The 4C/ID Model

four-component instructional design (4C/ID)

A basic assumption of the 4C/ID model is that educational programs for complex learning can always be described in terms of four basic components, namely (a) learning tasks, (b) supportive information, (c) procedural information, and (d) part-task practice (see Figure below). Learning tasks provide the backbone of the educational program; they provide learning from varied experiences and explicitly aim at the transfer of learning. The three other components are connected to this backbone.

Learning tasks

Learning tasks are treated as the backbone of an educational program (see the large circles in the figure). A learning task can be a case, project, professional task, problem or assignment that learners work on, and so forth. Learning tasks are preferably based on whole tasks that appeal to knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to perform tasks in one’s future profession or daily life. In addition, the tasks require carrying out both non-routine skills such as problem solving, reasoning, and decision making, as well as routine skills which are always performed in the same way. Learning tasks drive a basic learning process that is known as inductive learning – students learn while doing and by being confronted with concrete experiences.

Effective inductive learning is only possible when there is variability over learning tasks (indicated by the small triangles in the learning tasks in the figure). That is, learning tasks must be different from each other on all dimensions on which tasks in the later profession or in daily life are also different from each other. Only then, will it be possible for students to construct those cognitive schemas that generalize away from the concrete experiences; such schemas are critical for reaching transfer of learning. They represent which features of a learning task do not affect the way it should be performed (i.e., surface features) and which features do (i.e., structural features).

To prevent cognitive overload, students will typically begin working on relatively simple learning tasks (in terms of their complexity) and, as their expertise increases, work on more and more complex tasks. There are, thus, levels of complexity with equally complex tasks (see the dotted lines encompassing a set of equally complex learning tasks in the figure). At the first level, students are confronted with learning tasks based on the least complex tasks a professional might encounter; at the highest level of complexity, students are confronted with the most complex tasks a beginning professional must be able to handle, and additional levels of complexity in between enable a gradual increase of complexity over levels.

Students will often receive support and guidance when working on the learning tasks (see the filling of the large circles in the figure). When students start to work on more complex tasks, thus, progressing to a higher level of complexity, they will initially receive much support and guidance. Within each particular level of complexity, the support and guidance gradually decreases in a process known as ‘scaffolding’ – as an analogy of a scaffold that is broken down as a building is constructed. When students are able to independently perform the final learning tasks at a particular complexity level, thus without support or guidance (i.e., ‘empty’ learning tasks without any filling in the figure), they are ready to progress to a next level of complexity. There, the process of scaffolding starts again, yielding a saw-tooth pattern of support and guidance throughout the whole educational program. Support can be given through different types of learning tasks. For example, on one particular level of complexity, students can first study worked-out examples or case studies, then complete increasingly larger parts of given incomplete solutions, and only at the end fully perform the tasks by themselves. Guidance can be given by a teacher or by external aids such as process worksheets with ‘leading questions’.

Supportive information

Learning tasks typically make an appeal on both non-routine and routine skills, which are often performed simultaneously. Supportive information (indicated by the L-shaped forms in the figure) helps students with performing the non-routine aspects of learning tasks which require problem solving, reasoning, and/or decision making. This is what teachers often call ‘the theory’ (i.e., the concepts and theories underlying the tasks at hand). This supportive information is typically presented in study books, lectures, and online resources. It describes how the task domain is organized and how problems in the domain can be approached in a systematic fashion.

The organization of the task domain is represented by the learner in cognitive schemas known as mental models. In the medical domain, for example, it pertains to knowledge of symptoms of particular diseases (i.e., conceptual models – what is this?), knowledge of the structure of the human body (i.e., structural models – how is this built?), and knowledge of the working of the structures or organ systems (i.e., causal models – how does this work?). The organization of one’s own actions in the task domain is represented by the learner in cognitive schemas known as cognitive strategies. Such strategies identify the subsequent phases in a systematic problem-solving process (e.g., diagnostic phase – treatment phase – follow-up phase) as well as the heuristics that can be helpful for successfully completing each phase. Providing cognitive feedback plays an important role in this process. This feedback stimulates learners to critically compare their own mental models and cognitive strategies with those of others, including experts, teachers, and peer learners.

