The 4C/ID-Model - A Blueprint for Complex Learning

-- Nanette Temby and Kendra Herlig

What is the 4C/ID Model? The 4C/ID-model should be used to develop training programs for complex skills (i.e. critical thinking or problem-solving) and when transfer of learning to a highly varied real-world context is the overarching learning outcome. With regard to the effectiveness of developed training programs, the most important claim is that the 4C/ID-model helps to develop training programs that lead to higher transfer performance than conventional instruction, and that this effect increases as transfer tasks differ more from the original training tasks. [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p.55]

Essentially, it boils down to the fact that “novices learn complex tasks in a very different way than they do simple tasks.” [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p.40] The 4C/ID model focuses on constructing cognitive schema in the learners. “The performance of a cognitive skill is made up by many interrelated constituent skills.” [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p.62] A blueprint of skills is created that identifies recurrent and non-recurrent skills. There are different strategies for learning each.

The Main Components of the Model:

4C/ID is aptly named as it is an instructional design model with four main components. Referred to as the Four Blueprint Components [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p.43], this model differs from more conventional ID models (i.e. ADDIE or D&C,C) with its emphasis on the acquisition of complex skills via the performance of learning tasks which are supported by information throughout the practice and then integrated with the result being whole-task learning. An advantage of this model is its flexibility when teaching complex skills that may not be learned by simply sequencing a series of less complex tasks. It also allows for feedback and support throughout the learning process.

The Four Blueprint Components appear in the diagram below and can be summarized as follows:
  1. Learning Tasks - whole-task experiences that closely replicate the required real-life tasks (or problems); organized from simple to more complex; essentially, the "performance objectives" that would demonstrate the acquisition of a complex skill
  2. Supportive Information - information that is provided as the learner works on the learning task; also organized from simple to complex to support each learning task set; includes mental models and cognitive strategies to help learners integrate new information with previous schema
  3. JIT (just-in-time) Information - prerequisite information that is necessary to perform recurrent skills in the learning task; presented at the time the learner needs it like an "an assistant looking over your shoulder" [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p. 51]; includes corrective feedback
  4. Part-task Practice - repeated practice of recurrent skills; must be presented within the context of the whole learning task


The 4C/ID Model and Learning Theories

The 4C/ID model primarily uses a constructivist approach to learning as evidenced by three of its components - Learning Tasks, Supportive Information and Part-Task Practice. To accomplish a learning task, learners in the 4C/ID model must acquire increasingly complex and realistic skills by actively constructing new schema that build upon previous experiences and knowledge. Essentially, the final learning task "represents all tasks, including the most complex ones that professionals encounter in the real world" [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002, p.45].

In addition, Supportive Information is provided throughout the learning process but learners are in control of what information they seek out - a guided discovery approach. Because the learner is at the center of the process, the instructor (whether human or computer) acts primarily as an advisor providing the needed information and feedback during Part-Task practice.

The one component of the 4C/ID model that uses a different learning theory is the JIT Information component. This component may most closely resemble a cognitivist approach as learners are directly provided with information for the completion of recurrent tasks that require a high level of automaticity. Gradually, the information is withdrawn and transfer of the information to long-term memory is the ultimate goal

Adapting the Model to Designing Electronic Instruction

“Educators must remember that technology is a tool, not an end in itself. E-learning and its successors, as much as it predecessors, will only be useful inasmuch as teachers keep foremost in mind the needs of the learners, the desired learning objectives and outcomes, and the match between instructional methods/design and those needs and objectives. Educators should resist the temptation to use technology for technology's sake and instead use these tools judiciously to enhance training.” [Cook/McDonald 2008]

In evaluating this model and its applicability to digital learning, we believe that it would be applicable in some circumstances, but not across the board for all e-learning. The 4C/ID model is not directly applicable to creating digital learning for the following reasons.

  • Due to the nature of most complex tasks, it is best to learn the tasks in an environment that is similar to that in which they will be performed. A mechanic cannot learn to adjust the timing on a car using e-learning.
  • An important part of the model is cognitive feedback for non-recurrent aspects of performance. “Well-designed feedback should stimulate learners to reflect on the quality of their personal problem-solving processes and found solutions, so that more effective mental models and cognitive strategies can be developed." [Merrienboer, Clark, Croock 2002,p.50] This level of feedback and reflection is more challenging in an electronic environment.

However, the 4C/ID model is applicable for designing e-learning in some situations.

  • The model is applicable for designing instruction that will be delivered using a blended approach. For example, e-learning activities could be used to reinforce skills that are classified in the blueprint as needing to be automated. For example, Air Traffic controllers could use an e-learning activity to learn the ICAO alphabet so that they would be able to automatically say the letter names when the letters are represented in a call sign.
  • The model would probably also be directly applicable when designing e-learning instruction for tasks that will actually be performed on the computer; for example, analyzing computer readouts and adjusting a technical program based on these results.

TERMINOLOGY and LINKS: (A little help ffor those of us who are not completely up to speed on terminology for cognitive psychology.)

  1. Constituent -- [kuhn-stich-oo-uhnt ] (adj) Serving as part of a whole; component.
  2. Elaboration -- [ i-lab-uh-rey-shuhn ] (n) Elaboration is the most basic of all memory techniques. The more meaning your are able to give to the thing-to-be-remembered the more successful you will be in recalling it later. It has been shown that it is more effective to emphasize higher-levels of meaning. For more on elaboration, click here.
  3. Induction -- [in-duhk-shuhn] (n) Logic. Any form of reasoning in which the conclusion, though supported by the premises, does not follow from them necessarily. (reference
    Inductive learning is essentially learning by example. The process itself ideally implies some method for drawing conclusions about previously unseen examples once learning is complete. For more on induction learning from University of Alberta, click here.
  4. Scaffolding -- [skaf-uhl-ding] (n) An instructional technique whereby the teacher models the desired learning strategy or task, then gradually shifts responsibility to the students. For more on Scaffolding as a learning strategy, click here.
  5. Schema -- [skee-muh] (n) (pl. schemata) an underlying organizational pattern or structure; conceptual framework. (reference The schema theory of learning was developed by R. C. Anderson. This learning theory views organized knowledge as an elaborate network of abstract mental structures which represent one's understanding of the world. For more information on the Schema theory of learning, click here.


Anderson, Terry (ed.), 2008. The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Edmonton, AB: AU Press, Athabasca University.

Cook, D. & McDonald, F. (2008) E-LEARNING: is there anything special about the "e"? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Chicago: Winter 2008. Vol. 51, Iss. 1; pg. 5.

Merrienboer, J., Clark, R., & Croock, M. (2002) Blueprints for Complex Learning: the 4C/ID-Model. Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 50, no. 2.

Merrienboer, J. & Kirschner, P, (2007) Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design. Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Merrienboer, J., Clark, R., & Croock, M. (2002) Blueprints for Complex Learning: the 4C/ID-Model. 4C-ID-Model.jpg. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from EdutechWiki website: