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What is Component Display Theory?

In Merrill’s view, the teaching of most subject matter content involves a combination of some fundamental types of knowledge and skill. He developed Component Display Theory in the early 1980s along with the idea of component skills. When Merrill uses the word skill he is referring to a combination of both knowledge and skill. Building on the work of Gagné (1985), he defines a component skill as “a combination of knowledge and skill required to solve a complex problem or do a complex task.” Merrill’s use of the word skill to refer to a combination of both knowledge and skill is also addressed by the recent work of ED Hirsch who argues that most skills are domain specific: “there are few all-purpose, free-floating skills. Skills are dependent on specific knowledge.”

As these fundamental skills rarely occur in isolation, Merrill uses the term ‘component skills’ to indicate that they work together as components of a whole problem. Learners need to acquire these component skills in order to carry out tasks or solve problems. In First Principles of Instruction (2012) Merrill further refined these ideas which were first published in 1983 as Component display theory (CDT). CDT is an instructional design theory which focuses at a micro level on the design of instruction by providing instructional strategies for achieving any cognitive domain objective (Merrill, 1983).

Component Display Theory and the five component skills

Merrill identifies five types of component skill which he believes can be used to describe learning content in a way that cuts across all domains of knowledge. For a full explanation of each skill with examples developed in H5P see these posts:

  1. Information-about (Acquisition of facts)
  2. Part-of (Part-whole relationships)
  3. Kind-of (Conceptual knowledge)
  4. How-to (Procedural knowledge)
  5. What-happens (Teaching of principles)

These different types of skill are components of all complex problems or tasks. Merrill also sets out instructional strategies which he suggests are effective for helping learners to acquire these specific types of knowledge and skill.

Component skills are taught using different combinations of information provision elements, demonstrations, questioning elements and application elements (such as recognising a new portrayal, carrying out a step in a procedure, predicting a consequence or finding a faulted condition in a process). The factual information, the demonstration and the application tasks for each of the component skills must be consistent with the skill goals.

General information and specific portrayals

The subject matter content to be learned can be represented in two ways: general and specific. Merrill uses the term information to describe general content elements which consist of “a description of the parts, properties, steps, conditions, or consequences for a class of objects, events, or processes” which apply to many cases or situations. He uses the term portrayal to refer to a specific content element such as “an illustration, representation, vivid description, or graphic image of a specific event, person, or thing”. A portrayal refers to one case or a single situation. Both types of content element are needed for effective learning.

Research on Component Display Theory

In a recently completed PhD (Antwi, 2017) found that “the presentational sequence of CDT’s primary presentation form (i.e., generality + instance + practice) could engage the learner in concept knowledge acquisition”.

Developing interactive examples for the component skills using H5P

Merrill used PowerPoint to create interactive content demonstrating each of the component skills. You can enrol on his Instructure course to view a series of tutorials he developed which show how to create instructional templates in PowerPoint. Some of these templates use macros to capture learner interactions and would, therefore, require quite a high level of technical skill to implement. PowerPoint isn’t a universal medium, it isn’t mobile friendly and it provides no pre-built learning interactions to reduce the technical learning curve. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend using PowerPoint to develop interactive learning content. Instead, I will be using the open source software H5P to develop interactive HTML5 content. If you are interested in the reasoning behind this decision, then read my analysis of the different software tools for creating interactive digital content.

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Antwi, S. (2017). Formative Research on Component Display Theory (Ohio University). Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/pg_10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:ohiou1510679208927503

Ashman, G. (2016). E D Hirsch Jr’s article on why specific knowledge matters [Blog]. Retrieved 28 March 2019, from Filling the pail website: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/e-d-hirsch-jrs-article-on-why-specific-knowledge-matters-2/

Merrill, M.D. (1983). Component Display Theory. In C. Reigeluth (ed.), Instructional Design Theories and Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates. pp 279–333.

Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Posted by Thomas H

Learning technologist at the University of London. Interested in Instructional Design, Learning Design, Multimedia Learning, Educational Research, and Open Education. Follow @myBRAIN_isOPEN

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