It’s likely that you encourage learners in your classroom to connect the material you’re covering to examples from their own lives. How do you then take it a step further and get them to think critically and apply what you’ve taught them to solve a problem? Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Guest Contributor: Erin Doppke, Senior Instructional Designer, Cengage Learning Custom Solutions

As you approach your courses for next semester, consider incorporating an instructional model on which many instructional designers rely: Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction (Merrill, 2002). Instructional designers think of Merrill’s First Principles as the activities that work to achieve learning.

M. David Merrill’s seminal article “First Principles of Instruction” was published in 2002, but it still has great relevance today. In this article, Merrill reviewed other important thinkers’ ideas for instruction, extrapolating what he considered to be the essential relationship between certain activities and a positive effect on learning. He called this relationship the “first principles of instruction.”

So what works to achieve learning, according to Merrill?

First of all, learning should start with, and be focused on, a problem. Many colleges and universities have embraced this instructional method as “problem-based learning” or “scenario-based learning.” Others call the problem a “challenge.” Whatever the terminology, the point is that there should be a point to learning—a focus that forces students to think critically and apply their learning.

Then, learning should include four activities surrounding the problem:

  1. Activation of prior experience or knowledge
  2. Demonstration of skills or knowledge
  3. Application of skills or knowledge
  4. Integration of skills or knowledge to the real world

How can you integrate Merrill’s learning into your courses?

You can apply Merrill to your course as a whole or just to a lesson or two. First, if you don’t already have one, identify a problem—think about how your subject solves problems for your students, either now or in the future. What’s in it for them? You can also “flip the classroom”: present content as a problem and engage the students in solving the problem.

Then, consider organizing your classroom activities to address all the areas identified by Merrill. You might be surprised at how easy it is to do this—you’re probably doing a lot of it already. Do you ask students to think about what they already know about your subject area? Then you’re covering #1. All you have to do is connect that knowledge to your central problem to increase its relevance. Do you have a test in your course? Then you’re already covering #2.

Application (#3) and integration (#4) are the areas that tend not to appear in many lesson plans. But they are easy to include once you have defined your problem. For application, plan out how you can guide the students to use their skill or knowledge to assess, and finally solve, the problem.

For integration, identify (or have your students identify!) ways that the students can integrate what they are learning into what they do in the real world, and invite them to do it!

:, “Instructional Design Models and Methods,” //, accessed 11/15/12.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.