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Merrill defines four levels of instructional strategy, each level builds on the previous one and the levels are seen as increasingly effective. If the activation principle and the integration principle are used they also enhance the effectiveness of the teaching. There isn’t much in the way of empirical evidence to support Merrill’s idea of levels, so I think they are best considered as a useful heuristic. For more on the question of how much empirical evidence supports First Principles see my previous post.

Level 0: Information-centred

Merrill defines an information-centred presentation as one which “tells learners associations among two or more pieces of information; the name and description of one or more parts; the defining characteristics of a class of objects, situations, or processes; the steps and sequence to carry out a procedure; or the conditions and consequence for the events in a process.” He argues that too much teaching is information rich but example poor. Teachers may provide lots of information that applies to a wide range of situations (often motivated by perceived demands of the curriculum or professional body requirements) but then fail to provide sufficient specific illustrations of the ideas presented by the information.

Merrill’s view is that presenting large amounts of information and expecting learners to be able to both process and understand it is unlikely to be effective as their ability to understand it, remember it and apply it is limited by factors such as varying attention spans, the limitations of working memory, variations in prior knowledge, and incorrect, incomplete or even non-existent mental models. The role of the learner is not one of passively consuming information delivered through various forms of media as instruction should “promote learning and interaction and should facilitate information processing”.

Level 1: Information-centred plus demonstration

Rather than just presenting information a Level 1 instructional strategy adds demonstration. A demonstration is one or more worked examples of all or part of the task or problem that shows how the information is applied to specific situations. The demonstration should be consistent with the type of content or skill being taught. Providing demonstrations and examples helps the learner to form more robust and appropriate mental models of the skill being acquired.

Level 2: Information-centred plus demonstration plus application.

In addition to presenting information and using demonstration, a Level 2 instructional strategy adds opportunities for application. For Merrill, learners can only develop meaningful skills when they have opportunities to apply the knowledge and skills they have been learning. Learners develop their skills by practising tasks and engaging in problem-solving activities.

It is critical that the application activities are consistent with the type of content being taught. When learners apply their skills to a new task or problem they are actively engaging in a process of checking the accuracy and completeness of their mental models. A range of difficulty for practice opportunities and problems is beneficial. The difficulty in designing this kind of learning is to provide new application problems, which challenge learners but are not so demanding that they are unable to complete the practise task or problem. This idea comes from Vygotsky and his idea of the Zone of Proximal Development.

Level 3: Problem-centred information, demonstration, and application.

A level 3 instructional strategy adds a problem-centred strategy to demonstration and application. Merrill makes a distinction between a problem-centred approach and problem-based or case-based learning. A problem-centred approach is more structured than a problem-based or case-based learning. The key difference is that a problem-centred approach first teaches learners all of the knowledge and skills needed to solve the problem or make a case decision whereas problem and case-based learning events often require the learners to acquire some of the necessary knowledge and skills whilst they are actually engaged in problem-solving or case-based learning.

For Merrill, it is crucial that learner activities involve a specific whole complex problem, rather than part of a problem and that the problem is an authentic one that learners will encounter in their discipline or professional domain. Teaching learners skills in isolation from the whole problem makes it more difficult for learners to apply these skills when confronted with a whole, complex problem. When learners acquire skills just in time for their application to a complex problem, then this makes the need for the knowledge or skill more apparent and can increase learners’ motivation to acquire the knowledge or skill. Additionally, learners’ quick application of skills can help with the construction of a more integrated mental model representing the whole problem.

A problem-centred strategy still requires conventional direct instruction focussed on the skills required to solve the problem. An effective instructional sequence for Merrill is to:

  1. Show learners a problem and its solution.
  2. Explicitly teach learners the knowledge and component skills required to solve the problem and show them how this knowledge and these skills apply to the problem.
  3. Give learners the opportunity to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills to multiple new (un-encountered) tasks or problems which are sequenced to become increasingly more complex.

Next in this series: Primary instructional interactions

In the next post in this series, I will be looking at the four primary instructional interactions (Tell, Show, Ask and Do) described by Merrill. These interactions have two purposes: (1) providing content to the learner and (2) having learners respond to the content.

Key references

Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education, 40(4), 509–513.

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87–114.

Merrill, M. D. (n.d.). Designing e3 (effective, efficient, engaging) instruction. Retrieved from

Merrill, M.D. (2002). Summary of First Principles. Retrieved from

Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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