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In Chapter 21 of First Principles Merrill describes research evidence on the effectiveness of using these principles which he and his students have carried out. However, the nature of that research evidence was fairly limited and none of it was published in peer-reviewed academic journals. At the conclusion of the chapter Merrill writes: “It is clear that more carefully controlled research directly evaluating the . . . contribution of First Principles of Instruction is needed.” 

Since the book was published in 2012 there have been no studies which attempted to empirically validate the use of the principles resulting in more effective learning. To be fair, this is not just an issue for Merrill’s work, Klein & Richey (2015 ) state that “most claims of efficacy in the application and use of ISD [Instructional Systems Design] principles are anecdotal and empirically unsubstantiated”.

On reflection, when I published my Overview of First Principles post last week, I was being generous in rating the research evidence with three stars, therefore, I have now adjusted this to one star:

Research rating revised

The theoretical base for First Principles

The theoretical base for the instructional design theories and models which form the basis of Merrill’s principles is much stronger than the research evidence base, but even here I think there are some caveats. Merrill states that many of the instructional design models he reviewed and which are the basis for First Principles have been derived from theory, but he does not always explicitly state which theoretical sources. I have analysed the sources Merrill cites in the references section of First Principles of Instruction. There are 128 references and interestingly by far the biggest number of references (26) are to his own work:

The second and third most cited references (Richard Mayer, 11) and (Ruth Colvin Clark, 6) are related to Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. The next most prominent sources with four citations each are Charles Reigeluth, who is known for his Elaboration theory and Robert Tennyson for his work on teaching concepts. As might be expected Robert Gagne is cited (3 references). Finally, Richard Clark also has three citations (mainly in the context of multimedia) and Jeroen van Merrienboer (for his 4C/ID problem-solving model).

Gardner (2011a) carried out a review to see if he could find evidence of the extent to which Merrill’s principles were based on instructional design theories. He reviewed 22 theories largely taken from Volumes II and III of Instructional Design Theories and Models (Reigeluth, 1999, 2009) and found that each theory emphasised on average four out of the five principles. The theoretical base reviewed showed higher support for the Application and Demonstration principles, but there was mixed support for Problem-Centredness. Activation and Integration had the lowest levels of support. However, as Gardner states in his paper, his review was time-limited and subjective, so doesn’t definitively address the question of how robust Merrill’s theoretical base is.

Research evidence which uses First Principles to assess teaching quality and the pedagogic effectiveness of MOOCs

Gardner (2011b), in a small-scale study of four professors in a single university who had been recognised with an award for their teaching, found that they were all using almost all of Merrill’s principles.

Motivated by the fact that there were no published studies of instructional design quality of MOOCs Margaryan et al (2015 ), used Merrill’s principles as the basis for a course survey instrument which was used to analyse the instructional design quality of 76 randomly selected Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Margaryan et al take the view  that the instructional design quality of a course “is a critical indicator and prerequisite of the potential of the course for effective learning.” 

They also point out that there is no recognised system for evaluating the quality of MOOCs and that even the metrics for measuring are under debate (OBHE, 2013). Unfortunately, they don’t state their reasons for choosing Merrill’s principles as the basis for their course survey instrument or set out which other instructional design or learning frameworks they considered. Merrill’s principles are augmented by a set of five further principles (collective knowledge, collaboration, differentiation, authentic resources, and feedback) which Margaryan et al propose to address the design of learning resources and learning support, as in their view Merrill’s five principles are focused on the design of learning activities.

The MOOCs analysed included courses from Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn, Udacity, Codeacademy, and Canvas. Both xMOOCs and cMOOCs were analysed (50 xMOOCs and 26 cMOOCs). Margaryan et al used two published instruments to create the questionnaire instrument used for this research (1) An extended version of the Course Scan survey instrument developed by Collis & Margaryan (2005 ) and (2) The Expanded Pebble-in-the-Pond Instructional Design Checklist (Merrill, 2013 ).

