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


Courses grow into curricula

This chapter started with mundane points (a big idea is as big as it needs to be, questions are essential at the course and program level, we should use cross-disciplinary questions) and then moved into a solid review and extension of the previous chapters.

  • Performance tasks frame design so that learners keep focused on the target. These tasks are assessed via rubrics with examples provided at each specific score point; longitudinal rubrics provide a portfolio.
  • Learning must be geared to task performance and that backward designed instruction is a four-part iterative sequence:
  1. that design proceeds backward from the big idea
  2. that learning is a back and forth process between small performances and the whole task
  3. that learning is a back and forth process between instruction and the small performances
  4. that sequence enables learning from results of the small performances without a penalty for failure until the final whole task performance
  • There is a difference between learning the logic of the content (which may be apparent only to experts) and the logic of learning the content (the realm of instruction). The parallel between the utility of a Getting Started manual (and immediate task immersion) and the complete documentation was especially apropos.
  • The (surprising) definitions of scope (the major functions of a social life) and sequence (centers of interest in a student’s life at a particular point in time) resonate with current constructivist theory.
  • The curriculum spirals and involves continuity (recurrent uncoverage), sequence (increasing breadth and depth), and  integration (increased unity of learning or behavior).
  • A syllabus will contain essential questions, core performances, a grading rubric with justification (referencing state or national standards), and a calendar with major learning goals. The key change I see necessary for TeleCampus courses is building in flexibility to adapt the calendar based on feedback of student understanding.

Assessment versus activity

As Cesar (I think) mentioned in class, all the theories seem to turn behaviorist when it comes to assessment, and Wiggins is no exception. What I liked about the coverage in Wiggins was the flow: “results we desire” to “evidence we need” to “tasks we design.” The focus on desired results keeps assessment from reducing to mere activity. I also liked the analogy of assessment as scrapbook rather than snapshot although that seems to work better with summative assessment than formative.

The distinction between problems and exercises was less clear to me. While the characteristics of problems (few cues, various possible approaches, noisy environment, and search for an appropriate solution which can be justified) were clear, the parallel characteristics of exercises seemed one-dimensional. The GRASPS acronym for creating performance tasks (with problems being the goal of those tasks) was equally obvious, and the mnemonic was contrived. The connection with the six facets served as a helpful reminder (which I have listed below as a memory aid for me) but added nothing new to my knowledge:

Explanation – big idea in learner’s own words (to make connections, stimulate recall)
Interpretation – translate from one medium to another
Application – use knowledge in new (real or simulated) situations
Perspective – take a different point of view
Empathy – appreciate different points of view
Self-knowledge – self-assess

While this sounds like I didn’t gain much from this chapter, the continuum of assessments was superb. I annotated the graphic and include it here.

Wiggins' Assessment Continuum