Instructional Design Models – The Pebble-in-the-Pond model

Recently, instructional design has come under attack from a variety of angles. Many instructional designers today are veering away from linear models of instructional design, such as the ADDIE, to newer ones that look at the principles of instructional design and not the procedures. Two academics, Sims and Merrill, are currently approaching instructional design through their own models.

Silber (2010) argue that instructional design (ID) is a set of principles rather than a procedure. The author explains that instructional design “is based not on a procedure/process at all, rather on the understanding of (1) a set principles and (2) a way of thinking about design problems” (p. 24). Many instructional designers use a linear procedure to solve problems. Traditional instructional design models are presented in a linear approach however instructional design problems are not solved in a clear manner. Silber argue that ID experts:

  • Do not use procedures but use a problem-solving process to solve ID problems.
  • Use the thinking process, just like designers in other fields
  • Use a mental model that is based on heuristics and a set of principles.

Two recent instructional design models that do not use the linear approach are the Pebble-in-the-Pond approach (Merrill, 2007) and the Proactive Design for Learning (PD4L) model (Sims, 2009).

Change is occurring all around us. Education is changing – from the teacher as the central driving force of learning, to the learner as the driving force. Expert instructional designers are using a set principles rather than procedures. According to Merrill (1994) Component Display Theory (CDT) explains that learning occurs through content and performance. Performance emphasis is on remembering, using and generalities. Content emphasis is on facts, concepts, procedures and principles. Effective learning occurs when more of the primary and secondary presentation forms occur. The primary presentation forms of CDT include: examples, rules, practice and recall. The secondary presentation forms of CDT include: objectives, prerequisites, mnemonics and feedback. This theory first looks at the learning and/or performance objectives are and then decide of the suitable strategy to reach the objectives. Having learning control is a strength of online learning and CDT emphasis this type of control (McLaren, 2009). The next section examines the Pebble-in-the-pond model.

The Pebble-in-the-Pond model. Merrill (2002) has demonstrated that many instructional design theories include some of the First Principles of learning. The Pebble-in-the-Pond model (Figure 1) approach to instructional design looks at having the learner involved in a real-world, problem-centered approach and has evolved from the First Principles. The Pebble model uses the content-first approach, whereas traditional instructional design approaches the content later in the process. The first step of the Pebble model is to identify real-world problems that would be used to develop content (Merrill, 2007). The second ripple determines the progression of difficulty that the learner needs to go through to determine mastery. The third ripple isolates the skill or knowledge for each of the problems. The fourth ripple establishes the instructional strategy to involve the learner in the problem. The final ripple is the interface design. The interface design includes the content and strategies that will be used to engage the students (Merrill, 2002). The online high school designer-by-assignment is involved in all the ripples, but is mostly prevalent in the last ripple – production.


Figure 1. Designer-by-assignment incorporated into the Pebble-in-the-Pond instruction development model. Adapted from “A pebble-in-the-pond model for instructional design” by D. Merrill, 2002 Performance Improvement, 41, p. 40. Copyright 2002 by Wiley. Adapted with permission.

The Pebble-in-the-Pond is a principle-based model that is different to other models, in that it incorporates the first principles of instruction. The first principles of instruction as described by Merrill (2002) are:

  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when the learner applies new knowledge.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

The Pebble-in-the-Pond approach to instructional design has task-centered and content-first instructional design procedures. Traditional instructional system development specifies objectives in the analysis phase of the design process, where as, the Pebble-in-the-Pond approach identifies real-world tasks (Merrill, 2007). Responses to the previous points can help determine if a student-centered approach is being used to solve real world problems. When thinking about the Pebble-in-the-Pond approach in terms of how online high school designers-by-assignment create learning for students, having the proper instructional designer competencies would enable the online high school designer-by-assignment to consult with the student and edit courses with respect to determining learning is student centered. The skills and competencies strengthen the teacher’s ability to real world problems, to aid student learning.


McLaren, A. (2009). Designing effective e-learning guidelines for practioners. In A. Orellana, T. Hudgins & M. Simonson (Eds.), The perfect online course: Best practices for designing and teaching. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Merrill, D. (1994). Instructional design theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology.

Merrill, D. (2002). A pebble-in-the-pond model for instructional design. Performance Improvement, 41(7), 39-44. doi:10.1002/pfi.4140410709

Merrill, M. D. (2007). The proper study of instructional design. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (2 ed., pp. 336-341). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Silber, K. (2010). A principle-based model of instructional design. In K. Silber & W. Foshay (Eds.), Handbook of improving performance in the workplace Volume one: Instructional design and training delivery (Vol. 1). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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