Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth)

Summary: Elaboration theory is an instructional design theory that argues that content to be learned should be organized from simple to complex order, while providing a meaningful context in which subsequent ideas can be integrated.

Originators: Charles Reigeluth (Indiana University) and his colleagues in the late 1970s.

Key Terms: conceptual elaboration sequence, theoretical elaboration sequence, simplifying conditions sequence

Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth)

The paradigm shift from teacher-centric instruction to learner-centered instruction has caused “new needs for ways to sequence instruction” [1]. Charles Reigeluth of Indiana University posited Elaboration Theory, an instructional design model that aims to help select and sequence content in a way that will optimize attainment of learning goals[2]. Proponents feel the use of motivators, analogies, summaries and syntheses leads to effective learning. While the theory does not address primarily affective content, it is intended for medium to complex kinds of cognitive and psychomotor learning.

According to Reigeluth (1999), Elaboration Theory has the following values:

  • It values a sequence of instruction that is as holistic as possible, to foster meaning-making and motivation
  • It allows learners to make many scope and sequence decisions on their own during the learning process
  • It is an approach that facilitates rapid prototyping in the instructional development process
  • It integrates viable approaches to scope and sequence into a coherent design theory

There are three major approaches: (1) Conceptual Elaboration Sequence (used when there are many related concepts to be learned), (2) Theoretical Elaboration Sequence (used when there are many related principles to be learned), and (3) Simplifying Conditions Sequence (used when a task of at least moderate complexity is to be learned).

The simplest version of the concept, principle or task should be taught first. Teach broader, more inclusive concepts, principles, or tasks before the narrower, more detailed ones that elaborate upon them. One should use either a topical or a spiral approach to this elaboration. Teach “supporting” content such as principles, procedures, information, higher-order thinking skills, or attitudes together with the concepts to which they are most closely related. Group concepts, principles, or steps and their supporting content into “learning episodes” of a useful size (not too small or large). Finally, allow students to choose which concepts, principles, or versions of the task to elaborate upon or learn first (or next).


Some scholars have offered various criticisms of Elaboration Theory. For example, there is no prescription for providing “authentic” or “situated” learning. Also, the use of three primary structures (i.e. conceptual, procedural, and theoretical) is a design constraint. As conceptual structures are sequenced from the most general category down to the most detailed subcategory, elaboration theory does not accommodate learners’ prior knowledge.

For more information, see:


  1. Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). The elaboration theory: Guidance for scope and sequence decisions. Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, 2, 425-453.
  2. Reigeluth, C., & Stein, R. (1983). Elaboration theory. Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status, 335-381.

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