Merrill’s first principles of instruction

This guide was synthesised from M. David Merrill’s 2002 paper, available here.

The premise of Merrill’s first principles of instruction is that there exists:

[…] a set of principles that can be found in most instructional design theories and models and even though the terms used to state these principles might differ between theorists, the authors of these theories would agree that these principles are necessary for effective and efficient instruction. (p44)

Merrill’s principles draw from several instructional design theories and models, identifying and articulating the design principles on which these theories agree.

Some key terms:

  • a principle is a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice
  • a practice is a specific instructional activity
  • a program is an approach consisting of a set of prescribed practices

Note: these principles are prescriptive (design-oriented) rather than descriptive (learning-oriented).

“They should be used to create learning environments and products rather than describing how learners acquire knowledge and skill from these environments or products.” (p44)

Merrill’s five principles are:

  1. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Learning is promoted when existing knowledge [and skill] is activated as a foundation for new knowledge [and skill]
  3. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner
  4. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner
  5. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world

Too often, instructional programs focus only on the demonstration phase and ignore the other phases in this cycle of learning. These principles will be expanded below.

1. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems

Show task

Learning is promoted when learners are shown the task they will be able to do or the problem they will be able to solve as a result of completing a module or course.

Stating learning objectives at the start of a module or lesson is common practice, but too often these are usually some form of “the learner will be able to…” that are abstract, and often only understood after the instruction.

Most theorists suggest that a specific demonstration of the whole task similar to those the learners will be able to do following instruction provides a better orientation to the material to follow than a list of abstract statements.

Task level

Learning is promoted when learners are engaged at the problem or task level, not just the operation or action level.

Too much traditional instruction is topic based, teaching prerequisites before introducing a real world task: “You won’t understand this now, but later it will be really important to you.”

Some theorists stress that a shortcoming of traditional instruction is the emphasis on decontextualised skills. Jonassen (1999) stressed that learners will assume ownership only if the problems to be solved are interesting, relevant and engaging.” Others suggest engaging learners requires “authentic problems” (Savery & Duffy, 1995).

“Geometry will be important to you later in life because there’s going to be a test six weeks from now.”

Problem progression

Learning is promoted when learners solve a progression of problems that are explicitly compared to one another. Most theorists agree that a single problem, or giving little or no guidance (sink-or-swim) is not effective.

Mastering a complex problem begins with a less complex problem. When the first problem is mastered, learners are given a more complex problem. Through a progression of increasingly complex problems, students’ skills gradually improve until they are able to solve complex problems.

2. Learning is promoted when relevant previous experience is activated

It has long been a tenet of education to start where the child is. It is surprising then that many products jump immediately into new material without laying a sufficient foundation for students. There are two possible starting points when building new knowledge.


If students have relevant experience, the first phase of learning is to be sure that this knowledge is activated and ready for use as a foundation for new knowledge.

If students have not had sufficient experience, then the first phase of learning a new skill should be to provide experience they can use as a foundation. Too much instruction starts with abstract representations for which learners have insufficient foundation.

Previous experience

When learners think they already know some of the material, this knowledge can be activated by being given an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. This can be used to help direct students to the yet-to-be-learned new material, and result in more efficient instruction.

Requiring all students (including those with no prior knowledge) to complete an information-oriented pretest can be frustrating, however, and not productive in activating their prior experience.

Provide experience

If the new learning to be done is foreign to the learner’s previous experience, they can feel overwhelmed.

Primary or elementary school teachers often understand this and spend a lot of time providing experiences upon which later learning can be built, but as learners mature high school teachers can sometimes feel that providing relevant experience prior to instruction is no longer necessary, despite students not having all the necessary tools in their learning toolbox.

This often results in students memorising material presented or engaging with it poorly because they lack the mental models based on experience that they can use to structure the new knowledge.


Activation also involves stimulating mental models that can be modified or tuned to help learners incorporate new knowledge into what they already know. Andre (1997) cited research that showed themes can serve as an organising structure if they are relevant to the content being taught.

However! Irrelevant themes that have been shoehorned in to instruction in an attempt to promote motivation can actually increase the cognitive load required to engage with the content presented.