The Course Scan instrument included aspects such as course details (seven items), objectives, presentation and organisation (six items), Merrill’s First Principles and the authors’ additional five principles. The analysis involved a researcher surveying the course description, course materials and resources, learning activity descriptions, learners’ submissions and discussions in the course website and determining the evidence for each aspect. Each MOOC took an average of three hours to be analysed.

For each MOOC, the range of possible scores was 0-72, with 0 indicating that none of the principles and organisational criteria were identified and 72 indicating that all principles and criteria were reflected to a very high standard. None of the MOOCs scored above 28 points. The range of scores was: for xMOOCs 3-25 points; for cMOOCs 0-28 points. Most courses implemented only some of the principles, with the majority of MOOCs of both types scoring low on the extent to which Merrill’s principles were implemented. The only areas where MOOCs scored highly were the organisation and presentation of course material. The researchers, therefore, concluded that the instructional design quality of MOOCs is essentially low. Below is a summary of their findings for each of Merrill’s principles and for their additional principles:

Implementation of First Principles in online learning

Klein & Mendenhall (2018 ), looked at how Merrill’s were applied in the implementation of a project to develop 49 online modules by converting existing face to face materials within a very strict 11-week time frame. This study did not look at the pedagogic effectiveness of using the principles, instead, it focussed on the factors that impacted on applying them in a real-world context. Qualitative research techniques including interviews, surveys, and document analysis were used within this case study approach. Participants were 15 members of an instructional design team that included instructional designers, team and project leaders.

The key finding was that the challenge of dealing with a range of factors made it difficult to fully implement Merrill’s principles in a time constrained project. Time-constraint was the central issue, however, several additional critical factors were identified including: recruiting skilled, experienced instructional designers, agreeing the project scope and requirements with stakeholders, working from existing slide-based resources which were designed for a face-to-face context, the technological constraints of the client’s learning platform, the time-consuming nature of creating video and multimedia resources (Demonstration principle) and the difficulty of implementing meaningful opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge in a purely online setting (Application principle).


Overall, I think that Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction provides a very useful synthesis of the large body of learning theories, instructional design frameworks and models, and effective instructional design strategies based on experiential knowledge. Merrill’s work has made a significant contribution to the field of instructional design by helping to narrow the gap between instructional design theory and practice. This is particularly important as so much digital learning is designed primarily based on the features of the authoring software and with little regard for learning theories, frameworks or models.

Clearly, the empirical research evidence base for the effectiveness of the principles is limited. However, Merrill’s work strongly articulates the importance of starting the design of learning on the basis of learning theories and models in contrast to the (still common) approach where “…the focus is [too often] on how the interaction works, not on what learning outcome the interaction enables” or worse still technology-first approaches.

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Collis, B., & Margaryan, A. (2005 ). Design criteria for work-based learning: Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction expanded. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(5), 725–738. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00507.x

Gardner, J. (2011a). Investigating theoretical support for first principles of instruction: A systematic review. Midwest Journal of Educational Communication and Technology. 5(1) pp. 8-17.. [online] Academia.edu. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/3538793/ [Accessed 9 Feb. 2019].

Gardner, J. (2011b). How award-winning professors in higher education use Merrill’s first principles of instruction. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 8(5), p. 3-16.. [online] Academia.edu. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/3538810 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2019]

Klein, J. D., & Mendenhall, A. (2018 ). Applying the First Principles of Instruction in a short-term, high volume, rapid production of online professional development modules. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(1), 93–110. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-017-9166-9

Klein, J. D., & Richey, R. C. (2015 ). Design and Development Research. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Technology (Vols 1–2, pp. 183–184). Thousand Oaks,: SAGE Publications, Inc. http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-educational-technology/i2916.xml

Margaryan, A., Bianco, M., & Littlejohn, A. (2015 ). Instructional quality of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education, 80, 77–83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.005

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.

Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). The elaboration theory: guidance for scope and sequence decisions. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Vol. II)(pp. 425–453). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reigeluth, C. and Carr-Chellman, A. (2009). Instructional-design theories and models. Abingdon: Routledge.

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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