First Principles


I measure conceptual density by the number of highlights; I measure impact by the number of marginal annotations. My copy of Merrill’s, First Principles of Instruction is almost illegible on both counts.


Merrill argues for the existence of basic methods (first principles) that are always true regardless of the variable method used (as a specific instructional activity/practice or a set of activities/program). The argument seems plausible although those principles are open to debate due to the hypothesis that learning is in direct proportion to the implementation of those principles (i.e., if a set of principles is indeed “first,” we’d need to prove the proportion and disprove any other possible principles). Clark’s four instructional architectures (receptive/lecture, directive/tutorial, guided discovery/simulation, and exploratory/collaborative problem-solving) is worth exploring later.

Merrill’s model (shown later) is compared with two similar models from Vanderbilt and from McCarthy. Merrill then proceeds to expand on characteristics of each of his five principles.


  • Show learners real-world problem rather than abstract learning objectives
  • 4 levels of instruction
    1. problems
    2. tasks to solve
    3. operations that comprise the tasks
    4. actions that comprise the operations
  • Elaboration theory advocates progression of successively more complex problems
  • If a simple version of a complex problem is difficult to locate, the coach must do some of the problem solving for the learner and do less and less with each successive problem (scaffold)


  • Learners recall prior knowledge
  • Learners are provided foundational knowledge
  • Learners demonstrate previous knowledge (pre-test as activation rather than assessment)


  • Demonstration must be consistent with goal
    • Examples and non-examples for concepts
    • Demonstrations for procedures
    • Visualizations for processes
    • Modeling for behavior
  • Multiple representations for demonstrations (i.e., Gardner)
  • Three classes of problems
    • Categorization
    • Design (plans and procedures)
    • Interpretation
  • Coaching involves information focusing which is gradually faded (scaffolded)
  • Presenting alternative representations is not sufficient; learners must compare


  • Information-about: recall
  • Parts-of: locate/name
  • Kinds-of: new examples
  • How-to: do
  • What-happens: predict


  • Knowledge must be transferred to life beyond the instruction
    • Publicly demonstrate (could be high score)
    • Reflect, discuss, defend
    • Create new and personal ways to use
  • Multimedia has a temporary (attention-getting) effect on motivation


Finally, Merrill compares his principles with components from other learning theorists:

  • Gardner – emphasis on problem and activation (entry points and analogies)
  • Nelson – emphasis on application via collaboration
  • Jonassen
    • Related cases can supplant memory by providing representations of experiences the learner has not had
    • Behavioral modeling demonstrates how to perform activities
    • Cognitive modeling articulates reasoning used while engaged in activities
    • Scaffold by
      • Adjusting difficulty
      • Restructuring task to supplant lack of prior knowledge
      • Providing alternatives
  • van Merrienboer
    • Multiple approaches to analysis
    • Recurrent skills – require consistent performance – supported by just-in-time information
    • Non-recurrent skills – require variable performance – supported by elaboration
    • Progression of demonstrations
      • Worked-out examples
      • Just-in-time information
      • Models of heuristic methods used by skilled performers
    • Demonstrations are subordinate to practice
    • Demonstration and application are integrated (and iterative?)
    • Product-oriented and process-oriented problems
  • Schank
    • Emphasis on application
    • Goal/mission mapped to story/role (environment)
    • Coaches scaffold
    • Experts tell stories

Merrill concludes by questioning collaboration as a first principle; however, the analysis of solitary activities may answer the question:

  • a learner alone with a book – the author is the collaborator
  • a learner who makes a discovery – perhaps learning does not exist if it can’t be replicated/shared (if a tree falls…)

A slight expansion of Merrill’s model to position the problem in an environment of learners and coaches may accommodate this concern:

Merrill's Problem Model Extended with Environment

Merrill's Problem Model Extended with Environment


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