Is Constructivism incompatible with Instructional Design?

Before looking in depth at Constructivist Learning Environments (CLEs), we need to investigate the question “Is Constructivism incompatible with Instructional Design?

Instructional Design Wordcloud

In his 2006 essay First Principles of Instruction, M. David Merrill reviewed a representative range of instructional design theories, models, and research, “from basic descriptive laws about learning to broad curriculum programs that concentrate on what is taught rather

than on how to teach” (2006b, p.1). Based on his research, the author elicited and synthesized elements common to instruction, and used these to assess the underlying principles of instruction. Merrill describes principles as “relationship[s] that [are] always true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice” (2006a, p.1).

To be considered by Merrill, the principles he studied had to be

  • Included in most of the instructional design theories reviewed
  • Promote more effective, efficient, or engaging learning
  • Supported by research
  • General, so that it applied to any delivery system or any instructional architecture (Clark 2003)
  • Design-oriented

From this set of criteria, the author identified five principles of instruction.

  1. The demonstration principle: Learning is promoted when learners observe a demonstration.
  2. The application principle: Learning is promoted when learners apply the new knowledge.
  3. The task-centered principle: Learning is promoted when learners engage in a task centered instructional strategy.
  4. The activation principle: Learning is promoted when learners activate relevant prior knowledge or experience.
  5. The integration principle: Learning is promoted when learners integrate their new knowledge into their everyday world.

1. The Demonstration Principle

Merrill asserts that principles are most appropriate for generalizable skills. These are skills that can be applied to two or more different specific situations.

A generalizable skill is represented by both information and portrayal. Information is general, inclusive, and applicable to many specific situations. Portrayal is specific, limited, and applicable to one case or a single situation. Information can be presented (tell) and recalled (ask). A portrayal can be demonstrated (show) and submitted to application (do).


He argues that the demonstration principle is most appropriate for three types of generalizable skill:

  1. concept classification (kinds-of)
  2. carrying out a procedure (how-to)
  3. predicting consequences or finding faulted conditions in the execution of a process (what-happens).

The demonstration principle emphasizes the use of specific cases (portrayal). Merrill considers that lack of sufficient demonstration is a “common problem” (p.3) in much instruction. While the demonstration principle is strongly biased towards portrayal, effective and efficient instruction involves both presentation of information and demonstration with portrayal. Table 1 shows information and portrayal modalities that are consistent for each of the three categories of generalizable skill. A presentation and demonstration must be consistent if they are to support effective, efficient and engaging learning.








Tell the definition

Recall the definition

Show several specific examples

Classify new examples


Tell the steps and their sequence

Recall the steps and their sequence

Show the procedure in several different situations

Carry out the procedure in new situations


Tell the conditions and the consequence involved in the process

Recall the conditions and the consequence involved in the process

Show the process in several different situations

Predict a consequence or find faulted conditions in new situations

Table 1 Consistent Information and Portrayal for Categories of Learning




Clark, R. C. (2003). Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement. Washington D.C., International Society for Performance Improvement.

Merrill, M. D. (1997). Instructional Strategies that Teach. CBT Solutions (Nov/Dec): 1-11. [Internet] Available from: http://mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/InstructionalStrategiesThatTeach.pdf  Accessed 24 July 2017.

Merrill, M. D. (2006a). First Principles of Instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth & A. Carr (Eds.), Instructional Design Theories and Models III (Vol. III). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Merrill, M. D. (2006b). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. In R. A. Reiser and J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology. Columbus: Ohio, Merrill Prentice Hall.