Instructional Design — Ch. 2 (Smith & Ragan)

Smith & Ragan (1999). Instructional Design. New York: Wiley.

This chapter provides an overview of the philosophies and theories underlying the practice of instructional design. Includes brief descriptions of constructivism, empiricism/objectivism, pragmatism, behaviorism, information processing theory, and various developmental and instructional theories.

[*Note: Much of the following material was excerpted from the chapter…]


An educational philosophy within a larger category of philosophies that are described as “rationalism.” A rationalist philosophy is characterized by the belief that reason is the primary source of knowledge and that reality is constructed rather than discovered. Most rationalists would propose that there is not a single reality to be discovered, but that each-individual has constructed a personal reality.

A foundational tenet of constructivism is the assumption that “Knowledge is not transmitted: it is constructed.”

Some major branches:

  • Individual constructivism:
    • Knowledge is constructed from experience.
    • Learning results from a personal interpretation of knowledge.
    • Learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience.
  • Social constructivist:
    • Learning is collaborative with meaning negotiated from multiple perspectives.
    • Many instructional designers would propose that collaborative learning groups are part of a powerful instructional strategy.
    • Many designers would also concur that learning to apply the standards of viability for ideas, how these standards have changed over time, and what issues can and cannot be subjected to these standards within a particular field are excellent learning goals in many contexts.
  • Contextualism:
    • Learning should occur (or be “situated”) in realistic settings.
      • Thinking is inextricably tied to the real-life contexts to which it is applied. (“situated cognition” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989),  “authentic learning,” and “anchored instruction”(that is, instruction “anchored” in a realistic problem situation)
        (Cognition and Technology Group, 1990).
      • Certain types of problems should not be simplified for novice learners but should be presented in their full complexity early in the learning process so as to not give learners the false impression that such problems are simple and easily solved. (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1992).
    • Testing should be integrated into the task, not a separate activity. Assessment should be “authentic.”
      • Swanson, Norman, and Linn (1995) proposed that authentic assessment is synonymous with “performance assessment,” — “testing complex, ‘higher order’ knowledge and skills in the real world context in which they are actually used, generally with open-ended tasks that require substantial examinee time to complete” (p. 5).
      • Authentic assessment is generally integrated in a seamless manner with learning activities, not as a separate event.

Contributions and Limitations of Constructivism

Constructivism suggests to educators new goals to consider: recognition of the tentative nature of
knowledge, of understanding the importance of considering multiple perspectives on issues, and of the rules within a subject matter for determining what represents a viable interpretation in a field and what does not.

Three major instructional implications (Cobb, 1996):

  1. Priority should be given to the development of meaning and understanding rather than the training of behavior,
  2. Researchers and teachers should assume that students’ actions are rational given the way that they currently make sense of things, and
  3. Students’ errors and unanticipated responses should be viewed as occasions to learn about students’ understanding, (p, 56)

Constructivism has very little to offer as a theory that explains the processes that occur in the cognition that accompanies learning. Many constructivists reject the explanations of learning
cognitions offered by information processing theory, but as yet they have not proposed a substitute theory. Some constructivists’ concentration on the relationship of perception, action, and the environment might put them closer to behaviorism than would make them comfortable (Anderson, 1995).


Knowledge is acquired through experience that allows an individual to come to know a reality that is objective and singular. That is, most experience is defined as sensory experience, as opposed to any “experience” that one might obtain through a “mental life” of reconceptualization and interpretation. Empiricism is also often typified by “reductionism,” efforts to reduce complex entities to their more simple components, and “associationism,” a tendency to relate ideas if they are experienced contiguously in either space or time.

Some scholars would label any educational approach that employs experimentation and seeks to draw generalizations based upon data as empiricist. However, empiricists may also subscribe to other tenets, such as a belief in a singular and objective reality, the devaluing of mental experience, and the tabula rasa (blank slate) perspective of Locke (e.g., Driscoll, 1994).


Might be considered a “middle ground” between rationalism (constructivism) and empiricism (Driscoll, 1994). Although pragmatists, like empiricists, believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, they believe that this knowledge is interpreted through reason and is temporary and tentative. Most pragmatists are not too concerned with whether there is a common reality; such as general principles of learning that are “out there” to be discovered. Pragmatists propose that the question of whether there is a “real” reality is an unproductive question. Pragmatists suggest that knowledge in a particular field is negotiated based upon an agreement
of experts as to a common interpretation of experience (knowledge = ”truth for now”).

