The First Principles of Instruction, from Dr. David Merrill, provides a framework for designing instruction that moves beyond the rote, information-based instruction that is commonplace in corporate learning and all levels of education. Learning should be problem-centered, require activation, include demonstration, require application, and incorporate opportunities for integration. On January 27th, I facilitated a Learning Views webinar webinar that explored the First Principles of Instruction. The recording of the First Principles of Instruction webinar is available for those who would like to watch. We discussed E3 instruction, problem-based learning, activation, demonstration, application, and integration.
Instruction should be effective, efficient, and engaging (E3). I think we can all agree on that. But, what is the real meaning behind each of those terms? We asked the 100 webinar attendees, and here are some of their responses for each “E” in the form of a word cloud.
The webinar audience believes effective instruction improves performance by focusing on behavior change through the achievement of learning objectives. They consider efficient instruction to be timely, both in need and duration, as well as focused on skills needed for performance. Efficient instruction is also cost-effective. The audience input defines engaging instruction as an experience that is highly focused around learner interaction - with content and each other. They’ve got it!! After we were all on the same page regarding the type of instruction we are trying create, we explored the First Principles of Instruction to create instruction that is effective, efficient, and engaging.
The principle of Problem-Based Learning is at the core of the First Principles of Instruction. Learners should be involved in solving authentic, real-world problems that are intrinsically motivating.
Problems should follow along a problem progression that presents easier problems first with increasing levels of difficulty. This allows for the practice of skills throughout. Some of the instructional problem ideas that were submitted by the webinar attendees include:
Responses that didn’t quite fit the parameters of problem-based instruction include, “how to apply the information learned to service customers successfully,” “new hire needs to have basic understanding of terms/business,” “learners transitioning from the legacy systems to the new system,” and “locate the information necessary to do the job effectively.” These statements are fine as general goals or challenges that are presented to the learning and development department. But, they are not specific problems for learners to solve during instruction, like the statements listed above.
The principle of Activation emphasizes that learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated to form a foundation for new skills. We discussed how activation is often used at the beginning of instruction but is not interwoven throughout to support the other principles. Activation often takes the form of a list of learning objectives. However, the list of learning objectives is really only important to the instructional designer. Learners should be presented with the goals, outcomes, and a connection to previous learning in a much more dynamic fashion to achieve activation.
Webinar Q: Would you encourage keeping learning objectives prior to going through process or just diving right in?
Webinar A: Learning objectives are still an important part of activation. It’s how they are presented that needs to be improved. Stories, scenarios, rhetorical questions, and other methods should be used to present learning objectives in a way that creates context, preparation for learning, and anticipation for future application.
Applied effectively, activation should present a preview to learners, including letting them see the problems that they will be solving and the processes they will go through to solve the problems. These are some ideas for activation presented by the webinar participants.
Learning is best promoted when new knowledge and skills are demonstrated. The impact of the Demonstration Principle is increased when the demonstration is in context with the instructional content and when guidance is provided. A variety of demonstrations are most effective, and guidance should be reduced as the learner’s skills increase.
Learners must apply new knowledge for instruction to be effective, efficient and engaging. The application should be contextual and include corrective feedback. Coaching also enhances application and, like guidance during demonstration, coaching should be reduced as the learner’s skills increase.
Scenarios, role-plays, model systems, and simulations were discussed as examples of the Application Principle.
Connecting instruction to the workplace and “real-life” should be a part of the learning experience. Reflection, discussion, or defense of new skills and perspectives are a few ways in which integration can be included.
Sharing post-training goals, student-as-teacher, action plan checklists, job aides, and peer review/interaction are some integration ideas submitted by webinar attendees. Social learning was also discussed as a tool for integration into the workplace; providing a way to extend instructional conversation and coaching beyond a single instructional session.
Webinar Q: How does a new hire who hasn't performed a task before reflect on how they will do it differently?
Webinar A: Integration for new employees could include goal setting, an action plan, job aides, and conversations (mock or otherwise) with seasoned employees. New employees can also reflect on how they’ve performed at other jobs and what they might do differently in their new role.
Implementing the First Principles
As you consider adopting the First Principles of Instruction for your instructional design efforts, don’t apply the model too literally like so many models before have been. This could result in instruction that is NOT effective, efficient, or engaging. The principles are not a linear checklist of instructional strategies that can be numbingly followed and checked off. Integrating the principles throughout instruction and considering each principle’s application within the context of a specific learning solution will move you toward designing effective, efficient, and engaging instruction.