Friday, December 23, 2011

The 5 Most Fundamental Strategies for Helping Your Students Learn

What do good teachers do? What strategies are most effective at helping students learn? This has been the subject of thousands of studies over many decades, and it can be hard to really focus in on what teaching strategies are most effective.

One instructional theory that has had a lot of influence on my own work as an instructional designer and a scholar is Merrill's First Principles of Instruction (2002, 2007, 2009). After spending many years researching and discovering effective teaching strategies, Merrill set out to identify the most fundamental principles of instruction. He reviewed many theories and based on this review, he identified what he calls the 5 most fundamental principles of instruction. When you apply these first principles in your teaching and instructional design, you will engage students in activities that will help them learn more. Here are the 5 principles:
  1. Problem or Task-Centered - Students learn more when they see real-world examples and solve real-world problems or tasks.
  2. Activation - Students learn more when they actively consider what they already know about a topic and relate what they learn to what they already know.
  3. Demonstration - Students learn more when the learn relevant knowledge and skills in the context of a real-world task or problem.
  4. Application - Students learn more when they apply what they have learned in a real-world context and receive feedback and guidance on how their performance.
  5. Integration - Students learn more when they are directed reflect on, discuss, debate, present on, or plan how to use new knowledge and skills.
Instructional Design using Merrill's First Principles of Instruction
First Principles of Instruction (Merrill, 2002).

Personal Experience with First Principles

I've realized that the university courses and teachers that have had the greatest impact on me have used most or all of these principles. For example:
  • My public speaking teacher, Karla Bassett, used these principles when she taught us how to speak. She provided us with a structure for giving speeches (activation). She showed many videos and personally demonstrated the principles and skills of public speaking (task-centered, demonstration) and also had each student perform multiple speeches (application) and gave us feedback on our speeches. This task-centered approach gave me a deep interest in communication and speaking and I went on to earn a bachelor's degree in communication.
  • My Spanish teacher, Carolina Bond, used these principles in class by speaking Spanish throughout the class (task-centered, demonstration, application) and by having us build vocabulary and use sentence structures in real-world scenarios (application). These courses prepared me to later speak Spanish as an English teacher in Guatemala. 
  • Later as a graduate student, my Qualitative Methods instructor Dr. Sherry Marx shared many real-world examples (task-centered, demonstration) of  how she and others had conducted research and directed me and my peers to conduct multiple full-scale studies on our own (application). This task-centered approach to learning gave me an incredible learning experience and I was able to later publish the results of that research.
For more detailed examples of how First Principles of Instruction have been used in educational settings, and how to use these principles, see my recent published articles:

These are just a few examples of how these principles can be used. I believe that if you reflect on the most meaningful formal learning experiences you had as a student, you would find that the instructor used some or all of these principles effectively .

Do You Agree?

So, the question is, do you agree that these truly are the First Principles of Instruction? Or are there other principles that are more foundational than these? Are there other principles that enhance learning more than these? What do you think?


Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. (Click for copy from
Merrill, M. D. (2007). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, 2nd Edition (Vol. 2, pp. 62-71). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall. (Click for copy from 
Merrill, M. D. (2009). First Principles of Instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth & A. Carr (Eds.), Instructional Design Theories and Models: Building a Common Knowledge Base (Vol. III). New York: Routledge Publishers. (Click for copy from


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