Intense Instructional Design – by Design

This week, I was instructed to reflect on an old video about instructional design recorded in 1989 (Yes. 30 years ago) where two of instructional design “Masters,” Robert M. Gagne´ and M. David David Merrill, described their theories. You may not be familiar with these two names. However, chances are, at some point in your life, you have received instructions underpinned by their theories.

Conditions for Learning Theory

The first speaker, Robert M. Gagne´ (1965) rose to prominence and shook the foundations of education and instruction design when his book, Conditions for Learning, was released. Gagne´ took on the Behaviorists theorists by espousing the then radical idea that humans learn within five major categories and, that since human learning is so complex, each type of learning requires a different type of instruction. For instance, Gagne´ argues:

  • To learn verbal skills, learners must be exposed to repeated practices that create new neural pathways and concept nodes;
  • To learn intellectual skills, learners must be challenged to solve “If this, then that” production exercises organized from simple to complex;
  • To learn cognitive strategies, learners must learn cues that govern the completion and generalization of simple tasks;
  • To learn motor skills, learners must be challenged to progressively execute sets of movements (sub-routines) with precise timing and repeated practice; and
  • To learn how to promote attitude change, learners must be able to incorporate models of human actions.

Gagne´ explained that these conditions for altering “human performance outcomes” may differ from one lesson to the next, but instructional designers should consider incorporating the components and condition for learning in each lesson plan (Gagne´, 1989).

Task-Centered Instructional Strategy Theory

The second speaker was a Gagne´ self-professed protégé, David Merrill (2007). David Merrill was honest by saying that he got the idea for his task-centered instructional strategy theory from Gagne´. David Merrill, however, took Gagne´ theory several steps further.

After identifying his cyclical first principles of instruction (activation, demonstration, application, and integration) and knowledge objects (entity, parts, properties, associated activities, and processes) from earlier works, David Merrill merged those concepts together to describe how “knowledge components can be sequenced together for efficient, effective, and engaging instruction” (p. 6). The result was what David Merrill called the “Pebble Model” illustrated below.

Note. Reprinted from
David Merrill, M. (2007). A task-centered instructional strategy. Journal of research on Technology in Education, 40(1), 7.

David Merrill’s model argues that the teaching the skills necessary to complete the whole tasks should be at the core of instructional design and that instructional designers should sequence learning tasks in the below order to accomplish the whole task completion objective:

  1. Identify the real-world tasks required to complete a whole project.
  2. Identify the progression or sequence of tasks;
  3. Specify the knowledge and skills required to complete each task;
  4. Specify an instructional strategy that will teach learners how to complete each task; and
  5. A learner should be able to transfer and apply new learning (p. 7)

David Merrill presented his Pebble Model again in the below diagram.

Note. Reprinted from David Merrill, M. (2007). A task-centered instructional strategy. Journal of research on Technology in Education, 40(1), 8.

David Merrill used other tables and diagrams to support his theories before explaining how he put his knowledge object of a whole task theory to the test.  David Merrill used the pebble model to create a “task-centered instructional strategy” for an entrepreneurial training course.  To increase the learning outcome, David Merrill added the below three additional progressive and relevant small business growth strategies to his pebbles model course for four entrepreneurs:

  • Additional topic components;
  • Demonstrate additional components, and
  • Repeat the strategy for additional business) (p. 18).  

The course was delivered in the workshop format and, according to the qualitative outcomes, David Merrill’s pebbles model held. Learning outcomes and learner reflections were favorable and David Merrill’s task-centered instructional strategy entrepreneurial course has been implemented in “a number of courses” (p. 19).

Jennie’s Perspective

While it might not be immediately obvious as to why I examined the work of these two theorists together, during serious reflection, I realized why my instructor wanted us to see the two masters reasoning together.

What is the common thread? Both Gagne´s conditions for learning and David Merrill’s task-centered instructional strategy?

“The Masters” approached instructional design as a strategy for improving human performance not a series of steps needed to accomplish a list of learning objectives (Interactions, n.d.)

Thanks, Gagne´ and David Merrill.

Advanced instructional design is definitely the game I plan to play!



David David Merrill, M. (2007). A task-centered instructional strategy. Journal of research on Technology in Education, 40(1), 5-22.

Gagne, R. M., & Merrill, M. D. (1989). A Conversation on Instructional Design : USU Extension : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive [Video file]. Retrieved from

Gagné, R. M., & Newell, J. M. (1970). The conditions of learning.

Interactions, A. (n.d.). Iterations: We Need More Design in Instructional Design [Video file]. Retrieved from

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