The intention of instructional design theories and models is to ground or guide us in our learning design efforts to address learner and organizational needs. But let’s just say it out loud … there’s a lot to choose from. Do they all have equal value? Are they just variations on a theme?

Given the plethora of available choices, M. David Merrill sought to determine whether a set of core principles was present amongst the models. If the answer was yes, could they serve as a basis for designing effective and efficient learning regardless of program or practice? Here we go!

The question

Do the selected theories and models have fundamental underlying principles in common?

According to this paper, a principle is a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of practice (a specific instructional activity) or program (an approach consisting of a set of prescribed practices).

The method

Merrill selected a variety of learning theories and models for analysis to determine a set of common (read “first”) principles that were present.

These theories and models included:

  • Star legacy (Vanderbilt Learning Technology Center)
  • 4-Mat (McCarthy)
  • Instructional episodes (Andre)
  • Multiple approaches to understanding (Gardner)
  • Collaborative problem solving (Nelson)
  • Constructivist learning environments (Jonassen)
  • Learning by doing (Schank)

The results

Five first principles emerged from Merrill’s research (2002). He constructed these into phases of effective instruction (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Phases of Effective Instruction

Table 1 describes these principles and is augmented with Merrill’s (2007) synthesis of the first principles and reflective questions for design.

Table 1: Augmented first principles and reflective questions for design


Learning is promoted when…

Questions to ask yourself

Problem and task centered

Learners are engaged in solving real world problems and tasks

  • Does the instruction involve real world problems and tasks relevant to the learner?
  • Does the instruction show the learners what they’ll be able to do at the end of the learning experience?
  • Does the instruction include the components or chunks required for the successful completion of the problem or task?
  • Does the instruction show multiple examples of the problem or task?


Existing knowledge is retrieved or activated as a foundation for the new knowledge or learning

  • Does the instruction make use of or activate learners’ prior knowledge as a foundation for the new learning, including cognitive structures to help organize the new knowledge?
  • Does the instruction help learners see relevance of the problem task and boost confidence in ability to complete successfully?


New knowledge (task) is demonstrated to the learner

  • Does instruction show what the learner will learn versus telling what he or she will learn?
  • Are examples consistent with content being presented (including non-examples)?
  • Is learner guidance included (focus on relevant content, multiple perspectives, linking new knowledge to current knowledge)


The learner applies new knowledge

  • Do learners have a chance to practice and/or apply learning?
  • Are activities and assessment aligned with learning objectives?
  • Is feedback provided after practice?
  • Is coaching or scaffolding available to learners?


New knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world or context

  • Do learners have the chance to reflect, discuss, and/or defend their new knowledge or skill?
  • Does instruction encourage learners to transfer learning to everyday contexts?

Implications for eLearning design

The use of the first principles is meant to be prescriptive and applicable to any learning practice or program. For your eLearning design and development, ask yourself the associated design questions and include these phases of effective instruction. Being problem or task focused is the central principle and should be the starting point for all design efforts.

The article

Merrill, M. David. “First Principles of Instruction.” Educational Technology Research & Development, 50. 2002. Retrieved from,+2002).pdf

Additional references

Merrill, M. D. “First Principles of Instruction: A Synthesis.” Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology2. 2007.

Editor’s note

This article is the last in the Research for Practitioners series. We hope that you have enjoyed these summaries and found them useful. The authors of the individual articles would very much appreciate your comments, and would like to hear about your experience in applying what you learned from their compact presentations of some very long research reports!