The supportive information is identical for all learning tasks at the same level of complexity, because these tasks appeal to the same knowledge base.It can be presented before learners start to work on the learning tasks ( ‘first the theory and only then start to practice’) and/or it can be consulted by learners who are already working on the learning tasks ( ‘only consult the theory when needed’). The supportive information allows students to perform more complex tasks that they could not previously complete.

Procedural information

Procedural information (in the figure, the beam with arrows pointing upwards to the learning tasks) helps students with performing the routine aspects of learning tasks; that is, aspects that are always performed in the same fashion. Procedural information is also called just-in-time information because it is best provided during the performance of particular learning tasks exactly when it is needed. It typically has the form of ‘how-to’ or ‘step-by-step’ instructions given to the learner by a teacher, quick reference guide, or computer program, telling how to perform the routine aspects of the task while doing it. The advantage of a teacher over most other media is that the teacher can act as an ‘assistant looking over your shoulder’ and give instructions and corrective feedback at precisely the moment it is needed by the learner to correctly perform routine aspects of the task. Procedural information for a particular routine aspect is preferably presented to the learner the first time (s)he must perform this aspect as part of a whole learning task. For subsequent tasks, the presentation of procedural information is faded because the need for it diminishes as the learner slowly masters the routine.

Procedural information is always specified at a basic level that can be understood by the lowest ability learners. Learners use how-to instructions to form cognitive rules that couple particular – cognitive – actions to particular conditions (e.g. IF you work on an electrical installation THEN first switch the circuit breakers off). After extensive practice, cognitive rules may become automated schemas that enable learners to perform routine aspects fast, errorless, and without conscious control. This is facilitated when knowledge prerequisite to the correct use of how-to instructions is presented together with those instructions (e.g., prerequisite knowledge for the presented rule is: You can find the circuit breakers in the meter box). Thus, when a learner is performing a learning task that contains routine aspects in the perceptual motor domain, a good teacher will tell the learner just-in-time what to look at and how to operate instruments and objects, and also make sure that the learner has the knowledge prerequisite to correctly following the how-to instructions.

Part-task practice

Learning tasks appeal to both non-routine and routine aspects of a complex skill or professional competency; as a rule, they provide enough practice for learning the routine aspects. Part-task practice of routine aspects (the small circles in the figure) is only needed when a very high level of automaticity is needed, and when the learning tasks do not provide the required amount of practice. Familiar examples of part-task practice are practicing the multiplication tables of 1 to 10 in primary school (in addition to whole arithmetic tasks such paying in a shop or measuring the area of a floor), practicing the musical scales when playing an instrument (in addition to whole tasks such as playing musical pieces), or practicing physical examination skills in a medical program (in addition to whole tasks such as patient intake).

It is important to start part-task-practice in a fruitful cognitive context, that is, after learners have been confronted with the routine aspect in the context of a whole, meaningful learning task. Only then will the learners understand how practicing the routine aspects help them improve their performance on the whole tasks. The procedural information specifying how to perform the routine aspect can be presented in the context of whole learning tasks, but in addition can be presented again during part-task practice (in the figure 1, see the long upward pointing arrow from procedural information to part-task practice). Part-task practice is best mixed with work on the learning tasks (intermix training), yielding a highly integrated knowledge base.

Ten Steps to Complex learning

Part of the research related to 4C/ID aims to better support designers in their application of the model. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner (2018) describe ten steps to complex learning which specify the whole design process typically employed by a designer to produce effective, efficient, and appealing programs for complex learning. The four blueprint components directly correspond with four design steps: The design of learning tasks (Step 1), of supportive information (Step 4), of procedural information (Step 7), and of part-task practice (Step 10).

  1. Design learning tasks
  2. Design assessment instruments
  3. Sequence learning tasks
  4. Design supportive information
  5. Analyze cognitive strategies
  6. Analyze mental models
  7. Design procedural information
  8. Analyze cognitive rules
  9. Analyze prerequisite knowledge
  10. Design part-task practice

The text above is an adapted excerpt from Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A. (2018). 4C/ID in the Context of Instructional Design and the Learning Sciences. In F. Fischer, C. E. Hmelo-Silver, S. R. Goldman & P. Reimann (Eds.), International Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Routledge.

For more information on the model or the Ten Steps, please consult our list of books and publications.

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