Instructional Technology Research Online

InstructionalTransactions in CBI--

A Discussion and Application of Merrill's Definition

Discussion led by Dr. Barbara Grabowski, Penn State University

 Like some research papers(??!), computer-based instruction, whilefollowing a recommended instructional sequence, namely rule-example-practice,can be pretty deadly, but it doesn't need to be. So, what are the factors youcan think of which w ould decrease "deadly" and increase the probability thatsomeone would first attend to, and then interact with information on thescreen? What comes to mind? flashing bullets? animation? humor? novelstories embedded to cause dissonance? Others? Most often, the response to thisquestion is some kind of on-screen computer-generated action. In fact two bigreasons why this response is given, in my view, is that too much time is spentworrying about what the screen is going to look like and not enough time onwhat the message says. Too much time is spent on trying to make the computer dofancy things, and not enough time on how to coax the learner into thinking anddoing.

 Besides many tenets which guide instructional design, there are threemajor assumptions which are foremost in guiding my thinking about how to engagelearners in an instructional and learning dialogue:

 First and foremost, it is important to create an environment in which thelearner is an active participant in the learning process rather than a passiverecipient of information. I am sure you all recognize this from Wittrock andGenerative Learning Theory. Second, the external requirements of theinstruction must match the internal conditions of learning. Again, yourecognize that from Gagne. Third, from principles of good message design,we must not only be aware of how we structure the physical form of the message(i.e. layout, white space, font size, visuals, graphics) to gain and sustainattention, but also of how we compose the message to stimulate cognitiveactivity.

The purpose of this discussion is to examine the model presented by onerespected researcher in the field for advice on how to address the issue ofcreating engaging, motivational instruction which follows the above assumptionsabout learning--namely that of Transactions ala Merrill. My purpose in thisessay is not to present an expository article on the points brought out by him,but rather to engage you in a discussion of those points as they are translatedinto non-deadly computer based instruction. After all, electronic discussionsshould be transactive and motivational, too?

 The topic for this essay was stimulated by a current class discussion inan advanced design for multimedia technology course of the Merrill chapter inJonassen, D.H. (1988), (ed) Instructional Designs for Microcomputer Software.Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. No one can deny that the examples in the chapter, arevery dated and not so innovative. Nevertheless, the points made are veryintriguing and valuable, indeed, and can stimulate innovative thought.

 So, what's the point of Component Display Theory? If you come away fromreading Merrill's chapter with the idea that the key to the chapter wasapplying Component Display Theory, in my view, you have missed the pearls. Thepearls lie in the second half of the chapter in which he describesprescriptions for an authoring system. This half of the chapter was origi nallypublished in a prior document in the Journal of Computer-Based Instruction(1987) and then reprinted in Merrill's definitive work (1994), InstructionalDesign Theory.

 Let me first summarize the pearls of wisdom, then offer interpretation,and application:

* "One of the primary functions of instruction is to promote and guideactive mental processing on the part of the student" (p. 72).

* "A second primary function of instruction is to allow the student toengage in a task or a representation of the task which is similar to the 'realworld' performance being taught. While engaged in this interaction with thetask the student would receive feedback concerning the adequacy of his or herperformance" (p. 84).

* Expository instruction and inquisitory instruction, both, can beapproached transactively. (Some might argue that transactions are onlyappropriate for inquisitory instruction-- but herein lies the reason for thisdiscussion--how does one make expository instruction--rule, example, practice--tra nsactive???)

* Authors of computer-based instruction should develop transactions, ratherthan frames.

* Transaction is defined in Webster's as " a communicative action oractivity involving two parties or two things reciprocally affecting orinfluencing each other (p. 71).

* Merrill's applied definition of a transaction, therefore, is "the mutual,dynamic, real-time give and take which is possible through a computer and whichis not possible through a book... An instructional transaction is a dynamicinteraction between the program and the student in which there is aninterchange of information." (p. 71).

