, Can Help You Build Better Courses by David Anderson

Measure the Effectiveness of Your Course with Kirkpatrick’s 4 Levels of Evaluation and How to Design Your E-Learning Course Using Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction by Allison LaMotte

What design model is closest to how you really work? What are your thoughts on ADDIE vs. SAM? We love hearing from you, so share your thoughts and questions in a comment. You can also jump into our Building Better Courses forum anytime to strike up a conversation.

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Alexander Salas
Marcel van Lierop
Robyne Pippert
Brent Berheim
Simon Phipps
Paul Simkins
Warren Godfrey
Chris Roetzer

Trina, I always enjoy your posts. Interestingly, I found this article after reading a LinkedIn post today about ADDIE. And while expert researchers would probably remind us that these are really frameworks as opposed to models, I agree with William Johnston that Addie at least today is meant to be iterative, not linear, unless linear works in your environment or the project. I have used Addie in a way that is not only iterative in a single large loop, but almost like a amusement park ride, each major milestone in the framework itself is iterative. And another flavor of this is, for example, a Learning design project could cycle from beginning to end and make just one full circle loop of the Addie cycle, or you make several rounds going deeper or Making other adjustments based o... Expand

Warren Godfrey