Learning Science Made Easy: Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

If you manage educational programs, a knowledge of learning science can help you understand how program design makes a difference in how learners process, retain, and apply information. You’ll know if a program is designed to provide the engaging and effective learning experience you and your customers expect.

In our Learning Science Made Easy series, we’ve covered:

•    Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction
•    Bloom’s Taxonomy
•    ADDIE
•    Retrieval Practice

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI) is the most straightforward, simplest instructional design model we’ve examined so far, yet it packs a lot of power because Merrill believed effective learning experiences are rooted in problem-solving. Educational programs designed according to his principles deliver value because learners know how to apply what they’ve learned.

Introducing Merrill’s Principles of Instruction

In his study of instructional design theories and models, educational researcher David Merrill identified and focused on these five principles: problem-centric, activation, demonstration, application, and integration.


Merrill said, “Truly effective learning experiences are rooted in problem-solving.” Problem-solving learning experiences are a practical use of a learner’s time and money. Many instructional designers believe problem-centered programs are a more ethical design choice because they’re of more value to the learner. Learners relate to the subject because it’s a relevant problem that captures their interest and engages their curiosity.


First, activate the learner’s existing knowledge on the topic or their memory of an experience related to the topic. Relate new information to that existing knowledge or memory. Help them make connections and build new knowledge upon what they already know.

If they have no relevant prior experience or knowledge, help them get a basic understanding before introducing more complex ideas.

Professional woman at laptop recalling previous knowledge - activation principle of Merrill's Principles of Instruction


Merrill said, “Educators must show vs. tell.” At this phase, learners are watching, not yet doing. The learner must observe the process and see how it works in real life. Depending on the topic, you can use videos, real-life demonstrations, infographics, and/or role playing to:

•    Demonstrate new information, such as steps and procedures.
•    Show a process in a real or simulated situation.
•    Point out conditions, risks, possibilities, and consequences.
•    Show scenarios of progressing complexity.

Demonstrate new information in different ways. One example isn’t enough. You need to show them different contexts and perspectives.


Merrill believed answering multiple-choice, short-answer, or matching questions which rely only on a learners’ memory isn’t sufficient for the application aspect of learning. He believed learners should actually do what they’re learning in the context of a real-world problem.

Help learners apply new knowledge and learn from any mistakes. Provide guidance at the start, if needed, and then gradually reduce support.

Retrieval practice is an example of the application principle: activities such as exercises, quizzes, role playing, reflection, and discussion that provide opportunities for the learner to retrieve and apply new knowledge. Merrill recommended exercises that allow the learner to apply new knowledge in different scenarios.
•    Work through problem cases and receive feedback from their instructor, peers, or quiz answers and explainers.
•    Perform the steps of a procedure or process.
•    Recognize correct and incorrect steps.
•    Predict the consequence of a process.
•    Diagnose an unexpected consequence.


Finally, the learner must transfer and integrate the new knowledge into their life. Help the learner define how they will apply their new knowledge at work. Give them opportunities to:

•    Reflect on the new knowledge and discuss or write about how they will use it at work.
•    Try out the new practice/skill at work and report back.
•    Collaborate with peers on a task or solve a problem together using what they’ve learned.
•    Teach someone else what they’ve learned.
•    Do a presentation, such as a lunch-and-learn, on what they’ve learned.

Integration is the true test of a course or educational program’s effectiveness.

Professional woman at a table with two colleagues explaining something - integration element of Merrill's Principles of Instruction

How Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI) aligns with other instructional design models

Instructional designers work with the models and principles that best fit the needs and goals of the program. Bloom’s Taxonomy describes the cognitive processes involved in learning—remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating—rather than the learning process itself. Instructional designers use Bloom’s Taxonomy to create effective learning objectives for a program.

They might use ADDIE to guide the creation of a course and MPI to design the learning experience, specifically the activities that contribute to the learning process.

Many experts believe Merrill’s principles most closely align with Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction, which describe the conditions needed for learning. However, Merrill’s principles specifically focus on solving problems, whereas Gagne’s model doesn’t mention any specific objective.

•    Merrill’s activation phase aligns with Gagne’s first three events—grab the learner’s attention, explain the objective, and stimulate recall of prior learning.
•    Demonstration relates to Gagne’s fourth and fifth events—present the content and provide learning guidance.
•    Application aligns with Gagne’s sixth, seventh, and eight events—give learners the opportunity to practice, provide timely and specific feedback, and assess performance.
•    Integration relates to the ninth event—enhance retention and transfer.

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction make sense. If you’ve participated in a course, workshop, or conference session led by an experienced, dynamic adult educator, you’ve probably experienced Merrill’s principles in action. The instructor related new information to existing knowledge, demonstrated it in a variety of ways, gave you time to learn by doing, and helped you figure out how to apply your new knowledge back in the office. Bonus points if they held you accountable by following up!

Volunteer subject matter experts, session presenters, and instructors may not all be adult learning experts—only in a perfect world—but you can share Merrill’s Principles of Instruction with them as guidance for their program design and delivery.

learning science
instructional design
course development
program development
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