An Introduction to SAM for Instructional Designers

The ADDIE model is probably the most well-known approach for mapping out the course design process. But it isn’t the only game in town these days. One popular alternative is SAM: the Successive Approximation Model. 

Created by Allen Interactions, SAM offers an instructional design approach consisting of a few steps that you repeat as many times as necessary. These iterations address 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 approaches for crafting learning solutions that share some similar language. To better see where they differ, it’s helpful to understand how each of them works. Let’s start with ADDIE.


ADDIE stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. It’s a linear approach—like a production line—with each step depending on the successful completion of the previous one.

To borrow some terminology from project managers, ADDIE is a “waterfall approach.” And in a traditional waterfall method, analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation are all treated as ordered steps in the overall development process.


While this model 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: Have you 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: Even the most thorough explanations and storyboards are still open to interpretation. And with a sequential approach, SMEs and stakeholders typically don’t get to try a hands-on version of the project until well into the development phase. This can mean it’s not until you’re near the end of the project—when you’re out of time and money—that you discover your vision doesn’t match theirs.
  • 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 you time, but with risky downsides like a training product that doesn’t work—or work effectively—to address a critical performance gap.

Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

SAM, on the other hand, is considered to be an “agile approach” that can be scaled from basic (SAM1) to extended (SAM2) to suit your needs. Both SAM models use iterative cycles to create the end product right from the start—all while continually analyzing and refining your work as it’s being produced. 

Proponents of using agile methods for creating e-learning claim that models like SAM can alleviate many of the challenges discussed above—in particular, improving the project team’s visibility into the instructional design process and reducing development time frames.

The SAM 1 model has three steps. You start in the Evaluate step, move to the Design step, and then shift to the Develop step. Once you

The basic process—SAM1—can be a good fit for smaller projects or teams. This flavor of SAM is a simple model with three iterations of the familiar instructional design steps of evaluation, design, and development. Using this approach, everyone’s ideas and assumptions can be discussed, prototyped, and tested early on, bringing you closer to a usable product more quickly.

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

The SAM 2 model is more complex. In the preparation phase, you find out about the project background through Information Gathering and Savvy Start steps. Then you move to the Iterative Design Phase. This phase involves iterative loops where you prototype, evaluate, and design while also moving through Project Planning and Additional Design steps. Once that’s complete, you move to the Iterative Development Phase. You work through iterative loops where you implement, evaluate, and develop (sometimes moving back to the design phase where necessary) while also moving forward with Design Proof, Alpha, Beta, and Gold steps. Once this process is complete, you then roll out your final project.

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.

In addition to the incremental cycles, another notable feature of the SAM2 model is the preparation phase. It consists of two steps to help you prepare for your design and development work fast: gathering information and then holding a brainstorming and prototyping meeting known as a “Savvy Start.” 

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.

When applied in the right situations and fully committed to by everyone involved, SAM’s flexibility can get you to a successful final course fast. Its iterative approach both helps you use prototypes to get stakeholder buy-in quickly and also makes it easy to pivot should your course requirements change. However, many instructional designers work in organizations that have embraced agility in theory but not so much in practice. Applying an agile approach like SAM can 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.

Because ADDIE is a waterfall method that’s been used for years, it might make clients, stakeholders, and even team members more comfortable. And while it’s still not as flexible as SAM, many people find an adapted version of ADDIE that includes some iterative loops does a good job of splitting the difference between both methods.

More Learning

Whatever design model you follow—whether it’s ADDIE, SAM, or another one entirely—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.

Start by digging into these related articles from the archives.

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 in a comment.

Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. 


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