David Merrill (2002) identified five “prescriptive design principles” that are common to an amalgam of instructional theories and models (p. 43):

  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

merrill's first principles

Chart. Merrill’s first principles—phases of effective instruction (source)

Merrill (2002) states: “They relate to creating learning environments and products rather than describing how learners acquire knowledge and skill from these environments or products” (p. 44).  In other words, “these principles are necessary for effective and efficient instruction” (Merrill, 2002, p. 44).


Problem = whole task vs. component of a task; the task is representative of those in the real world. Problem-centered instruction ó topic-centered instruction (task components taught in isolation). Show the whole task that students will be able to complete. Problems should be “interesting, relevant, and engaging” (p. 46). + authentic.

Merrill: “Effective instruction should engage students in all four levels of performance: the problem level, the task-level, the operation-level, and the action-level” (p. 46). Problem progression: “Through a progression of increasingly complex problems, the students’ skills gradually improve until they are able to solve complex problems” (p. 46).

Activation phase

Previous experience: “When learners think that they already know some of the material to be taught, then their existing experience can be activated by an appropriate opportunity to demonstrate what they already know” (p. 47) + advance organizers, schema activation

Activation: “Activation also involves stimulating those mental models that can be modified or tuned to enable learners to incorporate the new knowledge into their existing knowledge” +  “If learners have a mental model that can be used to organize the new knowledge, they should be encouraged to activate this mental model” (p. 47). + advance organizers

Demonstration phase

Demonstration: “Instruction is far more effective when it also includes the portrayal level in that the information is demonstrated via specific situations or cases. Learners remember and can apply information far more readily when the information includes specific portrayals” (p. 48). + worked-out example, modeling example; information + example (portrayal) + practice = better learning

Demonstration should be consistent with learning outcomes. Multiple perspectives should be given + students should be prompted to compare and contrast them. Learners should be directed to relevant information (learner guidance).

Relevant media: text + graphic compete for attention; audio + graphic are harmonious (= promote learning).

Application phase

Practice should be aligned with learning outcomes. Gradually coaching, scaffolding, & feedback (error detection + correction) is diminished. Use a variety of problems, range of examples.

Merrill: “Learning is promoted when the application (practice) and the posttest are consistent with the stated or implied objectives: (a) information-about practice—recall or recognize information, (b) parts-of practice—locate, and name or describe each part, (c) kinds-of practice—identify new examples of each kind, (d) how-to practice—do the procedure and (e) what-happens practice—predict a consequence of a process given conditions, or find faulted conditions given an unexpected consequence” (p. 49).

“Most learners learn from the errors they make, especially when they are shown how to recognize the error, how to recover from the error, and how to avoid the error in the future. Error diagnosis and correction is a fundamental principle of minimialism” (p. 50)

Integration phase (Transfer)

Help learners to do, reflect, and create. Help them adapt new knowledge and skills.

Merrill: “Learners have integrated instruction into their lives when they are able to demonstrate improvement in skill, to defend their new knowledge, and to modify their new knowledge for use in their everyday lives” (p. 50).

“Learning is the most motivating of all activities when the learner can observe his or her own progress. One of the main attractions of computer games is the increasing skill level that is apparent to the player” (p. 50).


Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43–59. doi:10.1007/BF02505024


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