Elaboration theory

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1 Definition

Elaboration theory helps users “ select and sequence content in a way that will optimize the attainment of learning goals” Reigeluth (1999a:426) quoted by Wiley (2000:37)


See also: the 4C/ID model of Merriënboer et al., Merril's first principles of instruction and component display theory

2 The model

According to Wilson and Cole (1992), Elaboration Theory's basic strategies can be summarized as follows:

  1. Organizing structure: conceptual, procedural, or theoretical
  2. Simple-to-complex sequence of lessons
  3. Within-lesson squencing:
    • For conceptually organized instruction "present the easiest, most familiar organizing concepts first"
    • For procedures, "present the steps in order of their performance"
    • For theoretically organized instruction, move from the simple to the complex.
  4. Summarizers: Content reviews at both lesson and unit levels
  5. Synthesizers, e.g. diagrams that help the learner integrate contents elements into a meaninful whole.
  6. Analogies: relate the content to learner's prior knowledge.
  7. Cognitive strategy activators: cues that can trigger cognitive strategies for appropriate processing of materials.
  8. Learner control: allow learners to exercise informed control over both content and instructional strategy.


The simplifying conditions method (SCM) is an associated design model and method of elaboration theory. It integrates initial critiques concerning previous content-structure-based sequencing methods. SCM is based on two principles: (1) finding the simplest version of the task to teach and that is still representative of the entire task (epitomizing) and (2) teaching increasingly complex version of the task (elaborating). Elaborated versions are always slightly more complex, equally or more authentic and equally or slightly less representative of the whole task.

According to Wiley (2000:38) and based on Reigluth (1999a), SCM can be summarized in the following nine steps:

  1. Prepare for the content analysis and instructional design.
  2. Identify the simplest version of the task to be taught, paying careful attention to the simplifying conditions (i.e., the conditions which make this version of the task simpler than others).
  3. Analyze the organizing content for this task. (This is called "organizing content" because different organizational strategies are presented for procedural, heuristic, and tasks containing a combination of the two).
  4. Analyze the supporting or prerequisite content.
  5. Decide the size of the individual instructional episodes. "Too big is bad ... Too small is bad" (p. 447). Appropriate size is situational, and varies depending on delivery constraints (such as time, learner ability, content difficulty, etc.) Episodes need not be of equal size.
  6. Determine within-episode sequencing of the content.
  7. Identify the next version (first elaboration) of the task.
  8. Analyze organizing content, supporting content, and determine size and within-episode sequencing of content (steps three - five) for the next version of the task.
  9. Cycle back to step seven to identify the remaining versions of the task and design the instruction for each.


3 References

  • Charles M. Reigeluth (1992). Elaborating the elaboration theory, Educational Technology Research and Development, Volume 40, Issue 3, Pages 80 - 86, DOI 10.1007/BF02296844, PDF (Access restricted).
  • Reigeluth, C. M. (1999a). The elaboration theory: Guidance for scope and sequence decisions. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory. (pp. 5-29). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Reigeluth, C. M. (1999b). What is instructional design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory. (pp. 5-29). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wiley David A. (2000). Learning object design and sequencing theory, PDF dissertation, Brigham Young University, PDF
  • Wilson, B., & Cole, P. (1992). A critical review of elaboration theory. Educational Technology Research and Development, 40(3), 63-79. PDF (Access restricted), also HTML (open access)