 What type of interactions, then, comprise a transaction? Three importantcriteria appear to be determinants--the degree of mental activity, first andforemost, second is the type of response required by the learner, and last isthe type of response provided by the computer. Each of these criteria can beviewed on a continuum of low to high interacti on:

--mental activity extending from being initially curious to composing acomplete evaluative response;

--type of learner response extending from covert to overt; and

--computer response extending from the appearance of the next output ofinformation from a linear path to an output that is fully dependent upondifferent learner inputs.

To be completely in line with this definition, a transaction must have someaspects of all three criteria present.

 Therefore, in attempting to respond to the question of what types ofinteractions would constitute a transaction, consider this scenario--a studentis asked to respond covertly (ie. did you see it?) to some computer bell orwhistle used to attract attention, with the computer responding simply byproceeding to the next linear output in the sequence. It seems thisapplication of the criteria does contain some aspect of all three criteria, butwould fall severely short of measuring up to the attributes specified byMerrill's definition, thereby violating the sp irit of his intent. While thisfeels like "a necessary, but not sufficient condition" there are threeimportant issues brought out by this example--1) each criteria is characterizedby the lowest level of interaction; 2) an uncertainty exists that with covertresponding, the learner actually mentally processes the information, and 3)this transaction contains only one interaction. (What other issues can yousee?)

Each Criteria Characterized by the Lowest Level or Type ofInteraction--

Criteria 1: Level of Mental Activity

 Is attracting attention a sufficient level of mental activity to beincluded in an instructional transaction? Anderson and Meyer (1988) would saythat attracting attention would be sufficient to constitute a communicationinteraction. This does not mean that a high level of communication hasoccurred, just that there is evidence of communication. Having a studentreflect on the issue at hand at any level--from focusing attention (initialcuriosity), through coding, organization, integration, translation, orevaluation-- constitutes an extremely necessary part of the transactionequation. Providing only low levels of cognitive activity, however, translatesinto only low level interaction, and therefore, would not be sufficient in acomplete transaction, unless, perhaps, the cognitive level required by the taskthe student is attempting to learn is at the level of discrimination. A betterstrategy would be to stimulate higher levels of mental activity by asking thelearner to think about an example, note similarities or differences, summarize,create an analogy, rearrange information, generate an application, etc.

Criteria 2: Type of Learner Response

 Given that all levels of mental activity are appropriate, is covertresponding equally as appropriate as a required overt response? While some Iam sure will disagree, I believe very strongly that covert responding isappropriate in instruction (including computer b ased instruction) if theexternal conditions stimulate some level of mental activity (see the abovesection for a discussion of level of mental activity). Perhaps an appropriatestrategy would be to attract attention through covert responses and maintainattention by requiring overt responses. However, I like to think beyond that.While it is impossible for the computer to respond to a learner's thoughts thatare not directly converted into action (is that next year's computer?), I amnot convinced that a clever designer cannot design instruction that takesadvantage of covert thinking. Does this smack of subversion? Take forexample, in computer-based instruction, a learner must respond overtly in someway--even with covert processing, one assumes that the learner will be pressingsome key to continue. What I am suggesting is that the learner be asked toprocess information at a higher level, and then be asked only to verify theirunderstanding through a lower level overt res ponse. Will this work? Take forexample, the learner is asked to compare and contrast two images on the screen.They are asked if they noted any differences--yes or no. If they say no, thecomputer responds by providing advice that others have noted differences,giving a hint as to the area to explore further, and asking them to thinkagain. OR, they are then not asked to type in anything substantial, but ratherasked to click on the areas of discrepancy. This is a think "off line,"respond on-line strategy. What other strategies can you think of?

Criteria 3: Type of Computer Response

 There are three questions/issues to consider here:

 1) Does a computer response to learner input consisting of a linearprogression to new information added to a screen constitute a sufficientcondition for this criteria to qualify as one component of a transaction?

