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TD Magazine Article

M. David Merrill

An interview with M. David Merrill, Professor Emeritus, Utah State University


Sat Feb 08 2014

M. David Merrill-91ed377cc59b8055f21b874cd58467670cd946a498183b4a947b75b8a2922746

Professor Emeritus

Utah State University


St. George, Utah

M. David Merrill is an instructional effectiveness consultant and professor emeritus at Utah State University. He currently teaches online courses at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and the University of Hawaii. Among his principle contributions in the area of instructional design are the TICCIT Authoring System, Component Display Theory, Elaboration Theory, and his book First Principles of Instruction.

What do you enjoy most about teaching and learning? What gets you up in the morning and keeps you going?

I had this burning question, which after 50 years I still have, and that is, "How do we make instruction effective, efficient, and engaging?" I've spent my entire career studying that question, one way or another. Do I think I have the answer? No, but I'm a lot closer than I was. And I've had a wonderful time for 50 years trying to figure it out, and somehow I can't quit.

When I was at Brigham Young University, there was a classic scholar there named Hugh Nibley. One of my students went into his office one day and there were bookshelves on every wall, and on the bookshelves were nothing but shoeboxes—no books, just shoeboxes. After he got through with the business he had with the professor, the student asked, "Professor Nibley, What are in all those shoeboxes?"


And Professor Nibley said, "Two things: those things I agree with and those things I don't— on five-by-eight cards." And the student said, "Well, that's everything." And he said, "Oh no, dear boy. Most things aren't worth considering."

When students come to me and say they'd like me to chair their dissertation committee, I'd say, "OK, bring me a first draft of your dissertation next week." They're usually just starting the program, and they'd say, "I have no idea what I'm going to do," and I'd respond, "Well how do I know if I can help you?"

They would say, "Oh, well, you're famous." I said, "No, no. I want to know what you're going to do because I want to know if it's something I'm interested in, if it's something I agree with or don't agree with. If not, I'm going to send you somewhere else."

For me it seems like the important thing is to know what you want to know and then spend your life trying to figure that out, which is what I've done. I have never deviated.

What projects are you currently working on?


Right now I'm starting a new book. I call it Designing Instructional Design Tools.

What we're doing right now is teaching master's degree students instructional design, but they're going out into the business world and becoming managers, but don't do instructional design.

What I think we ought to do is train instructional designers at the undergraduate level. And then, when they get into a master's program, teach the students how to supervise people who don't know how to do instruction, and how to create templates and tools that would enable these designers by assignment—to fill in the blanks, if you will, and have much more effective instruction than the "telling" kind of instruction we have now. Spray and pray is what I call most of our instruction. It's when you stand up and talk, and then ask students if they remember what you said. It's not instruction at all.

So my book will teach master's students how to do this.

How was your Pebble in the Pond approach developed?

I decided there were basically four things we can do as teachers, and these are big things. We can tell something, tell information; we can ask people to remember that information; we can show an example of how that information is applied; and we can have somebody do an application, to actually have them apply it.

After I wrote the paper in 2002 on First Principles, I kept getting letters from people saying that they were using my principles. And then I'd look at their work, and I'd say, "No, you're not." So I decided that I needed a book that describes some guidelines for using these principles and then a whole bunch of examples. So, my book presents the principles in the early chapter, and then it takes each of these principles and it says, "All right, here are some guidelines for how to do it."

How are we going to describe the content we're going to teach? I need some kind of description that cuts across all subject matters. Let's talk about five things: information about, parts of, how to, kinds of, and what happens.

So the book was, in effect, to say how we could apply these First Principles. But the Pebble in the Pond is different in that it starts with the problem. Go find a problem that, if students could solve, they would've learned what you want them to learn. Don't write an objective; that's abstract. I want concrete, I want example. That's number one.

Then, what does the student need to know to solve that problem? What are the component skills that they have to have in that problem? Analyze the problem, find out the component skills, and then teach them the component skills. And then there are other things like, how do you implement these strategies? If you say, "Show an example," what are ways you can show that example?

One thing that's popular these days is communities of learning. How do you involve students working with each other in the context of this, and how do you provide a kind of mental model for students? We have a chapter on how to provide a mental model for students, and another chapter on how to get students to interact with each other in the context of teaching these First Principles.

My next step is to say, "Let's teach people how to build shells"—templates that implement these strategies that we just talked about so that I don't have to invent the strategy every time.

One of the tenets you speak to is a task-centered approach, that learning is promoted when learners are engaged in task-centered approach. Can you talk about that?

I think that all learning takes place when you learn how to do something, when you learn how to solve a problem. It seems to me that no matter what you're teaching, the goal is to help people solve problems.

And whether it's in life, whether it's in a profession, or whether it's a hobby or a vocation, people want to learn how to do something.

I worked with a biology professor at BYU-Hawaii, a young guy just starting out. And the student results, the teacher forms that you all fill out in college, hated biology. No matter who taught it, they hated biology. The professor showed me the textbook—an 850-page book—and said, "I could not read this book in a semester and certainly would not remember very much about it if I did."

So I suggested using the problem-centered approach—Why don't you just think of this class as five or six mini-classes about a different area of biology, but find a problem or find a progression of problems in each of those areas. So, that's what he did.

By about the third and fourth week, the professor said, "I had a hard time in the second session getting people to stop because they're all sitting in their groups, arguing with each other, asking 'Can we present it to the class?'"

What's amazed you the most about the transformation in learning instruction since you first started in the field?

I don't know that I'm easily amazed. Obviously the most visible transition has been in technology. I suspect that the most sensational thing is the Internet. I can't even imagine life without it anymore.

But for me, that's always been secondary. The area that has not changed enough is the learning area.

We've learned a lot about the brain, we've learned a lot about how the brain works, but the transformation from that into how I do instruction hasn't happened much. Ironically, with all of this technology and all of the capabilities we have, we're still doing so much the same in our schools. We're still sitting in rows, facing front, listening to the teacher spray and pray.

But I'm a very optimistic person. I always see hope for the future.

We see a tremendous increase in online instruction. It can be done poorly and often is, but it can also be done very well. I find that my students, the conscientious students, love online learning. They love it for the convenience, number one, but they love it because they're not under the time pressure of getting this assignment in now and then it's done and they never come back to it.

But with the problem-centered approach, in my case you're doing something every week and you're getting feedback. I tell my students the class is never over until it's over. I said my way of grading is a way I think we get graded in life. I don't think it's a matter of where we've been; I think it's a matter of where we are.

I also very much believe in live interaction with students so I always try to do some of that as well. And with technology nowadays, you can see everybody and, you can hear everybody. It's phenomenal.

How did your miniature railroad hobby come about?

For me, it's about trying to build a miniature world. We have a number of industries. I love to build scenery. I have a very large mountain with a trestle that's about three-feet high, so the trains pass through.

Its name is significant. It's called the Ascape Tennsion & Sulphur Gulch \[say it out loud\]. I started as a kid but I got serious during a very difficult time in my career. The railroad became a let-out valve. So when I named it, I said, this is the "Ascape Tennsion," and I didn't want to use the word "hell," so I used "Sulphur Gulch."

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