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The two most important steps to take if you want to sequence learning and teaching

Elaboration is a core teaching and instructional design strategy. At its most basic level, elaboration involves connecting new knowledge and/or skills to prior knowledge and/or skills.

The Elaboration Theory of Instruction or ETI is the brainchild of researchers, Reigeluth and Stein.

Although this piece of research was published in 1983, there is much that remains important when it comes to designing curriculum experiences.

There are seven components of ETI:

1. The elaborative sequence

2. Learning pre-requisite sequence

3. Summary

4. Synthesis

5. Analogies

6. Cognitive strategies

7. Learner control

I am going to focus on the first two components: the elaborative sequences and the learning pre-requisite sequences because I want to address the initial stages of learning design.

One of the fundamental concerns of ETI is that the learner must be aware of the context and importance of different ideas being taught.

This may seem obvious, and yet this can be overlooked in the haste to create lessons, ticking off the non-negotiable knowledge and skills.

Taking a pause to get these first two steps clear and embedded will pay dividends for both the teacher and learner in terms of clarity, expectation, motivation and application.

The epitomising stage

The first step in the elaborative sequence is to present a few ideas that will be taught in the course.

These ideas epitomise rather than summarise the ideas. These ideas will be concrete as opposed to abstract.

Imagine you are going to be teaching a course on the human skeleton to a class of 13-year olds.

If you could only teach one or two concepts that were essential to understanding the human skeleton, what would you include?

These concepts should convey the essence of the overall course.

This is what Reigeluth and Stein label as ‘organising content’. This is where the teacher would take a bigger picture view of the course as a whole. This could be described as ‘zooming out’ where the teacher gains a wide-angle view of the topic at hand.

Organising content (concept): The human skeleton
  • Main Idea #1: the internal skeleton that serves as a framework for the body so it can move.

  • Main Idea #2: the skeleton protects vital internal organs.

The teacher would then ‘zoom in’ to the bigger picture and identify its smaller component parts.

This is where the teacher outlines the learning prerequisites to their learners (Robert Gagné, 1968 & 1977).

The learning pre-requisites are the critical components of the bigger picture; the knowledge or skills that are essential to acquire new knowledge or skills. You can see that for the human skeleton course, this could be:

Supporting content (learning pre-requisites)– blood cells, calcium, bone marrow, cartilage, tendons, muscles, synovial joints, fixed joints, slightly moveable joints.

This content supports the knowledge and understanding of how the human skeleton works, its function and composition and is essential learning to understand the bigger picture of the human skeleton.

The next step for the teacher is to ‘zoom out’ and consider with their learners how the individual components of the supporting content relate to the bigger picture.

The teacher can provide concrete examples and applications to real-world issues. In the context of the human skeleton course, these examples could be X-ray images showing specific bones or perhaps the learners moving their own bodies, where appropriate, to identify their joints.

Reigeluth and Stein point to three different types of content: concepts (as shown above), procedures and principles.

These can be present in the same course either simultaneously or concurrently.


They define concepts as including a set of objects, events, and symbols that have certain characteristics in common. To know a concept, a learner would be able to identify, recognise, classify or describe what something is.


Procedures are a set of actions that are intended to achieve an end. In short this is ‘knowing how to do something’.


Principles are identified as a change relationship. This can be a hypothesis, proposition, rule or law. Principles as content describe causes and effects, either by identifying what will happen because of a given change (the effect) or why something happens (the cause).

Here are a few examples:

An A level History course:

Organising content (concept): The Russian Revolution, October 1917

Main Idea #1: the revolution marked the end of 300 years of Romanov rule and the rise of Lenin

Main Idea #2: the debate surrounding the nature of the revolution: popular uprising or coup d’état?

Supporting content (learning pre-requisites)– autocracy, revolution, communism, Soviets, World War One, Bolshevism, the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, General Kornilov, the July Days, Revisionist historians, Soviet school of thought and the ‘cold warriors’, historiography and interpretation.

Concrete examples: the writings of Karl Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Eisenstein’s film, October.

Links to real-world issues: current absolute monarchies and their features. The Arab Spring.

A Home Economics lesson:

Organising content (procedures): How to bake a cake

Main Idea #1: Preheat the oven to 355 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a jelly roll pan. Line it with parchment paper and grease the paper.

Main Idea #2: Beat 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy. Add 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoons flour, butter, lukewarm water, and baking powder; beat until well combined.

Main Idea #3: Beat egg whites and salt in a glass, metal, or ceramic bowl until stiff. Transfer 1/3 of the whites to the cake batter and gently fold in. Repeat with remaining whites. Spoon batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

Main Idea #4: Bake in the preheated oven until it springs back when pressed gently in the middle, about 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit in the pan for 3 minutes, before carefully turning the cake out onto a large piece of parchment paper. Roll the parchment and cake from one short end to the other and let cool.

Supporting content (learning pre-requisites)– measuring skills, folding and beating techniques, timing.

Concrete examples: images from Pinterest. Demonstration.

Links to real-world issues: Baking on a budget.

Recipe source:

An A Level Politics lesson:

Organising content (principles): The social contract theory

Main Idea #1: People live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behaviour.

Main Idea #2: Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it.

Supporting content (learning pre-requisites):Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, social norms, conventions, expectations, natural rights, English Civil War, French Revolution, obligations, morality, contract.

Concrete examples: the writings of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, UK laws, conventions and common law.

Links to real-world issues: China’s Social Credit System. UK Constitutional arrangements and the protection of civil liberties as seen through specific Supreme Court rulings.

Free Planning Tool

I use this basic planning tool to help me plan the learning and teaching I will deliver in all of my courses. I find it helps keep my content delivery focussed and meaningful. Access the free, editable Canva template here.

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