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M. David Merrill is best known for his First Principles of Instruction and Component Display Theory. The primary research source for his First Principles of Instruction book (2012) is a series of books titled Instructional Design Theories and Models. Volume 1 in the series was published in 1983 and the series continues to be published with the most recent book (Volume 4) being published in 2016. At the time that First Principles of Instructions was published the series covered over 100 instructional design theories, frameworks and models covering a wide range of ideas about teaching and learning including approaches based on behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, social constructivism, constructionism, direct instruction, experiential learning, and problem-based learning.

In First Principles of Instruction, Merrill identifies five core instructional design principles which he has synthesised from his review of all of these theories, frameworks, and models. He then sets out ways in which these principles can be systematically used to inform the design and development of learning activities, (both online and in a face-to-face context). Merrill then makes a case that following these principles should lead to effective, efficient and engaging learning experiences.

One of Merrill’s key aims was to identify the essential principles as concisely and as elegantly as possible, which is why there are only five principles. In my view, Merrill’s two major achievements are distilling down a wide range of theories and models into just five key principles and defining explicitly how these principles can be applied in practice to the design of learning.

A quick note on ‘instruction’

For Merrill instruction is “a deliberate attempt to structure a learning environment so that students will acquire specified knowledge or skill”. The word ‘instruction’ is seen as problematic by some educationalists in the UK who associate it with a transmissive or even authoritarian pedagogy. There is a long-running debate concerning the effectiveness of direct/explicit instruction versus constructivist and social constructivist pedagogies. For more on this debate see Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s (2006) critique of constructivist and minimally guided techniques and the response from Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn (2007 ).

The debate is still current; see Kirschner and Neelen (2018) on the evidence for the effectiveness of direct instruction and Dylan Wiliam‘s (2018) interactions on Twitter involving both advocates and critics of direct instruction. For Merrill, instruction just means teaching and learning and involves both direct instruction and more learner-centred approaches where learners are actively involved by using appropriate cognitive processing to construct knowledge and develop skills both individually and with peers.

The five First Principles of Instruction

Merrill opens his book First Principles of Instruction by defining a principle as “a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of the methods or models used to implement this principle”. His principles “can be implemented in any delivery system or using any instructional architecture” (Merrill, 2002, p. 44) and focus on learning activities.


Learning is promoted when learners acquire knowledge and skill in the context of real-world problems or tasks.

The problem-centred principle is the fundamental underlying principle for Merrill. He advocates an approach which contextualises teaching based on real-world tasks. Merrill views formal learning objectives and an approach based on discrete topics as abstractions of the content which can be counter-productive for learners. This principle is based on learning theories and instructional models such as Constructivist Learning Environments (Jonassen, 1999), Authentic learning, Cognitive apprenticeship, Situated learning and Problem Based Learning. Each of these theories is based on the idea that people learn more effectively when they are engaged in solving problems and building knowledge than when they are presented with information which they are required to memorise.

Therefore, for Merrill, the primary purpose of any piece of learning, module or programme should be to help learners acquire the skills necessary to solve whole task real-world problems. This approach is very different from topic-centred learning where components of the task are taught in isolation. You can find out more about Merrill’s approach in my posts on problem-centred learning and his Pebble-in-the-pond instructional design model.


Learning is promoted when learners recall or apply existing knowledge and skill as a foundation for new skills.

Merrill’s view is that too often teaching starts with high level, abstract representations for which learners have insufficient prior knowledge. Consequently, they have to make use of their associative memory (memory used to relate ideas to other ideas) with the result that they are at risk of rapidly forgetting because associative memory lacks the rich structure that facilitates retrieval of knowledge from long-term memory. Activation requires learning activities that stimulate the development of mental models and schemas that can help learners to incorporate new knowledge or skill into their existing knowledge.

Mental models

For Merrill mental models (representations of how the world works) are critical as they enable learners to develop more inter-connected knowledge which can help with retrieval. Without activation of prior knowledge or the use of scaffolding structures learners have to resort to memorising the subject matter because they lack the mental models based on experience which are needed to structure and integrate the new knowledge being taught. Therefore the first phase of learning is to activate learners’ prior knowledge so that it can be used as a foundation for new knowledge. For learners, without relevant prior knowledge, the first phase of learning should be to create a structure to help them organise the new knowledge. One way of creating this structure is through the use of advance organisers (Ausubel 1968).


Learning is promoted when learners observe a demonstration of the knowledge and skill to be learned.

Demonstrations include examples and simulations of the ideas being taught. For Merrill knowledge exists at two levels: information (generic and abstract) and portrayal (specific). Information is general and inclusive and refers to many cases or situations. Portrayals are specific and limited and refer to a single case or a single situation. Merrill’s view is that instruction is far more effective when it also includes the portrayal level so that the information is demonstrated via specific situations or cases. He also states that one example is not enough, several examples are needed and care needs to be taken to ensure that the examples are appropriate. Multiple examples help learners with ‘transfer’ (applying the new information or skill in new situations).