The noted educational philosopher John Dewey (1924) was a pragmatist; majority of psychologists, instructional designers are pragmatists.


Learning Theories

A theory is an organized set of statements that allow us to explain, predict, or control events. Theories are generally descriptive or prescriptive in nature. Instructional theories are basically prescriptive in nature.

What is meant by learning?

R. Gagne defined learning as a “change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth” (1985, p. 2). Mayer (1982) elaborated on this concept in his definition of learning: “Learning” is the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behavior due to experience. This definition has three components: (1) the duration of the change is long-term rather than short-term; (2) the locus
of the change is the content and structure of knowledge in memory or the behavior of the learner; (3) the cause of the change is the learner’s experience in the environment rather than fatigue, motivation, drugs, physical condition, or physiological intervention. (p. 1040)


The only things about learning worth studying are those that can be observed. Although behaviorists did not deny the existence of mental activity, the did not conjecture about these
thinking processes, mental states, and other unobservable phenomena. Rather, they concentrated on the observable behavior of organisms.

The principles of behaviorism in terms of classical and operant conditioning, specifically the influence of reinforcers in building stimulus-response associations, have relatively no influence on instructional design practice today. However, some of the applications of behaviorism, such as programmed instruction, have had a lasting impact. Although PI did not revolutionize education as many thought it would, its legacy has been significant. Innovations that were a part of programmed instruction include recognition that effective nonhuman mediated instruction
could be developed and that evaluation and revision of the materials through an empirical test of their effects could improve the effectiveness of instruction.

Cognitive Learning Theories

Places much more emphasis on factors within the learner and less emphasis on factors within the environment than behavioral theories. Cognitive learning theory focuses on explaining the development of cognitive structures, processes, and representations that mediate between instruction and learning. The learner is viewed as constructing meaning from instruction, rather than being a recipient of meaning residing alone within instruction (a perspective that is very compatible with a constructivist philosophy). Therefore, cognitive learning theories attempt to explain learning in terms of cognitive processes, structures, and representations that are hypothesized to operate within the learner.

Schuell (1986) credits five major ways that cognitive psychology has influenced learning theory:

  1. the view of learning as an active, constructive process
  2. the presence of high-level processes in learning
  3. the cumulative nature of learning and the corresponding role played by prior knowledge
  4. concern for the way knowledge is represented and organized in memory
  5. concern for analyzing learning tasks and performance in terms of the cognitive processes that are involved. (p. 415)

Information Processing Theory

Most current cognitive learning theorists advocate a theory (actually a set of theories) called information processing. Information-processing theories, in strong contrast to behavioral theories, describe learning as a series of transformations of information (i.e., processing) through a series of postulated structures within the brain. These structures currently are merely hypothesized and utilized to explain learning processes.

One of the most influential information processing theories is the conceptualization of “Multi-Store Models.” These models explain learning as a series of transformations of information through several types of storage or memory. Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) were the first to model a Multi-Store Model. R. Gagne’s (1974) elaboration of this model illustrates the structures and processes of information processing (see Figure 2.1). Other theories: Schema theory (Rummelhart, 1980) and Level of Processing theory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).

We receive information from our environment through our sensory receptors, our senses. The sensations are converted to electrochemical messages and sent to the brain where these impulses
are stored very briefly (approximately one quarter of a second for visual images [Sperling, 1960], slightly longer for auditory information) in a structure, or a cluster of structures, labeled the sensory register. Perceptions of many environmental stimuli enter this register, but very few receive the attention, sometimes termed selective perception, to be further processed within the brain. The unattended stimuli receive no further consideration. Our prior experience including our expectancies, values, and beliefs, influence the stimuli to which we attend.

Information to which attention has been paid passes into a sttucture called working memory. Working memory is characterized by its limited capacity (seven plus or minus two units of information [Miller, 1956]), and its short duration. There is continuous transfer of information
between long-term and working memory. Information is brought out of long-term memory into working memory (retrieval) in order to make sense out of new, incoming information. This activity is controlled by executive control processes. Not all information that enters working
memory is transferred to long-term memory. Information that we remember for more than a short period of time is transferred, or encoded, into long-term memory.

Transfer of information into long-term memory, memory that provides long-term storage of information transferred from working memory, is the most critical process of all the information processing to those who are interested in learning. A critical characteristic of information that is stored in long-term memory is that it must be meaningful. LTM is characterized by relatively unlimited capacity and permanency. Unlike working memory, long-term memory’s capacity is theoretically open-ended and its duration may last a lifetime.

