A New Framework for Teaching in the Cognitive
Domain. ERIC Digest.
by Molenda, Michael
For the past half century a central concern of instructional technologists
has been not so much the production and use of instructional materials
but rather the design of instructional systems-lessons, courses, and programs.
This shift of emphasis occurred with the advent of the programmed instruction
movement in the late 1950s when educators and instructional media specialists
came to understand that the "magic" of teaching machines was not in the
hardware but in the pedagogical design of the software. As media specialists
morphed into instructional technologists and became immersed in programmed-instruction
lesson design they found themselves in league with instructional theorists,
grappling with the issue of how to structure a lesson for maximum learning
At mid-twentieth century, the dominant framework for lesson design-the
programmed instruction format-was derived from efforts to apply operant
conditioning to human learning. Cognitive psychology soon offered an alternative
view, represented by Robert Gagne's Events of Instruction, which became
the dominant framework through the end of the twentieth century. More recent
developments suggest that a new conceptual framework, offered by M. David
Merrill, may provide an even more comprehensive synthesis of instructional
research and theory than the previous ones.
THE BEHAVIORIST MODEL
The first major influence on instructional technologists' thinking about
lesson design was B.F. Skinner's programmed instruction, which he created
to instantiate the principles of learning that he and others had discovered
in the operant conditioning laboratory (Skinner, 1954). The framework that
evolved specified six major elements: "(1) an ordered sequence of stimulus
items; (2) to each of which a student responds in some specified way; (3)
his responses being reinforced by immediate knowledge of results; (4) so
that he moves by small steps; (5) therefore making few errors and practicing
mostly correct responses; (6) from what he knows, by a process of successively
closer approximations toward what he is supposed to learn from the program"
(Schramm, 1962, p. 2).
As research and practical experience accumulated, exemplified by Lumsdaine
and Glaser (1960) and Glaser (1965), the generality of many of these principles
came into question. For example, the sequence of experiences, the nature
of the response, the timing of feedback, and the size of steps all appeared
to be contingent on various learner and learning conditions. Programmed
instruction's prescriptions were then broadened and reduced by Popham (1971)
to four principles: (1) provide relevant practice for the learner, (2)
provide knowledge of results, (3) avoid the inclusion of irrelevancies,
(4) make the material interesting (p. 171).
COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY INFLUENCE
Since the 1960s instructional design has been informed increasingly
by principles drawn from other sources, especially cognitive psychology.
Cognitive models for instruction emphasize the importance of the learners'
cognitive and affective processes in mediating the effects of instruction.
One branch of cognitive theory-information-processing theory-conceived
the human learner as a processor of information, similar to a computer.
In this view, represented by the work of Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968),
sensory inputs are selected, encoded, and stored in short-term and possibly
long-term memory. Later, well-stored information may be retrieved and used.
Another branch-assimilation theory-focused on the human learner's cognitive
structure and the processes whereby new information was integrated into
the overall structure. Ausubel (1980) described schemata as providing ideational
scaffolding, containing "slots" that can be instantiated with particular
cases. These schemata allow learners to organize information into meaningful
GAGNE'S EVENTS OF INSTRUCTION
Robert Gagne was a leading interpreter of learning theory into instructional
theory. Early editions of his influential book, Conditions of Learning
(Gagne 1965, 1977) proposed that the information-processing model of learning
could be combined with behaviorist concepts to provide a more complete
view of learning tasks. From descriptive theories of information processing
Gagne deduced prescriptive theories about instruction methods ("external
conditions of learning"). In subsequent editions he attempted to incorporate
newer research findings into an overarching template for instructional
planning. His list of nine Events of Instruction became a robust and influential
conceptual schema for lesson design: "gaining attention; informing learners
of the objective; stimulating recall of prior learning; presenting the
content; providing 'learning guidance'; eliciting performance; providing
feedback; assessing performance; enhancing retention and transfer" (Gagne
& Medsker, 1996, p. 140).