If learners already have the mental model needed to engage with the knowledge presented, they should be encouraged to use it. If they do not, the instruction should be structured in such a way that provides the organisational schema for the new knowledge.

Andre (1997) discussed the role of advance organisers in providing structure for later learning.

3. Learning is promoted when the instruction demonstrates what is to be learned

Merely telling learners about what is to be learned is always less effective than demonstrating it.

Demonstration consistency

Learning is promoted when the demonstration is consistent with the goal for learning. Possible methods to achieve this include:

  • good (and bad) examples of concepts
  • demonstrations of procedures
  • visualisations of processes
  • modeling of behaviours

Many theorists agree that if demonstrations are inconsistent with the intended outcomes then learning will be ineffective.

Learner guidance

Learning is promoted when learners receive appropriate guidance, including:

  • being directed to relevant information
  • seeing multiple representations of the task
  • multiple demonstrations compared

Many theorists stressed the importance of alternative points of view, especially for ill-defined domains and non-recurrent skills. Presenting a topic from multiple perspectives can achieve this.

Relevant media

Gratuitous illustrations (such as tenuously-related clip art imagery) make little or no instructional contribution and are often ignored by learners or may actually interfere with learning.

Mayer (2001) demonstrated that some combinations of multimedia (text & graphics, for example) can compete for attention and therefore increase cognitive load for the student, while other combinations (audio and graphics, for example) support one another and promote more effective learning.

4. Learning is promoted when learners are required to use their new knowledge or skills to solve problems

Most instructional design theories advocate application of knowledge and skill as a necessary condition of effective learning.

Practice consistency

Learning is promoted when the practice and the posttest are consistent with the learning objectives. This could include:

  • “recall or recognise…”
  • “locate, name or describe…”
  • “identify new examples of…”
  • do…”
  • “predict a consequence of doing this right (or wrong!)”

Merrill describes it as “astounding” that despite the almost universal agreement on the importance of practice that so many instructional programs merely include a few multiple choice questions labelled as practice. Such “remember what you were told” questions do little to promote learning.

Diminishing coaching

Learning is promoted when learners are guided in their problem solving by appropriate feedback and coaching. Early in learning students need a lot of support, but as the learning progresses this support should be gradually taken away with the eventual goal of students being able to complete activities on their own – slowly removing the training wheels.

Feedback has long been recognised as the most important form of guidance. All instructional design theories advocate feedback as a necessary condition for learning.

Making errors is a natural consequence of problem solving. Learning from mistakes is a powerful approach, especially when learners are shown how to recognise and recover from errors to avoid making them again in the future.

Varied problems

A single problem is insufficient for learning a new skill. Adequate practice must provide many opportunities for learners to use their new knowledge or skill for a variety of problems. Divergent examples are a necessary condition for effective instruction of new concepts.

Practice activities should be presented in multiple forms using a variety of question types in order to maximise the learner’s likelihood of mastering the skill.

5. Learning is promoted when learners are encouraged to integrate the new knowledge or skill into their everyday life

The key term here is transfer: making use of their new knowledge in different contexts or settings, making connections with existing knowledge and putting it to work.

Watch me

Learning is promoted when learners have the opportunity to demonstrate their new knowledge or skill. Whenever learners acquire new skills, their first move is often to show a friend. Learning is the most motivating when the learner can observe his or her progress.

Effective instruction must provide an opportunity to demonstrate their newly acquired skills.


It has been suggested that creating personal adaptations of the new knowledge and skill is one of the final stages of effective instruction. Reflection on the experience of learning is one way to achieve this, as is being asked to put their new knowledge or skill to work in their own personal context.

Learners have integrated instruction into their lives when they are able to demonstrate improvement in skilldefend their new knowledge and modify their new knowledge for use in their lives.


Learning is promoted when learners can create, invent and explore new and personal ways to use their new knowledge or skill. Modifying new knowledge to make it one’s own is where a learner moves beyond the instructional environment and takes the new knowledge and skill into the world beyond.

Creating, revising, editing, synthesising and refocusing are important final phases of a learning experience.

Final thought

“Often glitz, animation, multimedia and games are justified as motivational elements of an instructional product. However, for the most part, these aspects have a temporary effect on motivation. The real motivation for learners is learning.”