Murky Waters: Learning and Instructional Design Theories and Models

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

CMBIZ070In a previous post, I outlined the difference between Learning Theory, Instructional Theory, and Instructional Design Model. In that post, I said that some theories/models seem to fit into multiple categories. Let’s look at a few.

Please note: Unless otherwise stated, all images were created by K.Becker. You must get permission from the author to use them.

These are all featured in my upcoming book where I connect them to video game design. In my book, I highlight 20 learning theories, 15 instructional theories, and 12 instructional design models. I grouped each set according to some common attributes. The thick grey arrows below indicate which ones appear in more than one list. I’ll talk about those.

As I’ve said before, learning theories are theories to describe how people learn, whereas instructional theories focus on how we should teach. Instructional design theory came out of synergies among learning theory, psychology, and media and communication studies. Instructional design theories are distinguished from instructional design models in that the ID theories attempt to explain what to do, whereas the instructional design models provide guidance on how to build it.

The group of instructional theories that is most often conflated with instructional design models is what I call the didactic group and may be part of the reason for the general confusion. The didactic group includes theories that provide a framework for instruction. They tend to be prescriptive in that they outline what needs to be done, often in what order, but they are still not design models in that they don’t provide the process for actually creating the designs. A few examples of the ones that fall into this category are:

gagne_nine_events_origGagné’s Nine Events

Along with Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) the work of Robert Mills Gagné ranks among the best known instructional theories in the field. It has the advantage of being straight-forward and easy to understand. His ‘nine events’ model  decomposes the elements that make up a sound lesson, and suggests an ideal ordering for them (Gagné, 1977).



Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory

Reigeluth credits Ausubel, and Bruner with laying the groundwork for his elaboration theory, where instruction should be organized in increasing order of complexity, and be both gradual, and graduated (Reigeluth, 1980). Many of the concepts identified in this model, such as the importance of selection and sequencing, instruction that progresses from simple to complex, and review strategies remain as relevant to modern teaching and instruction as ever.

merrill's_first_principlesMerrill’s 1st Principles

Merrill’s 1st Principles represents the culmination of a long and productive career in instructional theory and design. This theory synthesizes the key elements of all the other theories and models he has developed over the years and boils them down to just five fundamental elements (Merrill, 2002).

In my book, I listed this one as both a theory AND a model. I could probably have listed the others in both categories too, based on how they tend to be presented in educational technology courses, but I didn’t want to be repetitive. When this theory is used as an ID model it serves as a checklist to ensure the fundamental elements are all addressed. The other didactic theories can be used that way too. They still don’t cover the five phases that are normally considered to be requirements of an ID model.


Universal Design Model (UDM)

Most design models are variations in one way or another on what I call the ‘universal design model’ (UDM).  In contrast with instructional design (ID), most instructional theories only encompass parts two or three of the universal design model and sometimes only the second. That is, the instructional theories focus on the specification and design phases of the UDM, and instructional design models typically include all five phases.

That brings us to the learning and instructional theories. I highlight three in my book that have applications in both lists. As learning theories they are categorized as social and constructivist theories. When viewed as instructional theories I classify them as what I am calling bricolage. Bricolage is a term borrowed from architecture and art. It refers to something that is built using whatever is at hand and is used here as a category of approaches rather than as a specific design theory. The theories / models in this group are here because they are strongly influenced by what is at hand.

experiential learningSituated Learning

Jean Lave is generally credited with first describing this theory and it is a significant concept. According to Lave, learning is a function of activity, context, and culture – it is situated. Lave states that social interaction is a critical component of situated learning – participants build a “community of practice”. Newcomers or beginners start off at the periphery but eventually become encultured and can ultimately assume the role of expert through “legitimate peripheral participation .” Situated Learning (SL) is the first of two inquiry-based instructional approaches that are listed as both learning theories and instructional theories. When viewed as a learning theory SL offers a theory of the role of context and culture in learning. When viewed as an instructional theory it offers an approach to organizing instruction to facilitate learning opportunities (Lave, 1991).

Discovery Learning

0311-discovery_learningThere are now many different approaches to the basic idea behind discovery learning, which at its core is the idea that we learn by creating hypotheses about how things are and then experimenting. It is fundamental to most research in science, and is at the core of inquiry-based approaches to learning. Jerome Bruner is often credited with originating discovery learning (Bruner, 1961), but it was influenced by many, such as John Dewey (Dewey, 1916), Maria Montessori {Montessori, 1964), and even William James (James, 1915).

Discovery learning is sometimes mistaken to imply that learners should be allowed to follow their whims and learn through pure self-discovery, but that isn’t really what Bruner had intended (Mayer, 2004)

As a learning theory, it explains the learning that happens through experimentation, and as an instructional theory it lays out how we can facilitate such learning.

Activity Theory

0207-activity theoryActivity theory is not new and though its roots are elusive many have contributed to this line of thought, including Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1977), A.N. Leont’ev (Leont’ev, 1978), and A.R. Luria (Luriëiìa, 1976) in Russia. The main focus of this theory revolves around the interrelationship of the subject (the learner), the object (the goal which leads to the outcome), and the tools (both physical and conceptual) used to mediate between them. It suggests that the relationship between objects in the environment and people are mediated by culture and its rules, the community, and by labor and its roles and development.

As a learning theory, it explains how learning is affected by the interaction between the learner, the goal and the available tools, and as an instructional theory it lays out how we can organize environments to facilitate such learning.


I hope I haven’t muddied the waters any further with these explanations. If you have anything to add, feel free to comment!


Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives; the classification of educational goals (1st ed.). New York,: Longmans, Green.

Bruner, J. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21-32.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education; an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York,: Macmillan.

Gagné, R. M. (1977). The conditions of learning (3d ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

James, W. (1915). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: H. Holt.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leont’ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Luriëiìa, A. R. (1976). Cognitive development, its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?: The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First Principles of Instruction. Educational technology research and development : ETR & D, 50(3), 43-60.

Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori method (UPenn Digital Library ed.). New York,: Schocken Books.

Reigeluth, C. M., Merrill, M. D., Wilson, B. G., & Spiller, R. T. (1980). The elaboration theory of instruction: A model for sequencing and synthesizing instruction. Instructional Science, 9(3), 195 – 219.

Vygotsky, L. S., & Cole, M. (1977). Mind in society : the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge Harvard University Press.

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Murky Waters: Learning and Instructional Design Theories and Models — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Katrin! Likewise, I would like to seek your permission to use some of the information on your blog (especially those on Learning theories, instructional theories and Instructional design models) to be use as a reference for a train-the-trainer programme that I’m developing and facilitating. Looking forward to your reply.

  2. Hi Katrin! I’d like permission to use the information on this page for a workshop that I’m giving for adjunct college instructors. Thank you for considering my request!

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