Other educational theories emphasize the importance of the ideas generated
by learners themselves. Wittrock (1974) described a view of learning and
instruction in which the "generations" performed by learners influence
the success of instruction. Generations are mental activities performed
by learners, such as summaries, pictures, analogies, and discussions. This
emphasis on learner generation characterizes another view that became prominent
in the late 1980s as constructivism, which proposes that "knowledge is
individually constructed and socially co-constructed by learners based
on their interpretations of experiences in the world" (Jonassen 1999, p.
217). Prescriptive principles from constructivism include: (1) embed learning
in complex, realistic, and relevant environments; (2) provide for social
negotiation as an integral part of learning; (3) support multiple perspectives
and the use of multiple modes of representation; (4) encourage ownership
in learning; (5) nurture self-awareness of the knowledge construction process
(Driscoll, 2000, pp. 382-383).
A NEW COMPREHENSIVE FRAMEWORK
A recent synthesis by M. David Merrill (2002) provides the most recent
comprehensive framework for design of lessons aimed primarily at cognitive
learning. It springs from an eclectic perspective and explicitly attempts
to assimilate the prescriptions of a broad array of instructional theories.
Merrill's framework, which he refers to as "First Principles of Instruction,"
proposes four phases to the instructional process: "(1) activation of prior
experience, (2) demonstration of skills, (3) application of skills, and
(4) integration of these skills into real-world activities" (Merrill, 2002)-with
all four phases revolving around a problem, as shown in Figure 1 below.
Each of these five elements has supporting generalizations, which provide
the prescriptions for effective instruction:
Problem-centered. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in
solving real-world problems. Some corollaries:
Show task: Learners are shown the tasks they will be able to do.
Task level: Learners are engaged at the problem or task level, not just
the operation or action level.
Problem progression: Learners solve a progression of problems that are
explicitly compared to one another.
Activation Phase. Learning is promoted when relevant previous experience
is activated. Some corollaries:
Previous experience: Learners are directed to recall, relate, describe,
or apply knowledge from relevant past experience that can be used as a
foundation for the new knowledge.
New experience: Learners are provided relevant experience that can be
used as a foundation for the new knowledge.
Structure: Learners are provided or encouraged to recall a structure
that can be used to organize the new knowledge.
Demonstration Phase. Learning is promoted when the instruction demonstrates
what is to be learned rather than merely telling information about what
is to be learned. Some corollaries:
Demonstration consistency: The demonstration is consistent with the
learning goal (i.e., examples for concepts, demonstrations for procedures,
visualizations for processes, and modeling for behavior).
Learner guidance: Learners are provided appropriate learner guidance
including some of the following: they are directed to relevant information,
multiple representations are used for the demonstrations, or multiple demonstrations
are explicitly compared.
Relevant media: Media play a relevant instructional role and multiple
forms of media do not compete for the attention of the learner.
Application Phase. Learning is promoted when learners are required to
use their new knowledge or skill to solve problems. Some corollaries:
Practice consistency: The practice and posttest are consistent with
the stated or implied objectives.
Diminishing coaching: Learners are guided in their problem solving by
appropriate feedback and coaching, including error detection and correction,
and when this coaching is gradually withdrawn.
Varied problems: Learners are required to solve a sequence of varied
Integration Phase. Learning is promoted when learners are encouraged
to integrate (transfer) the new knowledge or skill into their everyday
life. Some corollaries:
Watch me: Learners are given the opportunity to publicly demonstrate
their new knowledge or skill.
Reflection: Learners can reflect-on, discuss, and defend their new knowledge
Creation: Learners can create, invent, and explore new and personal
ways to use their new knowledge (Merrill, 2002, pp. 45-50).
Gagne's Events of Instruction has had a long run as the premier conceptual
framework for the design of instruction, but it may be time for a new paradigm,
one that more explicitly reflects the growing consensus that "meaning-making"
is at the heart of cognitive learning. Merrill's First Principles capture
this idea, providing essentially a new paradigm for thinking about cognitive
instruction. Time will tell whether Merrill's First Principles will supplant
Gagne's model and for how long before yet another paradigm emerges.
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