Information is represented within memory in networks of propositions, ideas, or concepts that are connected with relationships (Anderson & Bower, 1973; Kintsch, 1974). The richness of these relationships and the adequacy of the organization will influence how available the stored information is for retrieval and use. In addition, some theorists believe that images may be stored as images in long-term memory (Paivio, 1971).

In addition to network-based representations, some scholars suggest a specific type of propositional networks termed schemata (the singular is schema). Schemata are data sttuctures
that represent the generic concepts, such as “face,” “restaurant,” and “burglary,” that are stored in memory and have “slots” that are filled with information related to a specific situation (Rummelhart, 1980).

Other scholars propose another type of memory representation termed mental model. Mental models are similar to schemata but in addition to the concepts and their relationships that are stored in schema, mental models contain information about task demands and task performances that are used for problem solving. Theorists suggest that leamers use a mental model representation to store information regarding how machines work or how situations are organized.

Cognitive theorists, such as Anderson (1995), suggest that a different type of knowledge (i.e., procedural knowledge) is stored and represented in a form quite different from propositions. They theorize that procedural knowledge is stored in a production, an IF-THEN
statement that connects conditions (in the IF part of the production) with actions (in the THEN part of the production).

According to Parallel Distributed Processing theory (McClelland & Rummelhart, 1988), information is represented in patterns of activation among neural elements. These basic elements are nodes that are subsymbolic; that is, they alone do not constitute a concept or rule. It is the pattern of activation among neurons that creates meaningful constructs, such as concepts and principles. Input from the environment activates the connections among nodes, making some links stronger and others weaker. So some links have stronger weights than others. (This concept of “weight of memory link” is reminiscent of the “strength of a memory trace” described earlier.) Bereiter (1991) pointed out that according to theory, all knowledge resides in weights themselves.

Information related to particular subject matter or experiences is stored in long-term memory. In addition, executive control strategies, which are cognitive or learning strategies that influence how we manipulate information, are stored in long-term memory. Also, affective memories, including expectancies regarding learning experiences, are stored there. All of these memories influence the stages of information processing. For example, our prior knowledge of a particular content, our expectancies regarding the goal and relevance of a lesson, and the strategies that we have leamed to use in approaching a particular content all influence that which we choose to “selectively attend to” in a lesson on that particular content.

Memories of relevant information are retrieved from long-term memory into working memory to allow us to understand incoming information and in order to integrate the new information with the old. In some cases, this information is simply re-coded in its enriched form and restored in longterm memory. In other cases, in addition to this re-coding and storage, people may act upon the information by speaking or writing an answer, manipulating objects, or any of a number of other physical responses. The form, organization, and sequence of the response is determined by the response generator. This information is sent to the effectors, muscles, nerves, and glands, which in tum act and affect the environment.

In contrast to the gestalt psychologists who primarily concerned themselves with the initial stages of information processing, recent cognitive learning theorists have concentrated primarily upon the later stages of information processing. Specifically, they have conjectured upon the structures and processes surrounding encoding information into long-term memory from working memory and retrieval of information from long-term memory into working memory.

In the past, a task was analyzed by noting the observable behaviors that had to be completed to do a particular task. This procedure has been greatly enriched and supplemented by attention to the mental tasks required in order to perform the observable tasks. This type of analysis is called an information-processing analysis or a cognitive task analysis.

The two aspects of evaluation-evaluation of the learners’ performance and evaluation of the instruction-are both influenced by cognitive psychology. For example, evaluation may include test forms that solicit information on the learners’ reasoning, in congruence with objectives that reflect an interest in the learners’ acquiring understanding. Evaluation of instruction, particularly of instruction that includes materials, may include the use of techniques such as “read-think-aloud” protocols (Smith & Wedman, 1988) in formative evaluation. This procedure allows the designer to obtain information about the internal processing of learners as they interact with the instruction.

Developmental Theories

Piaget proposed that (a) the sequence of stages is invariant and nonreversible; (b) learners cannot be taught key cognitive tasks until they reach a particular stage of development; ( c) stages represent qualitative changes in cognition; (d) children exhibit characteristics of each stage; and (e) global restructuring characterizes the shift from stage to stage, cutting across all domains of learning.

