Inside Out

Paper - First Principles of Instruction

We reviewed the wisdom hierarchy in a previous note. The paper presented a taxonomy ranging from data, information, knowledge and finally culminating in wisdom. As we navigate the hierarchy we observed that our understanding deepens and we keep adding more meaning to our observations. Knowledge is a function of prior knowledge. And wisdom is how one lives the knowledge.

Learning is the cognitive act of acquiring knowledge. We’ll study a paper that takes us through some of the core principles of learning.

Merrill, M. David. “First principles of instruction.” Educational technology research and development 50, no. 3 (2002): 43-59.


Author starts with an enquiry: what are the prescriptive principles common to various theories on instructional design? This enquiry leads him to review several existing theories. Although the theories define their own vocabulary to expound on the topic, they do include fundamentally similar principles. Let’s define a first principle before we start diving deeper1.

A principle (basic method) is a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice (variable method). A practice is a specific instructional activity. A program is an approach consisting of a set of prescribed practices. Practices always implement or fail to implement underlying principles whether these principles are specified or not.

A core set of principles (or a subset of them) can be implemented by a wide variety of practices and programs. It is a tautology that principles by definition are smaller in number and the spectrum widens as we move to their gross implementations.

What are the properties of first principles of instruction?

  • Amount of learning promoted by a program is proportional to its implementation of first principles
  • First principles are fundamental enough to be implemented using any instructional architecture
  • First principles are design oriented (prescriptive) rather than learning oriented (descriptive)

Note that empirical support for these principles is not in scope of the paper. We don’t care about it for our study as well.


Paper outlines five fundamental principles.

  1. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge
  3. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner
  4. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner
  5. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world

The paper elaborates on the five principles and evaluates existing theories with this common vocabulary. We’ll cover the first aspect and skip most of second as it appears to be geared towards academic interest.

1. Solve real world problems

A problem is a whole task not just a part. Contrast this with the usual learn this now, you will understand it later approach. Paper calls the later as topic centered instruction where a part of the problem is taught in isolation.

  1. Show the task that student will be able to complete with the learning. E.g., first problem is a worked example of whole task.
  2. Let them engage at 4 levels: problem, task, operation and actions.
  3. Students should solve a progression of problems in order of increasing complexity.

2. Build upon existing knowledge

Start where the student is by activating their previous experience to build a foundation. If the field is new to the student, begin by providing them a three dimensional experience. E.g., don’t start with abstract representations in the beginning.

  1. Activate the previous experience of a student by providing an opportunity to showcase their knowledge. This creates the mental model which helps organize the new learning.
  2. Spend time on providing experiences that can be used as a foundation for later learning.
  3. If a mental model is not available, strive to provide a structure in order to help build one.

3. Show the knowledge

Knowledge exists in two levels: a) general information that is widely applicable, or b) specific portrayal of a situation or single case through stories. Learners remember and apply information readily when the information includes specific portrayals. Demonstrate the learning instead of just sharing the information (telling). Presentation along with practice is better.

  1. Keep the demo consistent with learning goal. Enrich with examples, non-examples, show the procedures with visualizations and use modeling for behaviors.
  2. Effective guidance for students occurs at two levels. In the beginning identify and map the structural features of the learning goal explicitly for the student. Later allow the student to focus their own attention to relevant parts of information.
    • Alternative points of view (examples and non-examples) are essential to understanding.
    • Ask the student to compare different view-points, this exercises the mental models.
  3. Choose instructional media which doesn’t compete for attention or increase the cognitive overload of the student.

4. Apply the knowledge

Require learners to use the newly acquired knowledge or skill to solve problems. Mere remember-what-you-were-told exercises do not promote learning.

  1. Keep the practice consistent with instructional goal. Five kinds of practice:
    • “Information about” asks to recall or recognize information
    • “Parts of” asks to locate, name or describe each part
    • “Kinds of” asks new examples of each kind
    • “How to” asks the procedure
    • “What happens” asks to predict a consequence of a process given conditions
  2. Keep decreasing the level of coaching. Initially provide considerable support using feedback, and keep reducing this as learning progresses. Enable student to diagnose errors and correct those as part of feedback.
  3. Provide a variety of problems to the learner. Single problems are insufficient.

5. Integrate knowledge into life

Student creates a personal adaptation of the acquired knowledge and applies it in day to day life.

  1. Allow learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Provide the feedback of increased skill level to the student similar to how video games do. Teaching for understanding is an effective technique.
  2. Provide an opportunity for learners to reflect, discuss/defend and share their learning. Synthesize and reflect are critical phases to embed the learning.
  3. Let the student modify the knowledge and create their own by revising, editing, synthesizing, and refocusing. Invention and exploration of the knowledge in new ways promotes learning.

  1. I loved the structure of this paper. While reading do note how the author answers the next question that might be bothering the astute reader. The evaluation criteria is carefully laid out before we indulge in the specifics.

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