Thursday, September 20, 2012

What is a "Principle of Instruction?"

In the world of instructional design, we often talk about principles of instruction, (sometimes called principles of instructional design) but it can be difficult to clearly explain what these principles are and how they can be used effectively. In this post I will share some ideas on what they are and how they can and should be used.

Defining Instructional Principles
Let's start by defining each word individually. "Instructional" is related to instruction, which an online dictionary defines as "the practice of instructing... imparting knowledge." This same online dictionary defines a principle as "A rule or law concerning the functioning of natural phenomena or mechanical processes." Merrill (2002) defines a principle as "a relationship that is true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice" (p. 43).
If, Then

If-Then
The above definitions can be somewhat confusing, so one easy way to look at principles is to think of them as If-Then statements which describe an underlying law or rule that governs how the natural world functions. In an instructional setting, this means that there are natural laws or rules of learning that can be utilized to facilitate and increase learning. We use these natural laws by employing instructional strategies based on the natural principle. When we apply principles to an instructional setting, we can use the following line of thinking:

If the conditions are X, and you do Y (Y = an instructional strategy that is based on a known instructional principle), Then Z will be more likely occur (Z = the specific outcome).


Here is an example:

If your goal is to have learners learn how to perform a complex cognitive task (X, conditions), and you provide them with real-world "worked" examples of that task being accomplished (Y, instructional strategy based on demonstration principle of instruction), then the learners will be able to solve the complex cognitive task sooner and more effectively than if you didn't provide the examples (Z, outcome).

Instructional principles are probabilistic
It should be noted that these principles are probabilistic in nature, which means that using these principles will make it more likely that student learning will increase. There are many other factors such as student attention and motivation that heavily influence student learning.

Who creates instructional principles?
Instructional principles describe an underlying law or rule that governs how we learn, so technically they are discovered instead of invented. Often these principles are identified through research done at universities. These principles can also be discovered through the practical experience of conscientious instructional designers. No matter where they are discovered, the application of a true principle will always increase student learning if used appropriately.

What are some fundamental principles of instruction?
So, what are some known principles of instruction? Perhaps the most comprehensive compilation of fundamental instructional principles is Merrill's First Principles of Instruction. You can learn more about these principles by accessing the documents below:


Instructional principles are absolutely vital because they help new instructional designers avoid common errors by applying known strategies to their work. Knowing and applying these (and other) principles will inevitably produce more efficient, effective, and engaging learning experiences for our learners.
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