Component Display Theory (CDT)

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 28 May 2017


See also ADDIE model | Behaviourism | Constructivism | Instructional design models | Teaching library users | Transformative learning

Component display theory is a form of instruction that looks at components of the teaching process, at a microlevel, especially single ideas and methods for teaching small sections or chunks. The theory stands as a contrast with Reigeluth's Elaboration Theory which can be conceived as a macrolearning design system. According to Merrill, learning has two dimensions: content and performance. Content encompasses facts, concepts, procedures and principles. Performance consists of memory, utilization, generalizing.

CDT is an analytical framework that can be used to identify components of instruction to achieve instructional goals. As such, it describes instructional strategies in terms of components: primary and secondary presentation forms and interdisplay relationships. The underlying principle of the theory is based on Gagné's Conditions of Learning (1965, 1985). As Gagné said, different kinds of learning outcomes require unique conditions. CDT extends Gagne's classification by separating content types from performance. Content and performance are two dimensions that are typically used to classify learning. Another way to consider content and performance is, in order for librarians to teach online searching, they first need to know how to search a database for themselves. The performance of that skill (and its teaching) is separate.

A taxonomy of presentation types

Component display theory provides a detailed taxonomy of presentation types and prescriptions for different kinds of learning outcomes. The prescribed conditions for learning are described in terms of different types of presentation, practice and learner guidance. There are four primary presentation forms: rules (expository presentation of a generality), examples (expository presentation of instances), recall (inquisitory generality) and practice (inquisitory instance). The secondary presentation forms include: prerequisites, objectives, helps, mnemonics and feedback. It's a good idea for librarian instructors to understand that a progressive use of these tools will help learners acquire the skills and knowledge that we are trying to teach them in the workshop.

The limitations of CDT

Merrill described a number of limitations of CDT (Merrill, Li, & Jones, 1991):

  • Content analysis can seem to focus on components of instruction not integrated them into a larger whole
  • There are limited or no prescriptions for knowledge acquisition
  • Prescriptions for course organization strategies can seem superficial
  • Theories such as CDT can seem to be closed; its principles can seem to be based on subsets of available knowledge, but it may not account for or be able to accommodate new knowledge as it presented
  • In CDT, each phase of instructional development is performed independently, and provide no real means for integration or sharing
  • The resulting instruction teaches components but not integrated knowledge or competencies
  • The resulting instruction is often passive rather than interactive
  • These theories are inefficient to use because instructional designers must build every presentation from fundamental components

While CDT provides a systematic way of dissecting instructional material and matching various components to instructional methods, there is a danger of paralysis through analysis. Instructional designers should be aware that the flow of courses and how components make up the whole bind together. Instructors should allow learners to observe and reflect on relationships between components; i.e., learners should be able to identify the big picture and relate learning back to real-world problems.


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