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,
while following a recommended instructional sequence, namely rule-example-practice,can
be pretty deadly, but it doesn't need to be. So, what are the factors
you can think of which would decrease "deadly" and increase the probability
that someone 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 three major assumptions which are foremost in guiding my thinking
about how to engage learners in an instructional and learning dialogue:
First and foremost, it is important to create an environment
in which the learner is an active participant in the learning process
rather than a passiverecipient of information. I am sure you all recognize
this from Wittrock and Generative 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
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 this essay 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 in an advanced design for multimedia technology course of the
Merrill chapter in Jonassen, D.H. (1988), (ed) Instructional Designs for
Microcomputer Software. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. No one can deny that the
examples in the chapter, are very dated and not so innovative. Nevertheless,
the points made are very intriguing and valuable, indeed, and can stimulate
So, what's the point of Component Display Theory?
If you come away from reading Merrill's chapter with the idea that the
key to the chapter was applying Component Display Theory, in my view,
you have missed the pearls. The pearls lie in the second half of the chapter
in which he describes prescriptions for an authoring system. This half
of the chapter was origi nally published 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 guide active mental processing on the part of the student" (p. 72).
* "A second primary function of instruction is to allow
the student to engage in a task or a representation of the task which
is similar to the 'realworld' performance being taught. While engaged
in this interaction with the task the student would receive feedback concerning
the adequacy of his or her performance" (p. 84).
* Expository instruction and inquisitory instruction,
both, can be approached 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, rather than frames.
* Transaction is defined in Webster's as " a communicative
action or activity 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 which is not possible through a book... An instructional
transaction is a dynamic interaction between the program and the student
in which there is an interchange of information." (p. 71).
What type of interactions, then, comprise a transaction?
Three important criteria appear to be determinants--the degree of mental
activity, first andforemost, second is the type of response required by
the learner, and last is the type of response provided by the computer.
Each of these criteria can beviewed on a continuum of low to high interaction:
--mental activity extending from being initially curious
to composing acomplete evaluative response;
--type of learner response extending from covert to overt;
--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 some aspects of all three criteria present.
Therefore, in attempting to respond to the question of
what types of interactions would constitute a transaction, consider this
scenario--a student is asked to respond covertly (ie. did you see it?)
to some computer bell or whistle used to attract attention, with the computer
responding simply by proceeding to the next linear output in the sequence.
It seems this application of the criteria does contain some aspect of
all three criteria, butwould fall severely short of measuring up to the
attributes specified by Merrill's definition, thereby violating the spirit
of his intent. While this feels like "a necessary, but not sufficient
condition" there are three important issues brought out by this example--1)
each criteria is characterized by the lowest level of interaction; 2)
an uncertainty exists that with covert responding, 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
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 say that attracting attention would be sufficient to constitute
a communication interaction. This does not mean that a high level of communication
hasoccurred, just that there is evidence of communication. Having a student
reflect 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 transaction equation. Providing
only low levels of cognitive activity, however, translates into only low
level interaction, and therefore, would not be sufficient in a complete
transaction, unless, perhaps, the cognitive level required by the task
the student is attempting to learn is at the level of discrimination.
A better strategy would be to stimulate higher levels of mental activity
by asking the learner 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 covert responding equally as appropriate as a required overt response?
While some Iam sure will disagree, I believe very strongly that covert
responding is appropriate in instruction (including computer based instruction)
if the external 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 am not convinced that a clever designer cannot
design instruction that takes advantage of covert thinking. Does this
smack of subversion? Take for example, in computer-based instruction,
a learner must respond overtly in someway--even with covert processing,
one assumes that the learner will be pressing some key to continue. What
I am suggesting is that the learner be asked to process information at
a higher level, and then be asked only to verify their understanding through
a lower level overt res ponse. Will this work? Take for example, 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, the computer
responds by providing advice that others have noted differences, giving
a hint as to the area to explore further, and asking them to think again.
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 linear progression to new information added to a screen constitute
a sufficient condition for this criteria to qualify as one component of
This issue caused great discussion in our class. In my
view, a computer can provide the appearance of responding to different
individual inputs which vary from choosing different parts, processes
via buttons to clicking and dragging images on the screen to free response
and input. Sophisticated branching, while nice, is not a necessary condition
in any part of the transaction for this criteria 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--and putting the onus of responsibility
on the learner to evaluate his/her ownresponse, highlighting key words
in the learner's response to indicate areas of agreement 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 in previous years suggested
that by having the student's responses stored to be available to an instructor
may provide enough motivation to the learner s ohe/she will not just respond
with jibberish--one of the very real drawbacks of this approach.
2) The Assurance That the Learner Actually Mentally Processes
The problem with covert responding is that the author
cannot be certain that 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 probability that it WILL occur. Insights on how to do
this can be gleaned from Keller's ARCS model (1988) using familiarity,
human interest language and graphics,such as using personal pronouns,
and inquiry arousal. Merrill suggests rhetorical 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 complete transaction, but only if it includes higher levels of all three
criteria. What is interesting about this issue, however, is that if a
transaction contains more 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 that have been presented in my class
(perhaps they will share those this week) which require only low level
interaction, but was bothered by the fact that they didn't appear to follow
Merrill's guiding principles to the letter--and therefore could not be
considered a transaction. Taken alone, like the first example which stimulated
the identification of the issues for this discussion,low levels of interaction
are not sufficient, however, used in combination with other 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 the transaction 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 about as they view each component of a transaction. It should
be more than just reading;
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 paradigms of 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 a transaction. And I am sure many of you may
In your view, what is a transaction, and what are
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,