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​​​Sometimes you don't want to redesign an entire course, but just improve one class meeting or unit. Maybe there's a class session where you've noticed that students don't quite "get it" or a unit where you realize when you're grading papers, projects, or exams that they didn't understand and use key concepts in the way you had envisioned.

One helpful framework for improving the design of a class session or unit is David Merrill's "first principles of instruction." As an education researcher, Merrill articulated his five "first principles of instruction" after reviewing a variety of theories of instructional design and seeking to identify their commonalities. His "first principles" can be readily understood and applied by faculty to enhance their instruction in a wide variety of learning contexts.

Concisely, these principles state that learning is promoted when:

  1. Learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Learners' 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
Merrill conceived these principles as being applied in instruction as successive phases: 
Merrill first principles of instruction
    If you have observed that a particular a class session, unit, or other portion of a course has not been producing the results you had envisioned in terms of student learning and feedback, consider how you could make more use of one or more of these principles. Merrill observed that often too much emphasis is placed on demonstration, and other phases are neglected. So you might dedicate more instructional time to activation or application. Or you might frame your instruction differently to foreground how it relates to real-world problems your students will encounter.

    Because Merrill stresses that "learning is promoted when learners solve a progression of problems that are explicitly compared to another" (2002a, p. 45), we can use the five phases in a cycle that is repeated as learners are guided in working on problems of increasing complexity.
    Merrill first principles cycle.jpg 

    CAFÉ has created a self-assessment checklist in Applying Merrill's First Principles of Instruction that can help you identify more specific ways that you can reframe or adjust the presentation of your instruction in a class session or unit in the next iteration of your course. Contact CAFÉ at​ if you would like to discuss how you can apply his principles to your course.


    Mendenhall, A., Buhanan, C. W., Suhaka, M., Mills, G., Gibson, G. V., & Merrill, M. D. (2006). A task-centered approach to entrepreneurship. TechTrends, 50(4), 84-89.

    Merrill, M. D. (2002a). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

    Merrill, M. D. (2002b). A pebble-in-the-pond model for instructional design. Performance Improvement, 41(7), 41-46.

    Merrill, M. D. (2007). A task-centered instructional strategy. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(1), 5-​22.  


    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman, PhD, SHRM-SCP, CAAP, PMP

    Director, Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence

    Professor of Music

    (704) 337-2547​