Learning Theories

2 Elaboration Theory


Watch overview videoElaboration Theory (4:30)


Introduced in 1979 by Charles Reigeluth, Elaboration Theory suggests delivering instruction beginning with simple, foundational concepts followed by more detailed, specific and complex concepts. Information should be chunked and sequenced to facilitate anecdotal connection and allow learners an element of control over consumption of information so they can independently decide what information requires more elaboration or attention in order to best master and understand concepts being taught.

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – Simple and broad to complex and narrow

Beginning with a broad and wide view (zoomed out) without specific details allows foundational concepts to be discussed first. With these generalized concepts understood, learners can focus (zoom in) to more specific details and acquire richer understandings. An example could be understanding the shape of the earth before understanding gravity, rotation and revolution concepts later.

Guideline 2 – Sequencing through strategic organization

Sequencing delivery and material depending on type of information to be learned is essential. Conceptual Elaboration should be used when many related concepts are to be learned (scientific concepts). Procedural Elaboration should be used when there is order or steps to be taken to get from a means to and end (mathematical concepts). Theoretical Elaboration should be used when several concepts exist, often with a cause and effect relationship (liberal arts concepts).

Guideline 3 – Synthesize and summarize

Several times during information delivery, summarization and synthesis should be encouraged in order to foster opportunities for review and deeper understanding. Comparing prior knowledge with newly understood concepts will encourage bridges between understandings and applications for learners to elaborate on their knowledge base.

Guideline 4 – Analogies

Allow learners to identify a familiar idea or conceptual understanding and use that familiarity to help define and build into a new concept. A child with a family dog has plenty of foundational knowledge and experience to apply to adding a cat to the family and can elaborate from K9 behaviour to feline behaviour – same but different but same.

Guideline 5 – Learner control

Learners and users should have the ability to self-direct learning through activity relationships. The amount of time spent with material, number of times activities are completed and order the material is interacted with should be in control of the learner so learning can be independently determined and applied.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – Typing.com

Whether a user is learning to type or has a goal to improve typing skills, this program begins with simple, foundational exercises that develops proper use of the homeroom and finger placement and gradually works towards complex sentences, paragraphs and large blocks of text with complex punctuation.

 Example 2 – Khan Academy

Allowing complete learner control, this learning tool offers instruction on many different topics, organized by grade level and by complexity. Lessons are delivered with examples and stories, where applicable with the option for users to complete quizzes to evaluate whether concepts have been understood and mastered. Learners can skip lessons, redo lessons and move between topics, at their leisure.

Example 2 – Google Earth

Google Earth allows users to take a zoomed out look at large geographical areas. Users have control and ability to zoom in to gain understanding, information and context and zoom out again to organize and synthesize the information.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 – Website: Charles M. Reigeluth

Reigeluth has created and maintains this website that includes biographical, professional and contact information. This is a tool purposed to share theoretical vision as well as opportunities and tools for practice with other educators and institutions.

Resource 2 – Article: A Critical Review of Elaboration Theory

Article written by Brent Wilson and Peggy Cole offering a critique of Elaboration Theory.

Resource 3 – Video: What Education Could Be

Video hosted by Charles Reigeluth describing different roles and technology required to best meet the needs of current educational requirements.

Resource 4 – Graphic: Seven Treatments of Elaboration Theory

Simple graphic illustrating steps and elements of Elaboration Theory.


David, L.,  (2014, July 25). Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth). [Web page]. Learning Theories.  Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/elaboration-theory-reigeluth.html

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.

Reigeluth, C., & Stein, R. (1983). Elaboration theory. Instructional-design theories and  models: An overview of their current status, 355-381.


Alison Sprayson

Email:  alisonsprayson@gmail.com

Bio:  Post-secondary instructor with interest and focus in technology, marketing and instructional design


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E-Learning Essentials 2020 by Power Learning Solutions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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