Research (reported in Berk, 1994; Driscoll, 1994; Slavin, 1994) suggests that these stages are not invariant, that instruction can assist learners to achieve cognitive tasks beyond their current stage, that learners do revert to earlier stages of cognition, and that stages are not global across domains (i.e., learners may operate at different stages, perhaps because of the varying prior knowledge that
learners have in different domains of knowledge).

Piaget suggested 4 major processes that lead to shifts from one cognitive stage to another (cognitive learning processes):

  • Assimilation. Cognitive processes that can fit new learning into existing cognitive structures.
  • Accommodation. Cognitive processes that modify existing cognitive structures based upon new information that will not “fit” into existing structures.
  • Disequilibrium. A cognitive state of confusion, dissonance, or discomfort when new information cannot be integrated within existing structures.
  • Equilibration. Cognitive processes that create major restructuring of knowledge to accommodate or assimilate information that caused disequilibrium.

Piaget perceived that development preceded learning. In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky (1978) proposed that learning precedes development (ZPD, scaffolding). Such a representation of learning and development are consistent with Vygotsky’s belief in the social origins of cognitive processes. Vygotsky’s theory of development is termed a sociocultural theory, as he proposed that learners and their sociocultural contexts interact, assisting learners to develop cognitions that will enable them to adapt to their environments. Vygotsky also proposed that language, which is a social action, is critical to the development of higher cognitive processes. Not surprisingly, social constructivists and contextualists find Vygotsky’s theory to be very compatible with their beliefs.

Information-Processing Developmental Theories

Case (1993), explained Piaget’s stage theory in information-processing terms. He proposed that “mental space,” a concept similar to working memory, increases during development. He suggested that this increase occurs due to three processes: brain maturation and its resulting myelinization increases processing speed; cognitive strategies become automatic; and prior knowledge becomes more extensive and better organized. He suggested that Piaget’s stages represented increasing demands on working memory and that transition from one Piagetian stage
to another results from increased working memory rather than conceptual reorganization.

In contrast to Case, Siegler (1986) proposed that it is the process of encoding that distinguishes cognitive development — it may be the learners’ limited prior knowledge that inhibits their ability to use all of the features and rules necessary to solve the problem. Contrary to Piaget, who perceived development as preceding learning, and Vygotsky, who perceived development as following learning, Case and Siegler appear to perceive learning and development as almost concurrent.

Instructional Theories

More recently, Gagne and Dick (1983) described instructional theories as follows: “Theories of instruction attempt to relate specified events comprising instruction to learning processes and learning outcomes, drawing upon knowledge generated by learning research and theory. Often instructional theories are prescriptive in the sense that they attempt to identify conditions of instruction which will optimize learning, retention, and learning transfer …. To be classified as theories, these formulations may be expected, at a minimum, to provide a rational description of causal relationships between procedures used to teach and their behavioral consequences in enhanced human performance. (p. 264)”

Exs: Bloom’s Model of Mastery Learning, Gagne’s Theory on Conditions of Learning, Reigeluth’s Elaboration Model, Collins’s Theory of Inquiry Teaching, and Keller’s ARCs Model of Motivation.

Bloom’s (1968) most influential contribution to the field of instructional design is the proposition that the “normal curve” should not be the expected model of outcomes of instruction. According to Bloom, the normal curve is what we might expect to occur without the intervention of instruction. It is what we would expect if students were to learn totally on their own, with aptitude (and, perhaps, perseverance) being the only factors influencing learning. However, instruction should foster learning. Its very purpose should be to support (or “scaffold”) learners at points where their own native aptitudes or attitudes might infringe on learning. Hence, Bloom ” contends the following: “Most students (perhaps more than 90 percent) can master what we have to teach them, and it is the task of instruction to find the means which will enable them to master the subject under consideration” (p. 51).

Bloom discussed four features of quality instruction that can promote mastery among most learners: cues (communications to the learners as to the requirements of the learning task), participation (covert or active practice), reinforcement (by teachers, peers, or other adults), and feedback/correctives. [Look up Bloom’s model of mastery learning]

An instructional system that adheres to a mastery model sets a minimum level of competence for all, or most, students. The system is developed to provide the remediation and reevaluation necessary to bring learners to this level of competence and has developed a scheme for grading that accommodates the mastery model.

One Response to “Instructional Design — Ch. 2 (Smith & Ragan)”
  1. choing says:

    is there a development model smith and ragan that has been varied to serve as a model of product development?

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