First Principles of Instruction

Some years ago, David Merrill published his “First Principles of Instruction.” It’s an important declaration, and I would encourage every instructional designer to become familiar with it. For me, the First Principles were exciting not only for their content, but also for the suggestion of how important it is for designers to remain grounded in a coherent set of core beliefs.

When I hit the point in my career where I was informing instructional strategy, it suddenly became really important to me to articulate my own core beliefs so I could orient myself to them. I still refer back to them today.

In that spirit, I present not First Principles, capital F capital P, but rather my own first principles. I’d encourage all instructional designers to do the same. What do you believe?

Principle 1: The Motivation Principle
Motivated learners will learn from any instruction, no matter the quality of the design. Unmotivated (and, especially, negatively motivated) learners can defeat even the best instruction.

Think about the lengths you will go to in order to learn more about your favorite hobbies. Not everyone has that level of passion for their careers, so it would be pretty rare to find a classroom in a professional environment where all participants are pegged to the positive end of the motivation spectrum. But learners will tend to lean more positive if they see themselves as part of a culture where they perceive a direct relationship between formal learning and professional growth.

Unfortunately, instructional designers can’t control the nature of their learners’ motivations. As much as possible, they should be aware of them, though. I would likely make different design decisions for a negative or neutral audience than I would for a positive one.

I don’t necessarily draw a distinction in this principle between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, though perhaps I should.

Principle Two: The Strategic Fit Principle
Instruction will have a greater impact on an organization if it clearly and intentionally aligns with the strategic priorities of that organization.

Being able to describe in detail how your curriculum links to the organization’s strategic priorities achieves a couple of different ends. One, your programs will receive greater support from leadership. Two, it may be possible to tap into the same metrics the firm is using to measure success of its strategic initiatives to measure the success of your learning programs (i.e., if participants in your program outscore non-participants on those key metrics, that’s evidence of the effectiveness of your program).

Principle Three: The Precise Objectives Principle
The more precise and measurable the instructional objectives for a course, the more likely the course is to meet the organization’s needs.

I’m often asked to review course materials that have objectives like “understand how to give constructive feedback” or “learn more about state and local taxation.” I’m always conflicted by vague objectives like these, particularly when written by subject matter experts and not by instructional designers. On the one hand, I don’t want to be the pedantic jerk arguing that “understand” is not measurable when no one else cares. I’m not interested in forcing expensive SME developers to spend time rewriting objectives as an academic exercise. On the other hand, I can only review materials against their stated objectives, and a lack of precision definitely hampers me. Sometimes, mushy objectives lead to interesting conversations with SME developers about their goals, and whether passing along awareness or declarative knowledge is really sufficient and what the implications are.

As a designer, taking time to get the objectives right helps ensure I really understand what I’m trying to achieve. The objectives, when well-written, provide invaluable inspiration when creating interactivity (or test items).

I actually have designed for projects where the instructional objectives were unclear, with interesting results, but as am instructional designer it’s an uncomfortable way to work.

More first principles in upcoming posts.

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One thought on “First Principles of Instruction

  1. Pingback: First Principles of Instruction, Part 2 | Engaged

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