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What do the researchers say about effective instructional design?

The truth is – there are many, many theories.

How, then, to make sense of it all?

David Merrill (a respected educational researcher and teacher) studied various instructional design theories and models to identify a number of principles common to each.

From Merrill’s research, he established five instructional design principles that can be applied when designing any program or practice to achieve effective and efficient instruction [1].

In a nutshell, Merrill’s principles highlight that learning is promoted when:

  1. Learners are engaged in solving real-world
  2. Existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  3. New knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  4. New knowledge is applied by the learner.
  5. New knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

Adapted from First principles of instruction, 2002.

Principle 1

Problem-centred: Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.

There are three phases of Problem-centred Learning:

A bit like lego…

Problem-centred learning supports constructivist theories – learners construct their own understanding by building on their previous knowledge and experiences. [2]

Problems may include simulation or situations that provide learners with contextualised, authentic learning experiences, allowing them to draw on existing knowledge to understand the problem, collect information from various sources and resolve the problem. [3]

During this process, learners develop a deeper understanding of key concepts while strengthening problem-solving skills such as analytical thinking, initiative and creativity. [4]

Principle 2

Activation: Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.

There are three phases of Activation:

Identify where the learners are at before introducing new content to help them link and meld the ‘old’ with the ‘new’. Revise and activate learners’ previous knowledge on the topic to prepare them for building upon it (scaffolding).

If learners don’t have relevant experiences, provide them to ensure that they have a basic understanding of the topic before introducing complex concepts.

Principle 3

Demonstration (Show me): Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.

There are three phases of Demonstration:

When delivering content, incorporate multiple demonstrations of the concepts where possible to provide context and deepen learners’ understanding of its application. Learners are more likely to understand how to apply their learning when information is presented with examples.

Multiple examples allow learners to compare different perspectives.

Use media that supports effective learning. Some forms of media may compete for learner attention – or be ‘noisy’, whilst others complement and strengthen learning (e.g. audio and relevant summary graphics). [5]

Engagement with learning is king here!

Principle 4

Application (Let me): Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.

There are three phases of Application:

Application of knowledge to real-world contexts is a vital part of effective learning!

Ensure the opportunities for learners to practice skills are consistent with the learning outcomes.

Build learner confidence by initially providing guidance, and then gradually reduce support, allowing the learner to take change and complete tasks independently.

Provide multiple opportunities to apply learning to a range of situations to consolidate learning. [6]

Principle 5

Integration: Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

There are three phases of Integration:

Let’s get personal – learners are motivated when they recognise their own progress.

This can occur when demonstrating or sharing their knowledge and skills to others, reflecting on their learning and transferring new meaning and understanding to their own lives. [7] Use embedding activities to support learning transfer.

When developing your next program, keep Merrill’s five instructional design principles top of mind to ensure your instruction is efficient and effective!

Related Articles and Blogs

Click on the links below to learn more about instructional design.

Read more of our blog articles here.


[1] [7] Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instructional design. Educ. Technol., Res. Dev. 50: 43–59.

[2] Bayat, S. (2012). Effects of problem-based learning approach on cognitive variables of university students. Elsevier.

[3] Mossuto, M., (2009). Problem-based learning: Student engagement, learning and contextualised problem-solving.

[4] Radford University (n.d.). Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, and Analytical Reasoning Skills Sought by Employers. Retrieved from

[5] Mayer, R.E. (2001). Multimedia learning. London: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Merrill, M.D., Tennyson, R.D. & Posey, L.O. (1992). Teaching concepts: An instructional design guide (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

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