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The core idea of Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction is that learning is promoted when learners engage in problem-centred learning in which component skills are taught in the context of a simple-to-complex progression of whole real-world problems. Merrill’s focus on problem-centred instruction is closely related to (and influenced by) the 4C/ID instructional design model advocated by van Merriënboer and Kirschner and to Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory.

Topic-centred vs Problem-centred learning

A problem-centred learning approach is not common in the design of learning in UK higher education where the most common design approach is based on a sequence of topics. Wiggins and McTighe (2011), advocate a similar approach to Merrill which they term ‘backwards design’: “…we must design backwards from complex long-term performance where content is used, not from discrete topics or skills where content need only be recalled. Such performance lies at the heart of genuine expertise.”

A topic-centred strategy has two main limitations: firstly learners may have partially forgotten critical information presented and demonstrated in early topics before having the opportunity to apply it in the context of a whole problem. Secondly, learners may not see the relevance of a specific topic or skill because they are unfamiliar with the whole problem. For Merrill, a problem centred-learning approach aims to help learners see the relevance of each skill and to have the opportunity to apply these skills to a whole problem as they progress through the teaching. In a traditional curriculum sequence, it is still common for a single assessment to occur at the end of a module, which gives no time for adequate feedback to learners to help them improve their work.

A problem-centred learning strategy has several advantages over the more traditional topic based sequence as it:

  1. Helps learners to see the relationships between skills.
  2. Demonstrates the component skills in the context of different problems.
  3. Provides multiple opportunities for learners to apply component skills.
  4. Provides multiple opportunities for learners to receive feedback on their application of the component skills.
  5. Provides an opportunity for learners to revise their work.

Problem-solving events

Merrill uses the term ‘problem’ to refer to both complex problems to be solved and complex tasks to be executed. He suggests identifying a series of progressively more complex mini problems or tasks which make up a whole complex problem or task. Learners should receive coaching which is gradually removed as they become more proficient.

A problem-solving event is defined as a step and the condition it changes. Both steps and conditions have properties. A set of changed conditions bring about a consequence. The diagram below shows a set of three problem-solving events which together make up a whole problem:

A problem-centred learning approach where problem-solving events make up a whole problem

Whole problems

When teaching whole problems Merrill recommends three strategies:

  1. A demonstration of a specific instance of the whole problem which describes and shows (a) the steps which lead to each of the conditions, (b) the conditions which lead to the consequence and (c) the consequence or solution or correct execution.
  2. Teaching each problem-solving event or component skill in a way which (a) describes and shows the execution of the steps and (b) describes and shows the conditions.
  3. An opportunity for learners to engage with problem-solving events which are part of a whole problem or task and requires them to (a) identify steps and conditions and (b) execute steps and identify conditions (know whether the step was successful).

In order to execute a step, learners must first be able to identify an effective execution of the step when they see it. If there are several ways of executing a step then learners need to be able to identify which execution of the step is the most effective. Learners also need to be able to correctly recognise any change in the condition after the step has been executed.

Learners should be able to predict a consequence from a set of conditions for instances of the problem, find faulted conditions or steps for unanticipated consequences and execute all of the steps for instances of the whole problem. When conditions are inadequate or missing learners have to recognise that they need to execute the appropriate steps that either modify the inadequate conditions or supply the missing conditions required for the problem solution or task completion. Therefore, problem-solving requires a combination of at least three different component skills: conceptual, procedural, and principles. Some conditions also require the acquisition of facts and part-whole relationships component skills.

A Problem-centred learning strategy

A problem-centred learning strategy involves presenting learners with a series of increasingly difficult problems where the teaching of component skills is distributed across the problem progression. This approach provides learners with frequent feedback which they can use to improve their work. It also teaches component skills in the context of a progression of problems with different component skills distributed across the problems.

  1. Show learners a simple whole problem or task and an overview of the solution or execution. This provides context for learners, shows them what skills they will be acquiring and helps make the relationship between learning outcomes clearer.
  2. Demonstrate each integral component skill and explain how it contributes to the problem solution or task execution.
  3. Show learners a second more complex whole problem.
  4. Give learners the opportunity to apply previously learned component skills to solve this problem.
  5. Demonstrate any new component skills and explain how they contribute to the problem solution or task execution.
  6. Repeat the explanation, demonstration, application cycle for subsequent problems until all elements of all component skills have been demonstrated and applied.
  7. Finally, learners are asked to independently complete a new whole problem.

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

Reigeluth, C. (n.d.). Elaboration Theory. Retrieved 7 March 2019, from InstructionalDesign.org website: https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/elaboration-theory/

van Merriënboer, J. J. G. V., & Kirschner, P. A. (2018). 4CID.org – About 4C/ID. Retrieved 6 August 2019, from Four-Component Instructional Design (4C/ID) website: https://sites.google.com/view/4cid/about-4cid

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Alexandria, United States: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

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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