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Education researcher David Merrill often argues that the rise of the internet negatively affected the effectiveness of teaching programs. Since it’s so easy to launch online courses, most people do so without thinking through the structure of the learning experience. As a result, many online courses go against the essential principles of learning. 

Merrill dedicated his career to finding common elements in leading instructional design theories. Based on his research, he identified a set of core guidelines for creating a motivating and effective learning experience. He summarized his findings in an instructional theory called Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction

Learning and applying Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction can help you structure your online course better and create a truly engaging and effective learning program. 

By following Merrill’s model, you can improve your course completion rates, get more good reviews and referrals, and ultimately, increase your revenue. 

The best part about David Merrill’s Principles of Instruction is that anyone can learn to apply their core ideas in just a few minutes. So what are we waiting for? Let’s turn theory into practice!

What are Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction?

David Merrill’s Principles of Instruction is an instructional model that identifies universal recommendations for building a learning experience. 

Merrill based his five key principles on the similarities between the most widely acknowledged instructional design theories and models of our time.

Merrill’s five key principles are:

  1. Problem-centered
  2. Activation
  3. Demonstration
  4. Application
  5. Integration

A complete guide to Merrill’s instructional theory

In his research, David Merrill noticed that many teachers tended to tell students about the learning material instead of showing its implications. 

He knew that effective learning happened when knowledge was demonstrated to the learner, especially if it could be tied to previous experience or acquired through problem-solving. 

Focusing on real-world tasks and problems was particularly effective in motivating students to learn and practice what they’ve learned. 

Merrill concluded that motivation comes from learning, not the other way around. Students get motivated when their new knowledge is applied to real-world problems they haven’t encountered before. 

The focus on real-world problems and tasks became the first of David Merrill’s principles of instruction. This is how he defined it: 

  1. Problem-centered. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.

From there, he developed a framework of additional principles that lead to effective, efficient, and engaging instruction: 

  1. Activation. Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge. 
  2. Demonstration. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner. 
  3. Application. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner. 
  4. Integration. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world. 

What makes these 5, seemingly simple principles so effective? They are design-oriented rather than learning-oriented. They don’t focus on how knowledge and skills are acquired. Instead, they give teachers and course builders easy guidelines for building a foundation for new knowledge. 

Teachers, instructors, coaches, leaders, and entrepreneurs can use these principles in courses, webinars and lectures to create great learning experiences that encourage positive feedback loops. 

Let’s discuss each principle of David Merrill’s instructional design in more detail. 

Principle 1: Problem-centered

In Merrill’s view, students acquire knowledge and skills by solving real-world problems. 

The problems, however, shouldn’t be overly complex. A sink-or-swim approach will do little but actively discourage students from learning. 

But mastering any skill requires solving multiple problems of different difficulty levels. According to Merrill’s pebble in the pond model theory, students should start on small problems they can easily solve and gradually progress toward more challenging ones. 

These tasks and problems should activate and engage the student’s knowledge. Challenges that work best for acquiring new knowledge and skills should be rooted in the real world and, ideally, as tailored to each individual learner as possible. 

Principle 2: Activation

According to David Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction, tailoring the learning experience to each student starts with the activation phase. 

Everyone’s previous experience is different. Some students might not have a solid foundation for new knowledge. Others might have covered similar material before and feel bored. 

The solution for the former is to provide a fast-tracked learning experience to get them up to speed. For the latter, offering ample opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge on real-world examples will keep them engaged. 

But activation is not just about testing memory. It also helps activate the mental models necessary to efficiently absorb new knowledge and skills. 

Principle 3: Demonstration

“Show, don’t tell” is an effective teaching technique for a reason. 

When an instructor gives examples for new concepts, visualizes processes, and models behavior, it’s easier for students to absorb new information. 

Not all demonstrations are equal. Teachers should ensure that the way they demonstrate teaching material is relevant to the presented information. Using a few different mediums (e.g. text, images, video) can make the delivery of new information more engaging. 

