Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory for Instructional Design

What is known as “sequencing” and organizing “epitomes” in Reigeluth’s Elaboration theory, is commonly referred to as “chunking”—configuring large amounts of information into smaller units of information that are scaffolded (supportive structures) in order to accommodate memory and learning limitations.

For example, “Instructional Design” is chunked or epitomized into analysis, design, development, Implementation, & evaluation.

Developing instruction (Instructional Design) is divided into several theories and a model (at least on this site). Notice how we took a complex subject and chunked it into small, bite size pieces.

Charles Reigeluth was a doctorate student of Merrill. He used a sequencing approach that is consistent with Merrill’s Component Display Theory (that is, each theory enhances the other). Reigeluth believes that instruction is made out of layers and that each layer of instruction elaborates on the previously presented ideas. By elaborating on the previous ideal, it reiterates, thereby improving retention. This layering has a zoom lens sequencing approach that runs from simple to complex and repeated general-to-specific (Reigeluth, 1979):

  • Present overview of simplest and most fundamental ideas
  • Add complexity to one aspect
  • Review the overview and show relationships to the details
  • Provide additional elaboration of details
  • Provide additional summary and synthesis

This zoom lens approach first looks at the subject through a wide-angle lens. That is, the subject matter is general and fundamental. This allows us to deal with the core aspects of the subject. Elaboration begins with an overview of the simplest and most fundamental ideas of the subject.

Then we start to zoom in with the lens so that we pick up some details and specifics about the subject matter. We can also observe the relationships between the wide-angle subject shot and the zoom details. This principle as applied to elaboration theory is called a cognitive zoom.

As we continue to zoom, we go into great detail with each iteration or layering. Note that we are primarily concerned with the sequencing of ideas as opposed to the individual ideas themselves. Each zoom that we make is called a sequence. Sequencing in this case relates to fundamental ideas or core principles. The basic ones are presented first, this in turn, leads to a great layer of specifics. Each sequence of ideas or principles are called epitomes in elaboration theory. The epitome serves as a foundation from which more specific information may be developed.

The Seven Steps in Elaboration

1. Sequence

This simple to complex procedure can take many forms such as an overview, advance organizer, or spiral curriculum. This sequence is one in which the general ideas epitomize rather than summarize, and the epitomizing is organized on the basis of a single type of content:

  • Conceptual — Concepts are certain sets of objects, events, or symbols that have certain common characteristics.
  • Procedural — Procedures are sets of actions intended to achieve an end.
  • Theoretical — Principles are changes in something else, generally denoting cause and effect.

One of these three contents is chosen to achieve the goals of a lesson or course. Epitomizing is structured as follows: One type of content is chosen (conceptual, procedural, or theoretical). All the organizing content in the course is then listed. The most basic and fundamental ideas are selected and presented at the application level.

This is the subject matter before the first level of elaboration:


Prechunking in Instructional DesignBefore we epitomize (chunk) the subject matter is in a state of disarray

↓ Elaboration ↓


Postchuncking in Instructional DesignWe put chaos into order when we chunk (epitomize) the subject matter

From this first layer or epitome, we can then elaborate by organizing (the second step) the content.

2. Organize

The second step elaborates upon organizing the content in the first level. This process continues in the same way as the first step of Sequence. The relationships that result between the levels are organized according to content. At each level the expanded epitome is used to create a means to elaborate upon the next level.

Epitomes can be sequenced according to the order of steps:

  • Forward Chaining is presenting them in the order in which they are performed.
  • Backward Chaining is presenting them in the reverse order (backwards).
  • Hierarchical Sequencing is presenting all the major sub-steps separately before integrating them into a step in the sequence.
  • General to Detailed Sequencing is presented by summarizing.
  • Simple to Complex Sequencing is presenting them by their shortest paths (procedures) with each successive path becoming more complex.

Each epitome should be examined closely to determine if the learners have the essential knowledge that will allow them to learn the subject matter. If the necessary knowledge is not present, it must be provided.

3. Summarization

In order to systematically review what has already been learned, a “summarizer” (defined as a concise generality for each topic presented in the elaboration (Ely & Plomp, 1996)) is created. A summarizer provides a concise statement of each idea, an example. Two types of summarizers are used:

  • Internal — The summary comes at the end of the lesson and deals specifically with the content of that lesson.
  • Within-set — This deals with all that has been learned so far in a particular set of lessons. This can include other lessons that coordinate with that lesson.

4. Synthesize

This step integrates and interrelates the ideas taught thus far. The goal is to facilitate deeper understanding, meaningfulness, and retention in regards to the content area.

5. Analogy

Analogy is the use of a familiar idea or concept to introduce or define a new idea or concept. Analogies aid the trainer in reaching the learner’s field of experience. Presenting analogies throughout the instruction helps the learners to build on their present knowledge or skills.

6. Cognitive-Strategy Activator

There are two categories of cognitive-strategy activators:

  • Imbedded — Uses pictures, diagrams, analogies, and other elements that force the learner to interact with the sequence and content.
  • Detached — Causes the learner to employ a previously acquired cognitive skill.

7. Learner Control

Learner Control deals with the freedom of the learner to control the selection and sequencing of such instructional elements as content, rate, components (instructional-strategy), and cognitive strategies.

Concluding Thoughts

Note that this is a macro strategy of instructional design that focus on the organization and sequencing of subject matter content by addressing the four design problem areas: selection, sequencing, synthesizing, and summarizing.

Elaboration theory is best suited for teaching causal relationships and sequences rather than problem solving or facts. It works in conjunction with component-display theory, which deals with the micro aspects of instruction and works out the details of elaboration.


Ely, D.P., Plomp, T. (1996) Classic Writings on Instructional Technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited. Vol. 2.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1979). In search of a better way to organize instruction: The elaboration theory. Journal of Instructional Development, 2 (3), 8-15.

Reigeluth, C. M. and Stein, F. S. (1983). The Elaboration Theory of Instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth (ed), Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current States. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.