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Merrill uses the term how-to component skill to refer to the teaching of procedures. I will use the term procedural knowledge component skill. He defines a procedure as an “Ordered sequence of steps necessary to accomplish some goal, solve a particular class of problems, to produce some product” (Merrill, 1983). A procedural knowledge component skill provides ways for learners to act on their environment. This component skill is necessary when the subject matter specifies a sequence of activities which learners must carry out in order to accomplish a specific goal or to bring about some consequence. The learning content may be objects, symbols or social events:

  • Object procedural skills: how to operate a microscope
  • Symbol manipulation tasks: how to multiply numbers in a spreadsheet application
  • Social events: how to sell a specific product

A procedural knowledge component skill has seven content elements:

  1. An object or situation to be modified by the procedure (the task)
  2. The name of the procedure
  3. A list of the steps or activities for executing the procedure
  4. The sequence for executing the steps
  5. A demonstration of the task illustrating the individual activities or steps required
  6. The consequence of each step
  7. The consequence of completing the whole procedure

Demonstration for procedural knowledge

For procedural knowledge component skills, Merrill advises that it is best to demonstrate a specific instance of the task. The execution of each step should be demonstrated and the consequence of executing each step shown. The defining and ordering properties of each step should be described. Guidance should direct learners’ attention to the name of the step being executed, the action that is taking place, and the consequence of the action.  Multimedia should follow Richard Mayer’s principles. I have written more on multimedia in my Strategies for designing effective multimedia for learning post. If the task is complex, then the demonstration should show a progression of at least three increasingly difficult procedures.


When teaching procedural knowledge skills with the aim of transfer back to the job environment Clark (2003) recommends:

  • Using descriptions of the sequence of actions and decisions necessary for achieving goals which are derived from expert-based cognitive task analysis.
  • Using worked examples (Sweller, 1988).
  • Providing the opportunity for part-whole practice that is scaffolded to reflect the learner’s prior knowledge.
  • Providing a conceptual elaboration of the declarative knowledge base in the form of concepts, processes, and principles that explain why the procedure works.
  • Complex expert procedures should be chunked into segments of seven to nine new (to the learner) steps (to avoid cognitive overload).
  • Practice of parts of a procedure must be followed by “whole task” practice where procedural chunks are gradually assembled into larger “wholes,” and feedback should focus on closing the gap between current and required performance (Druckman & Bjork, 1994).

Application for procedural knowledge

If the task cannot be performed using the actual device or system, then learners should have the opportunity to practice with a simulation of the device or system. The simulation should enable learners to perform the task in a way that is similar to carrying out the procedure with the actual device or system. Functional fidelity, meaning it acts like the real thing, is more important than appearance fidelity, meaning it looks like the real thing. Application, even with a simulation is beneficial for learners as they can immediately see the consequence of the actions taken. It also has the advantage of allowing learners to play with the task to explore what happens when they don’t carry out the correct step.

Learners should be provided with un-encountered real or simulated portrayals of the task. They should be given opportunities to identify new instances of each step and to execute each step. For complex tasks with many steps or difficult steps, application should move from coached practice to an opportunity to perform the whole task without any coaching. Intrinsic feedback, where learners see the consequence of their actions, is most effective, but extrinsic feedback about the appropriateness of a given learner action or set of actions, should also be available. Ask learners to carry out a simple to complex progression for at least three tasks.


Object procedural knowledge example: Production of beer

Learning outcomes:

  1. Recognise and identify key steps needed to produce beer.
  2. Apply the correct series of steps needed to produce beer.
  3. Evaluate the consequence for the whole procedure of making changes to a given step.

Learning events:

  • One presentation (information-centred) learning event: Present the names of the procedural steps, their defining properties and describe the sequence of steps required to complete the whole procedure. (1)
  • One demonstration learning event: Show the execution of each of the steps in an instance of the procedure. (2)
  • Practice/application learning events: learners are required to execute each of the steps (ideally for un-encountered instances of the task). (3)

Presentation (information-centred) and demonstration learning events (1) (2):

Practice/application learning event (3):

Learners can be asked to: identify specific steps, sequence the series of steps, identify the consequence of a specific step, identify how a change in a specific step can have a consequence for the whole procedure.

Symbol manipulation procedural knowledge example: Using Excel

Learning outcomes:

  1. Explain what the basic mathematical operators are and how they may be used in simple spreadsheet formulas.
  2. Carry out spreadsheet procedures using the arithmetic ‘addition’ and ‘multiplication’ operators.
  3. Apply a formula using the addition operator.

Learning events:

  • One presentation (information-centred) learning event: Present the name of the procedures, their defining properties and describe the sequence of steps required to complete the whole procedure. (1)
  • One demonstration learning event: Show the execution of each of the steps in an instance of the procedure. (2)
  • One practice/application learning event: learners are required to execute each of the steps for un-encountered instances of the task. (3)

I have developed just one presentation event, one demonstration event and one application learning event. In a more fully developed real-life application there would be multiple presentation, demonstration and application events involving additional spreadsheet procedures and combining procedures together. Guidance and coaching would be gradually withdrawn as the series of tasks progressed and the level of task difficulty would increase. For a detailed example see Chapter 5 (Instructional Strategies) of First Principles of Instruction (Merrill, 2012).

Presentation (information-centred) and demonstration learning events (1) (2):

Practice/application learning event (3):

NB This is a live Google spreadsheet with open permissions, so potentially more than one person may be editing at any given time. Assuming of course that it isn’t just my cat who reads these blog posts ; )

  1. Using UK £ as the currency enter an amount for Food and an amount for Transportation.
  2. Using the + operator enter the formula to add these two amounts together.
  3. Check your results.

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Clark, R. E. (2003). What works in distance learning: Instructional strategies. In H. F. O’Neil (Ed.), What works in distance learning (pp. 13–31). Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Evaluation.

Druckman, D., & Bjork, R. (1994). Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance. https://doi.org/10.17226/2303

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

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

Worked-example effect (Sweller, 1988). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Worked-example_effect

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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