Even after his death, Robert Mills Gagné continues to be one of the most influential contributors to instructional design. His work with the US Army Air Corps was instrumental in aiding the military during World War II to screen aviation recruits effectively and efficiently. This work led to the first edition of The Conditions of Learning in 1965, of which he would revise five times throughout his career. In this seminal book that combined behavioral and cognitive psychology, information processing model, and the general systems theory, Gagné provided a format for designing effective training by correlating internal cognitive processes with that of external instructional activities. Moreover, Gagné proposed three new aspects to learning: conditions, domains, and instructional events.
His conditions of learning theory identified five major categories of learning, their correlating internal learning conditions, and nine events of instruction to address them. Gagné’s theory is based on the need to align the various types of learning with instructional events and conditions for acquisition of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other learner characteristics. His quest was to facilitate learning by analyzing the act of learning itself. For example, Gagné developed a learning hierarchy to address complex intellectual skills, in which he proposed which events should be addressed first before proceeding to the next—a sequence of instruction. He believed that simpler tasks, prerequisite skills, should be learned before advancing to more complex ones. Through his systematic analysis of instruction, he started with the overarching aspect of learning domains.
Gagné categorized learning into five learning outcomes: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes. Verbal information refers to data we store in our memory and recall as needed. Intellectual skills refer to intelligence, achievement, and problem solving abilities that make us competent. Cognitive strategies are defined as self-monitoring such as metacognition and strategizing to help us learn, think, and remember. Motor skills refer to learning capabilities that involve the mind and body. Attitudes are personal attributes and characteristics that affect how one learns, as well as their understanding of epistemology. Clearly, each of these types of learning produce different human performance outcomes; therefore, Gagné studied the behavioral and cognitive conditions for each category that led to a learning event.
Gagné’s nine events of learning provided a process for designing instruction; one that is steeped in behavioral learning theories such as providing learners with objectives, learner expectations, cueing with a stimulus (gain attention), as well as positive reinforcement (feedback). However, it also included cognitive learning processes such as scaffolding (learning guidance), enhancing retention and transfer, and the overall fact that he was correlating internal mental processes with external learning events. The nine events of learning are as follows: gain attention, inform learners of objectives, stimulate recall of prior learning, present the content, provide learning guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance, and enhance retention and transfer to the task.
In conclusion, his quest was to facilitate learning by systematically analyzing the act of learning itself. Gagné’s instructional events have been widely adopted for instructional design purposes in multiple disciplines. For example, K-12 school systems utilize his instructional events as a framework for lesson planning and evaluation. In addition, the military, who was first influenced by Gagné’s work during WWII, continues to utilize his conditions of learning theory to produce effective training. Nowadays, his nine events of learning are ubiquitous in the field of instructional design.
Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.