Sequencing of Instruction

One of the most important issues in the application of learning theory is sequencing of instruction. The order and organization of learning activities affects the way information is processed and retained (Glynn & DiVesta, 1977; Lorch & Lorch, 1985; Van Patten, Chao, & Reigeluth, 1986)

A number of theories (e.g., Bruner , Reigeluth , Scandura ) suggest a simple-to-complex sequence. The algo-heuristic theory of Landa prescribes a cumulative strategy. According to Gagne's Conditions of Learning theory , sequence is dictated by pre-requisite skills and the level of cognitive processing involved. Criterion Referenced Instruction (Mager) allows the learner the freedom to choose their own learning sequence based upon mastery of pre-requisite lessons. Component Display Theory (Merrill) also proposes that the learner select their own learning sequence based upon the instructional components available.

Theories that emphasize the goal-directed nature of behavior such as Tolman or Newell & Simon would specify that the sequence of instruction be based upon the goals/subgoals to be achieved. Gestalt theories , which emphasize understanding the structure of a subject domain, would prescribe learning activities that result in a broad rather than detailed knowledge for a particular domain.

On the other hand, behavioral (S-R) theories of learning such as Thorndike , Hull or Skinner , would tend to support a linear sequence of instruction. From the behavioral perspective, learning amounts to S-R pairings and mastery of a complex subject matter or task involves the development of a chain or repetoire of such connections. Indeed, a fundamental principle of Skinnerian programmed learning was the "shaping" of such S-R chains.

Theories of adult learning such as andragogy ( Knowles ) or minimalism ( Carroll ) emphasize the importance of adapting instruction to the experience or interests of learners. According to these theories, there is no optimal sequence of instruction apart from the learner. A similar position based upon abilities would be espoused by theories of individual differences (e.g., Guilford , Cronbach & Snow , Sternberg ) and supported by research on cognitive styles.


Glynn, S.M. & DiVesta, F.J. (1977). Outline and hierarchical organization for study and retrieval. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(1), 69-95.

Lorch, R.F. Jr., & Lorch, E.P. (1985). Topic structure representation and text recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 137-148.

Van Patten, J., Chao, C.I. & Reigeluth, C.M. (1986). A review of strategies for sequencing and synthesizing instruction. Review of Educational Research, 56(4), 437-471.