This issue caused great discussion in our class. In my view, a computer canprovide the appearance of responding to different individual inputs which varyfrom choosing different parts, processes via buttons to clicking and draggingimages on the screen to free response and input. Sophisticated branching, whilenice, is not a necessary condition in any part of the transaction for thiscriteria to be met. But, herein lies the challenge for creative thinkers,designers, and programmers. I believe that there are strategies that we canuse to judge free response...such as, providing a bank of expert responses--andputting the onus of responsibility on the learner to evaluate his/her ownresponse, highlighting key words in the learner's response to indicate areas ofagreement with an "expert"; by having the learner use the graphical userinterface to draw a graphic on which the "correct" answer could be overlaid.This is an area for rich discussion over the next week. One student inprevious years suggested that by having the student's responses stored to beavailable to an instructor may provide enough motivation to the learner sohe/she will not just respond with jibberish--one of the very real drawbacks ofthis approach.

2) The Assurance That the Learner Actually Mentally Processes the Information

 The problem with covert responding is that the author cannot be certainthat mental activity is occurring. The only way around this is to first createa situation in which it CAN occur, and then try to maximize the probabilitythat it WILL occur. Insights on how to do this can be gleaned from Keller'sARCS model (1988) using familiarity, human interest language and graphics,such as using personal pronouns, and inquiry arousal. Merrill suggestsrhetorical questions, attention focusing information, and experientialpresentations.

3) Can One Interaction Constitute the Compete Transaction?.

 My view on this issue is that one interaction can constitute a completetransaction, but only if it includes higher levels of all three criteria. Whatis interesting about this issue, however, is that if a transaction containsmore that one intera ction, then the designer is freer to use all the levels ofthe three criteria-- low and high--just as long as higher levels of interactionare included. In fact, I have been very impressed with some of the ideas thathave been presented in my class (perhaps they will share those this week) whichrequire only low level interaction, but was bothered by the fact that theydidn't appear to follow Merrill's guiding principles to the letter--andtherefore could not be considered a transaction. Taken alone, like the firstexample which stimulated the identification of the issues for this discussion,low levels of interaction are not sufficient, however, used in combination withother interactions, they would be.

 To sum up this analysis, I would conclude that to meet the conditions of atransaction, all levels of each criteria can be present, and some inclusion ofthe activities from the extreme right side must be present. Therefore,evaluating the value of a transaction can only be done by evaluating thetransaction as a whole, rather than by discrete segments of the transaction.

Some final thoughts:

 There are three conditions required in a transaction:

 1)mental activity--providing a focus on WHAT the learner is thinking aboutas they view each component of a transaction. It should be more than justreading;

 2)response level--If an overt response is not possible all the time,require covert responses; and

 3)the computer must respond to different learner input in different ways(broadly defined!). I like to advise my students to break out of old paradigmsof thinking about the best way to design instruction. The key is that if you(the computer) is telling them, and not guiding them, it is not a transaction.A performance support system, therefore, would not be classified as atransaction. And I am sure many of you may disagree!

 In your view, what is a transaction, and what are some examples?


Ande rson, J.A. & Meyer, T.P. (1988). Mediated Communication: A SocialAction Perspective. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Gagne, R., Briggs, L. & Wager, W.W. (1992). Principles of InstructionalDesign, 4th ed.. Fort Worth: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Keller, J. M. (1988). Use of the ARCS Motivation Model in Courseware Design. InD.H. Jonassen, ed. Instructional Designs for Microcomputer Courseware.Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Merrill, M.D. (1987). Prescriptions for an Authoring System. Journal ofComputer-Based Instruction, 14(1), 1-8.

Merrill, M.D. (1988) Applying Component Display Theory to the Design ofCourseware. In D.H. Jonassen, ed. Instructional Designs for MicrocomputerCourseware. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Merrill, M.D. (1994). Instructional Design Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Educational Technology Publications.

Wittrock, M. (1974). Learning as a Generative Activity. EducationalPsychologist, 11. 87-95.

Particular thanks are extended to my design class for their insights andchallenges in this discussion--David Birdwell, Shelley Canright, Mark DiRocco,Al Folsom, Chih-Chiah Hsu, Roland Isnor, Glenn Johnson, Yi Jung, Ed Kleinman,Marilyn Lake-Del Angelo, Chih-ming Lee, Marina Samouilova.

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