Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction is a set of problem-based teaching strategies that have been shown to be extremely effective. The principles draw from the five foundational principles of instruction, and consist of five strategies to inform best practices when instructing learners. When these strategies are implemented by teachers, student learning, motivation and engagement improve. While the principles are ranked by number, it should be noted that none are more or less important than the others and they must all be implemented together for the best outcome. The strategies work in unison to create a classroom climate that promotes mastery learning and actively engaged students.

M. David Merrill
M. David Merrill, Professor Emeritus at Utah State University

Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction are:

  1. Task/Problem-Centered
  2. Activation
  3. Demonstration
  4. Application
  5. Integration

According to Merrill, a principle can be defined as “a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of the methods or models used to implement this principle….These principles can be implemented in any delivery system or using any instructional architecture.” (1). Please note that principles are different from methods , which are “ways to facilitate learning” (Reigeluth, 1999, 2).

Each of these strategies have specific meanings and applications.

First principles of instruction

Principle 1: Task/Problem Centered

Learning is facilitated when students apply it to real-world problems

Real-world associations are needed for a learner to find meaning in their learning. Using real-world examples from the learner’s life, from their peers, and from the wider community makes the subject more relevant to the learner. This is achieved by applying abstract concepts to concrete situations, either in the classroom through physical tasks or through discussing examples of how this applies outside the classroom context. Discussions should happen as a whole class, as well as with peers in groups. When a learner is engaged in relevant problem solving, then the information becomes important to them. Learning is interesting when it is relevant. Merrill advocates for all learning must be based in a real-world problem to be solved.

Principle 2: Activation

Learning is facilitated when learners are able to connect current learning with previous learning

Teaching often aims for high-level abstract understanding, without ensuring that the students are ready and able to understand it. When prior learning is overlooked, learners are liable to quickly forget the new concepts the teacher is introducing them to. It is vital that previous knowledge is taken into account and for new learning to be attached to and built on what is already known. Further, learning should be done both incrementally, and as a whole subject; taking the next step in the learning, but then applying it to the entirety of the subject. This means that new learning should be challenging to the learner, so that they are interested and engaged, but not so challenging that they feel overwhelmed, while also using prior understanding to build new understanding. Irrelevant learning is quickly forgotten, but activated learning is retained.

Principle 3: Demonstration (show me)

Learning is facilitated when learners see a practical demonstration of learning to solve the problem

A teacher standing at the head of the class droning on about the lesson will quickly lose learner engagement. Learning must include demonstrations of new concepts as well as instruction about them. A demonstration, according to Merrill, has two levels: Information and portrayal. Information demonstrations are widely applicable but are generic, and abstract. While portrayal demonstrations are not widely applicable but are specific to one case study or situation. It’s important to ensure there are plenty of portrayal demonstrations during lessons to show learners how to use the new information. Using multiple examples will also aid them in “transfer” or the flexible application of new learning to new situations.

Principle 4: Application (let me)

Learning is facilitated when learners can use new information in a meaningful way, straight away

It is unanimous across all learning and teaching theories, that using practical applications to solve real-world problems makes learning meaningful and increases the chance of retention. Multi-choice questions do not count. Multi-choice quizzes and similar surface testing exercises are only testing the memory of recent learning, and do not provide an assessment of deep understanding or mastery of the concepts. Real, practical, situational application of new learning across several lessons will assist learners in creating meaningful engagement with new learning. Another application strategy includes assessment of procedure, which means letting learners decide what the next step in a procedure will be, then assessing whether or not this was the correct choice. The use of this application and assessment strategy allows the learner to engage with the new learning on an abstract level in a meaningful way.

