Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

M. David Merrill (2002) identified five Instructional Design principles that promote learning when creating learning/training environments, processes, and products. He noted that the most effective learning processes or environments are problem-centered and involve the learner in the five distinct phases of:

  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems — start with simple problems and work through a progression of increasingly complex problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge — prior experience from relevant past experience is used as a foundation for the new skills and knowledge (also know as scaffolding).
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner — they are shown, rather than just being told.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner — they are required to use their new knowledge or skill to solve problems.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world — they are able to demonstrate improvement in their newly acquired skills and to modify it for use in their daily work.

Merrill uses the following diagram to show the four phases surrounding problems:

Merrill's effective learning processes or environments

According to Merrill, the definition of a problem varies among theorists, such as engaging in a simulation or being involved in a real world task. He uses the word problem to include a wide range of activities, with the most critical characteristics being that the activity is a whole task, rather than components of a task and that the task is representative of those the learner will encounter in the real world.


Merrill, M.D. (2002). First principles of instructionEducational Technology, Research and Development, 50(3), pp43-59.

The following is also an effective problem-centered strategy

The Definitive Guide To Merrill’s Principles Of Instruction

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction were founded by M. David Merrill, a noted educational researcher and teacher. There are five core principles that center on task-based learning. He suggests that truly effective learning experiences are rooted in problem-solving. Online learners must actively engage with the eLearning content in order to fully grasp the information and apply it in the real world. This involves a multi-phase process of activation, demonstration, integration and other essential components.

Here are 5 tips to use Merrill’s Principles of Instruction in your eLearning course design. Each covers a different aspect of this practical Instructional Design approach.

1. Demonstrate

The first of the Merrill’s Principles of Instruction is demonstration. Online learners are able to absorb the information more effectively when they see a prime example. For example, a visual demo of the task that outlines each step, and explores associated behaviors and skills. To apply the demonstration principle in your eLearning course design, you might consider adding eLearning videos, online training tutorials, or even image-rich eLearning infographics that showcase the main ideas. Your online learners must be able to see the concepts in action to fully understand the subject matter. Demonstrations also allow them to identify areas of improvement. For instance, skills they may need to develop to improve task proficiency.

2. Apply

Online learners have to apply the information and skills they’ve learned to get the full benefit of the eLearning course. Based on the Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, this comes in the form of interactive problem-solving and task performance. For example, online learners are encouraged to carry out each step of the task on their own. This gives them the ability to see the challenges and obstacles first hand. Then they have all of the knowledge and experience they need to solve the problem in the real world. In eLearning, this may involve branching scenarios or online group collaboration projects that are problem-centered. Such as solving a case study mystery, or using their skills to resolve conflicts.

3. Activate

Acquiring the information isn’t enough. Online learners must also be able to link it to pre-existing knowledge and mental schemata. In other words, to build on their current knowledge base, which is also known as “scaffolding”. This also includes past experiences that relate to the subject matter they are now exploring. Everything they’ve learned enhances the meaning and relevancy of new ideas or concepts. For example, the skills and information they absorbed in a previous course helps them successfully complete a task. There are a variety of ways to incorporate this principle into your eLearning course design, such as adding real-world examples, simulations, and stories that meld the old with the new.

4. Integrate

This is where it gets personal. The integration principle pertains to meaning and context. Online learners must have the chance to integrate their newfound skills or knowledge into their daily lives. This may also involve knowledge manipulation. For instance, being able to apply the information in new or innovative ways to achieve their goals and objectives. Integration also helps improve their motivation, as online learners have the power to see how their online training leads to real-world benefits.

5. Engage

One might say that this is the star principle. It involves task-centric learning that encourages online learners to engage with the eLearning content. They have to use everything they’ve learned to solve the problem and connect it to real-world applications. Online learners have the opportunity to explore all facets of the problem and then brainstorm possible solutions. This can be done in a myriad of ways. From working together in online groups to see things from different perspectives to participating in interactive scenarios autonomously.

The key is to engage and motivate online learners so that they play an active role in the learning process, instead of sitting idly by while the information is presented. The principle of engagement also stipulates that the difficulty level must align with learners’ needs and past experiences. For instance, beginners may need to start with the basics in order to gradually build their knowledge, while more experienced online learners can skip ahead to advanced aspects of the task or problem, such as delving into related skills or knowledge in order to devise alternative solutions.

Applying Merrill’s Principles Of Instruction In eLearning

A crucial element that should never be overlooked is timely eLearning feedback. Online learners should be able to identify areas of improvement so that they can more effectively problem-solve in real-world environments. Thus, online instructors and facilitators must provide constructive criticism and highlight skills or information that require further attention, as well as recommend supplemental online training materials to broaden their understanding. For example, ask online learners to participate in eLearning scenarios or simulations. Then offer immediate eLearning feedback based on their performance. These interventions allow them to improve their performance behaviors so that they avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Distinction Between Merill’s Principles Of Instruction And Problem-Based Learning

Though Merrill’s Principles Of Instruction do share some similarities with other problem-based approaches, there is a key distinction. Merrill’s Principles of Instruction include more demonstrations and support in order to gradually build knowledge and experience. For example, online learners are able to receive the help and feedback they need until they develop their skills and expand their knowledge base sufficiently.

It’s important to note that the term “problem” has a variety of meanings, depending on who you ask. In fact, Merrill suggests that it encompasses a diverse range of activities and applications. However, it must be a complete task that involves the “big picture”, rather than individual steps or ideas related to the problem. Furthermore, the task must center on a real-world challenge or situation in order to be truly meaningful and effective.

Are you familiar with other Merrill’s Instructional Design theories? Read the article Instructional Design Models and Theories: The Component Display Theory to learn about its basic principles and how they can be applied to Instructional Design for eLearning.