Using comparison and real-world examples can help students develop frameworks that will help them solve a variety of related problems later on. 

Principle 4: Application

All of us know that practice makes perfect. David Merrill agrees, saying progress is only possible when new knowledge is applied by the learner.

But the application of new knowledge shouldn’t happen ad hoc. True learning is facilitated when hands-on problem-solving is guided through feedback and an appropriate level of coaching, which should decrease as the learner’s skills grow. 

Merrill even states that appropriate practice is the single most neglected aspect of effective instruction. No one expects a musician to perform within hours of learning something new. Yet, this is the exact expectation in most teaching programs. 

Principle 5: Integration

The last phase in Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction model relates to the integration of new knowledge into the learner’s life, or having an opportunity to publicly demonstrate their new skills. 

Integration could mean:

  •  Working on real projects
  • Analyzing case studies
  • Testing hypotheses
  • Solving actual problems 

When students are able to demonstrate improvement, they become even more motivated to progress. 

5 tips for applying Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction in online course design

The universality of Merrill’s Principles of Instruction allows for it to be used in any teaching project. They can, for example, be easily applied when creating your online course

Here are a few research-based ideas to make your course even more engaging. 

1. State the objective upfront

According to the first principle of David Merrill’s instructional design, an effective online course should be problem-centered. 

A problem-based learning objective will help you build your course around topics and tasks that your students can relate to. Think about a real-world problem that applies to all potential students and that can be solved with new knowledge and skills learned in your course. Present the problem early and clearly. You can even try to weave it into the title of your course. 

2. Offer extra learning materials

Since prior knowledge should be activated before new knowledge can be effectively absorbed, plan to include a few reference materials to help some students catch up. 

Alternatively, design your course in a way that allows the best students to skip sections they might already know — through a quiz, for example. 

3. Use a variety of mediums

Explaining new concepts and ideas through demonstrations will significantly improve the speed at which students learn. 

Try not to repeat the same types of demonstrations over and over again. If you use text, try mixing it into a downloadable infographic or presentation. Record audio or video explanations. Schedule office hours over Zoom, etc. 

The more variety you show through your demonstrations, the faster the learning process will be.

4. Test knowledge with exercises

To make sure your students understand all the new material, create quizzes or quick practical exercises at the end of your learning modules. 

Such interactive problem-solving will help students process new information and see how it can be applied in real life. 

5. Challenge students with projects

To facilitate integrating new knowledge and real-world problem-solving, consider adding a project-based assignment to wrap up your course. 

Such projects can be independent or team-based, pre-assigned or self-initiated. The goal here is to ensure that projects are relevant to students’ needs and as many new skills as possible are being leveraged. 

Hands-on examples of Merrill’s First Principles of instruction

Now that you understand what Merrill’s Principles of Instruction are, you might wonder what specific examples of these principles can be used in online learning. 

The answer is only limited by your imagination — but here are some tips to get you started:


  • Bring up examples from experience
  • Use case studies
  • Share real-world problems


  • Quiz existing knowledge
  • Provide extra materials (for students without much knowledge on the subject matter of a course/module) 
  • Offer to skip sections (for students with a lot of knowledge on the subject matter of a course/module) 


  • Conduct experiments
  • Engage in discussions
  • Leverage multiple mediums


  • Prepare tasks and exercises
  • Create team-based assignments
  • Ask practical questions


  • Encourage students to start new projects
  • Help students identify and reach professional or personal goals


Merrill’s Principles of Instruction is a popular and successful instructional design model because it can be universally applied to any online course, regardless of the subject matter. 

It helps course builders focus on teaching how to solve a real-world problem, test existing knowledge, show potential solutions, check comprehension, and challenge students with solving something tangible on their own. 

Now that you’re equipped with a solid teaching strategy, you’re ready to start building your course. With Thinkific, you can easily create, market and sell your expertise with a single platform. Try it for free today. No coding skills required.

*Merrill, M. David. “First principles of instruction.” Educational technology research and development 50.3 (2002): 43-59.