Principle 5: Integration

Learning is facilitated when learners are able to actively interact with what they have learned through discussion, debate and presentation

The learner needs to take new learning and fit this into their existing schema so that they can continue to apply this knowledge into the future, and build on it. Critical evaluation of their learning for both themselves and their peers, allows the learner to organize the learning in this way. Finding relevance, application of learning, and critical evaluation provide the learner with opportunities to engage with the learning in different ways. This means they can organize their learning in a way that is meaningful for them so that they can retain it and continue to apply it into the future. This principle brings the teaching back to the first principle, that learners must find relevance in their learning, and be able to integrate it into both their current and future understanding.

Applying Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction: Practical Teaching Strategies

All this heavy theory is good and makes sense, but how to practically apply the strategies into lessons? Teachers need to carefully construct lessons to incorporate all the principles. The principles work as a reciprocal relationship where all are equally important to learner engagement and motivation. There are many practical ways that teachers can incorporate the strategies into every lesson:

  • Include class discussions where learners can share previous learning.
  • Model learning and practical problem solving so learners know what to expect.
  • Create scenarios where learners can engage with the lesson, providing task-centered learning that activates learners’ prior learning, providing them with portrayal demonstrations of real-world application and integration.
    • These scenarios should require physical, practical problem-solving.
    • Practice different scenarios and strategies as often as possible. 
  • Provide plenty of examples that engage the learner, use statistics, stories, metaphors and analogies to encourage intrinsic motivation.
  • Give learners the opportunity to review learning, in collaboration with peers and alone. 
  • Give learners the opportunity to look forward to understanding the next steps in their learning.
  • As often as possible tie new learning into things the learners already know and especially what they are interested in.
  • Start with simple and easy to complete tasks, then build on that with incrementally more difficult tasks. 
  • Encourage learners to ask questions, and posit questions to them that engage their learning with real-world application, prior learning application, and future integration.
  • Feedback should be attributed to effort and strategy, peer critique needs to be given clear strategies and visual cues to aid accurate assessment.

Example unit plan:

Over several weeks, learners will learn about the life cycle of plants.

Principle/s Engaged:

Lesson task:12345
Introduction of topic: ask learners what they already know about the life cycle of plants. Discuss the different parts of a plant and the different components that are vital to the life cycle of a plant.  
Break into pairs, discuss what they just learned, research a plant they like and report on it to the rest of class.
Go outside, and in groups take a pot and plant seeds in it. Allow groups to decide between edible or decorative gardens.  
Each group must make a plan as to how to care for their garden, and create a roster. Attach rostered tasks to existing classroom routine for example, the rostered tasks become attached to the 5 minutes after fitness. 
Allow plants to grow, with groups following rosters.  
Have groups do a weekly evaluation of what they have done, how it’s working and decide if they need to adjust their strategy. 
Do worksheets that are relevant, draw our home gardens or a garden we admire, research favorite flowers and plants, and create life-cycle of plants and caring for plants posters. 
Once plants are grown, students can harvest and make salads or floral arrangements. 
Come together and write stories about their experiences.  
Invite parents to the classroom to see the student’s workbooks and results of their hard work.
Split into pairs and, using the marking sheet you have created for them, evaluate each other’s work.  
Teacher also provides task centered, strategy attributed feedback throughout the topic.  
Throughout the unit, students are encouraged to bring stories of gardens they saw or noticed and talk both in groups and as a class.  

As seen in the example, there are a lot of crossovers between the different principles, and they all work together to create meaningful learning that learners can engage with and apply beyond the classroom.

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction provide a framework that should be kept in mind while creating lesson plans. For a unit or lesson to be mastered by learners, they must feel engaged with the work and be able to “see the point” of learning. Every lesson should be planned with this in mind, so that learners are not only motivated to effectively master and achieve learning but are excited by it. 

According to Merrill, effective lessons are task-centered, with practical demonstrations of real-world situations. This activates prior learning and allows learners to apply new knowledge, and then integrate it into future real-word scenarios.


  1. Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
  2. Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory.

Other notes:

You may watch this video that shows Dr. Merrill’s thoughts about instructional design: