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Merrill defines primary instructional interactions as “procedures designed to promote learning; they prescribe how the instruction and the learner work together to promote learning”. He describes four different types of instructional interaction (Tell, Show, Ask and Do). His use of these words is intended to make his ideas more accessible, but I find the following terms more precise: Information-centred, Demonstration, Questioning and Application, so will use these instead. These primary instructional interactions have two purposes: providing content to the learner and having learners respond to the content. I will refer to these as (1) Teacher-centred interactions and (2) Learner-centred interactions.

1) Teacher-centred interactions

Information-centred and Demonstration interactions are used to teach content. Multiple examples, guidance and multimedia are used to support these interactions.

Instructional interactions: teaching events


Information-centred interactions are content-centred and provide abstract, generic information to learners rather than portrayals (specific examples of the information). Information-centred interactions are the most common type of teaching interaction; examples include face-to-face lectures and presentations and multimedia in the form of textbooks, PowerPoints, screencasts, graphics, animations and videos.


Demonstration teaching interactions are used to show portrayals of the information. Portrayals can be demonstrated in a face-to-face context such as a tutorial, workshop or lab session and also through multimedia in the form of text, PowerPoints, screencasts,  graphics, animations and videos. Interweaving Information-centred interactions with Demonstration interactions is a common and effective teaching sequence.

Multiple examples

A single example or demonstration limits teaching effectiveness. Providing multiple examples or demonstrations gives learners greater opportunities to interact with the content and can help them to develop their mental models. The number of demonstrations and examples required to effectively communicate specific knowledge or skills depends on the complexity of the knowledge or skill and on the prior experience of the learners. As a rule of thumb, Merrill suggests a minimum of three demonstrations or examples because multiple interactions with the content increase the chance of learners’ developing their understanding and skills.


Learners should be given guidance (referred to as scaffolding by Bruner), as the relationships between general information and specific task or problem-centred applications may not be clear to learners. Learner guidance provides directions for processing the information and for paying attention to the critical aspects in a specific situation. Guidance can also help learners to relate the new knowledge to previously acquired knowledge or skills and to organising structures provided by the teacher. Merrill highlights four types of guidance:

Attention focusing guidance directs learners’ attention to critical aspects or properties of a specific portrayal or situation. Highlighting the properties which enable learners to discriminate instances of one class from instances of a related class can be done with explanatory text, graphics, animation, highlighting, audio overlay, or other attention-focusing devices. As learners become more proficient they should be given opportunities to independently identify discriminating property values.

Matched examples pair an example with a non-example in order to focus learners attention on discriminating properties.

Divergent examples are where learners are provided with a sequence of examples which differ from each other in significant ways that reflect the range of difference that occurs in the real world.

Range-of-difficulty guidance is where learners are provided with a sequence of examples that vary from those that are easy to solve to those that are difficult to solve.

One important aspect of using guidance effectively is that it must be gradually reduced so that learners do not become reliant on it, but instead begin to carry out tasks and solve problems independently.


Multimedia needs to have a specific, relevant instructional purpose, which exemplifies the content or provides a pedagogic interaction for learners to engage with. Without an instructional purpose, multimedia is reduced to being a superficial, decorative element whose purpose is pseudo-motivational and which is unlikely to contribute to learning and may even interfere with learning. See Richard Mayer’s excellent research on multimedia for more on this. I have written more on multimedia in my Strategies for designing effective multimedia for learning post.

2) Learner-centred interactions

Questioning and Application primary instructional interactions enable learners to respond to and apply the taught content. Multiple tasks or problems, coaching and feedback are used to support these interactions.

Instructional interactions: learner-centred events


Questioning primary instructional interactions are the second most common type of learner-centred interaction and require learners to recognise or recall information from memory. Questioning interactions are most commonly used with application interactions. Questioning can be made more effective through the use of high-quality corrective feedback. In Merrill’s view asking learners to recall presented information (for example by asking multiple-choice, matching or short answer questions) is largely ineffective as our memories are programmed to decay by default. He contends that an information-centred teaching strategy using questioning interactions is unlikely to be effective for improving task performance or solving complex problems.

However, I think the situation is perhaps more nuanced in that there are well-researched, effective strategies for addressing the challenge of retaining and understanding information. For example, both retrieval practice and spaced practice can make effective use of recall questions. Building foundational knowledge is often an essential precursor to subsequently being able to carry out tasks and to solve complex problems.


One effective learning sequence involves a) presenting information to learners, b)  providing specific examples, demonstrations or cases and c) giving practice or application opportunities. Practice opportunities require learners to apply abstract, high-level information to perform tasks or to solve specific problems.  Application primary instructional interactions always involve portrayals of specific problems. Instead of asking learners about general information, multiple-choice, short-answer, and matching-item formats can ask learners to solve a specific problem or carry out a specific task.

Multiple tasks or problems

Providing a single task or problem has limited effectiveness because if learners engage with just a single task or problem then they have a narrow view of the task or problem and when later faced with a slightly different task or problem from the same category they may not recognise it and may be unable to adjust their solution process and thinking. As a rule of thumb, Merrill advocates giving learners the opportunity to engage with a minimum of three tasks or problems. However, the number of application tasks required for a specific skill depends on both the complexity of the skill and the prior knowledge and experience of the learners. Giving learners the opportunity to engage with a progression of increasingly more complex tasks or problems helps them to develop more refined and flexible mental models.


The function of coaching is to support learners in recalling and using high-level information when they are trying to carry out a task or to solve a problem. The teacher is providing some of the cognitive processing needed for an application interaction. Coaching often takes the form of hints. A simple problem may require only a single hint, but complex problems may require a series of increasingly complete hints. Coaching can help learners focus on the most salient properties of the problem or task, activate previous relevant knowledge and provide a mental model to help solve the problem. Just presenting alternative representations is not sufficient. When learners are explicitly directed to compare different aspects or properties they are more likely to adjust their mental models. Learning will be more effective if coaching is provided early during application, but as with guidance, coaching gradually needs to be reduced to develop learners’ self-efficacy.


Appropriate feedback is critical to help learners improve their performance. Simply indicating if the outcome is right or wrong has a very limited effect. Corrective feedback, where learners find out the correct response and why it is the correct response is more effective. Effectiveness can be further increased by providing a demonstration to learners of what correct application looks like. Intrinsic feedback which enables learners to see the consequence of their response is also an effective form of feedback.

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Bjork, E., & Bjork, R. (n.d.). Research | Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab [Website]. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research/

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. (n.d.). Designing e3 (effective, efficient, engaging) instruction [Website]. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/Designing%20e3_instruction.pdf

Merrill, M.D. (2002). Summary of First Principles. [Website]. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/firstprinciplesbymerrill.pdf

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

Smith, M. & Weinstein Y. (2016). Learn How to Study Using… Spaced Practice. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/7/21-1

Smith, M. & Weinstein Y. (2016). Learn how to Study Using… Retrieval Practice. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/6/23-1

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. A clear summary and excellent exposition of learning design for active learners!


  2. Thanks Neal, I think that Instructional Design is often characterised as behaviouristic and transmissive. However, this is not true of Merrill, because he adapted his approach over time to include more active, learner-centred strategies.


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