Learning is promoted when learners use their newly acquired knowledge and skill to solve new problems or carry out tasks.

Most instructional design theories advocate the application of knowledge and skill as a necessary condition for effective learning. Conditions of Learning (Gagne, 1985) emphasises the importance of eliciting performance and providing feedback. All of the problem-based models including Problem Based Learning (Savery & Duffy, 1995), Constructivist learning environments (Jonassen, 1999), Learning by doing (Schank et al., 1999) and Ten Steps to Complex Learning (Kirschner and van Merriënboer, 2007, 2012, 2017) emphasise the importance of solving problems or carrying out real-world tasks.

For Merrill answering multiple-choice, short-answer, or matching questions which only require learners to remember what they read or what they heard in a lecture is not an application of knowledge. He defines two types of application as being important:

  1. Requiring learners to recognise new divergent examples of an object or event. This type of application is also important when learners are carrying out procedural tasks requiring them to recognise a correctly executed step and to recognise the consequence that results from the execution of the step.
  2. Requiring learners to perform or execute the steps of a procedure.

The example Merrill gives of these two types of application is a scenario-based learning activity where the learner has to first identify a problem or state and then make a judgement, take a decision or execute corrective action.


Learning is promoted when learners reflect on, discuss and defend their newly acquired skill or integrate the skill into a real-world activity.

Learning requires a modification of existing mental models and an integration of the new knowledge and skill with knowledge and skills which have already been acquired. Merrill’s view is that well-designed instruction provides opportunities for learners to a) use their new knowledge or skill by applying it to a task or problem and b) reflect on and discuss what they have learned in order to revise, synthesise, recombine and modify their new knowledge or skills. Learners can do this in two ways:

  1. Peer collaboration: Learning designers should design peer collaboration activities which enable learners to work together within teams to perform a task or to solve a problem. Team-based learning tasks need to be designed so that they provide opportunities for learners to discuss and reflect on their newly acquired knowledge and skill.
  2. Peer critique: Peer critique activities should be designed to give learners the opportunity to constructively critically evaluate each other’s work. These activities should provide learners with opportunities to articulate their newly acquired knowledge and to demonstrate the application of their skills.

In Merrill’s view, peer collaboration and peer critique activities make retention of knowledge and successful application to tasks and problems more likely. This use of discussion, debate, collaboration, critique and, reflection is integral to the theory of social constructivism and approaches based on it such as Laurillard’s (1993) Conversational Framework.

Why isn’t there a motivation principle?

There is no motivation principle because, for Merrill, motivation is a state of the learner and an outcome of learning. He argues that motivation is often misunderstood and that there is far too much emphasis on flashy multimedia and high-quality design values which may gain attention but do not necessarily help with motivation. Donald Clark makes a similar argument that online learning is often more focussed on presentation than pedagogy. Both Merrill and Clark cite Richard Mayer’s multimedia research showing that illustrative graphics, animations, and videos can inhibit learning in some circumstances. I have written more on multimedia in my Strategies for designing effective multimedia for learning post.

Merrill’s view is that learners are intrinsically motivated when they are able to apply their new knowledge and skills to successfully perform new tasks and to solve problems. Recent research on motivation summarised by Greg Ashman has found that a feeling of mastery leads to greater levels of motivation.


First Principles of Instruction provides a comprehensive instructional design model which is grounded in decades of research into the effective design of instruction.

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Ashman, G. (2018). New evidence on fostering motivation – Filling the pail [Blog]. Retrieved 18 February 2019, from https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/new-evidence-on-fostering-motivation/

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007 ). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and. Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520701263368

Kirschner, P. A., & Neelen, M. (2018). Direct Instruction Gets No Respect (But It Works) – 3-Star learning experiences [Blog]. Retrieved 18 February 2019, from https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/direct-instruction-gets-no-respect-but-it-works/

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Mayer, R. (2016). Principles of Multimedia Learning. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from Center for Teaching and Learning | Learning House Inc. website: https://ctl.learninghouse.com/principles-of-multimedia-learning/

Merrill, M.D. (2002). Summary of First Principles. [online] Mdavidmerrill.com. Retrieved 19 January 2019, from http://www.mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/firstprinciplesbymerrill.pdf

Merrill, M. D. (n.d.). Designing e3 (effective, efficient, engaging) instruction. Mdavidmerrill.com. Retrieved 19 January 2019, from http://mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/Designing%20e3_instruction.pdf

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

Wiliam, D. (2018). Effectiveness of Direct Instruction [Twitter]. Retrieved 18 February 2019, from https://twitter.com/dylanwiliam/status/1020792102530289665

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

  1. Great article. Thank you very much!
    Eri from Brazil.


  2. […] First Principles of Instruction summary • M David Merrill • myBRAINisOPEN A 12-part series on Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction […]


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