1.11.2 Gagne's Conditions of Learning

Learning Objectives of this Chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the notion of Gagne's Conditions of Learning
  • To understand how this idea applies to education
  • To understand its strengths and limitations
  • To understand how the notion can be linked to practices in the classroom
What are Gagne's Conditions of Learning?

Robert Gagne puts forward the notion of conditions of learning, as opposed to a theory about learning per se (Quinn, 2000). He defines learning as an alteration in an individual's capabilities or disposition which continues over a period of time that cannot be put down to the natural process of maturation (Gagne, 1985). In addition, he regards learning as the means through which individuals and groups of people acquire the skills that are necessary for them to be accepted members of society. Furthermore, Gagne believes that learning is a direct result of different human capabilities (behaviours) which are required as a result of stimulation from both the environment and the thinking processes which happen within individual learners. Quinn (2000) comments that in this model, growth is regarded as being governed by genetics, whereas learning is shaped by the environment and how an individual interacts with it.

The foundations of Gagne's work lie in the concept of Behaviourism, based on the notion that through analysing observed behaviours, the necessary components to acquire a specific skill could be identified. From his observations of individuals' learning, he concluded that the process of learning a specific skill was dependent upon previous learning which led to his assertion that instruction should comprise of logical, sequenced steps which build upon prior learning. It is through this sequence of 'building knowledge' and the mastery of each component that learning can occur.

Driscoll (2000) observes that the work conducted by Gagne extended Benjamin Bloom's, who put forward the idea that individuals learn across three separate domains - cognitive, affective and psychomotor. Bloom's taxonomy deals with the cognitive domain and was originally developed for use in universities, although it was quickly discovered by classroom teachers, researchers, administrators and curriculum planners (Anderson & Sosniak, 1994 cited in Moore and Stanley, 2010, p. 3). Moore and Stanley (2010) observe that it has become the leading model when considering critical thinking skills. Each tier builds upon the previous one, with progress only being made in terms of cognitive skills once there has been a mastery of the lower levels. Bloom considered that there were six levels - knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Each of these levels describes a particular means of thinking, although it is important to point out that each classification carries equally complex skills, making the lower end of the tier just as challenging as any of the others (Moore and Stanley, 2010).

Gagne and Driscoll (1988) state that rules enable connections to be made between instructions and/or objects and a specific type of performance - once you have learnt the rules for, for example, solving equations, learners are able to find a solution for any equation which fits those specific rules. Higher-order rules are simple rules combined together to make a more complex rule (Gagne, cited in Tuckman and Monetti, 2011, p. 491).

How does this theory apply to education/ link to teaching practice?

According to Gagne, Briggs and Wager (1992), it is important to group learning goals according to their intended outcomes. This involves deciding, during the course of planning, what is meant to be learnt and what the learner should be able to do at the end of a specific session. The setting of learning goals has become a standard part of the teaching process, in the respect that they are useful to practitioners in terms of informing their planning and being able to evaluate the success, or otherwise of a session or set of sessions. Once these instructional goals have been placed into different categories of learning outcome, appropriate, systematic planning can take place, allowing practitioners to design activities to create specific conditions which will allow learners to access skills, knowledge and attitudes. Gagne proposed a series of critical learning conditions which he regarded as vital in the learning of different outcomes:

Verbal Information

  1. Draw attention to distinctive features by variations in print or speech.
  2. Present information so that it can be made into chunks.
  3. Provide a meaningful context for effective encoding of information.
  4. Provide cues for effective recall and generalisation of information.

Intellectual Skills

  1. Call attention to distinctive features.
  2. Stay within the limits of working memory.
  3. Stimulate the recall of previously learned components' skills.
  4. Present verbal cues to the ordering or combination of components' skills.
  5. Schedule occasions for practice and spaced review.
  6. Use a variety of contexts to promote transfer.

Cognitive Strategies

  1. Describe or demonstrate strategy.
  2. Provide a variety of occasions for practice using the strategy.
  3. Provide informative feedback as to creativity or originality of the strategy or outcome.


  1. Establish an expectancy of success associated with the desired attitude.
  2. Assure student identification with an admired human model.
  3. Arrange for communication or demonstration of choice personal action.
  4. Give feedback for successful performance, or allow observation of feedback in the human model.

Motor Skills

  1. Present verbal or other guidance to cue the executive subroutine.
  2. Arrange repeated practice.
  3. Furnish immediate feedback as to the accuracy of performance.
  4. Encourage the use of mental practice.

(Gagne and Driscoll, 1988).

Conditions for Learning Verbal Information

In order for information to be meaningful it must be related to and/or based upon learners existing knowledge, which necessitates an ability within the individual to recall said material.

Conditions for Learning Intellectual Skills

It is important, just as with verbal information, that learners are not overloaded with information - these skills should be built up in incremental levels and at a speed with which all learners can cope.

Conditions for Learning Cognitive Strategies

There is debate about how to best facilitate the development of cognitive strategies, as some learners will accumulate their strategies by a trial and error method whilst others will have been taught them by others (Gagne, 1985; Gagne and Driscoll, 1988). Practitioners may remind learners to paraphrase or synthesise things that they have read or learnt and provide them with ample opportunity to practice their cognitive skills to perfect them.

Conditions for Learning Attitudes

In order for attitudes to be learnt, they must relate to related ideas and information already in the learners' psyche and they must also understand the source of the message, the situations in which these ideas might arise and how they can be applied in action. It is important to note that some attitudes can be acquired as a result of consistent reinforcement over time, which is in line with behaviourist principles.

Conditions for Learning Motor Skills

The mastery of specific motor skills is contingent upon the mastery of components skills which make up the overall performance. It is therefore important that children are provided with opportunities to understand the sequence of events, are able to practice each phase of a skill, as well as the overall skill so that it becomes semiautomatic (Driscoll, 2000).

Nine Events of Instruction

The planning of educational activities must include consideration and support for the internal processes which are necessary in facilitating learning. To facilitate learning, Gagne (1985) listed nine events of instruction which support the learning process, arguing that the majority of lessons should follow this sequence of events. According to Gagne and Driscoll (1988), if these events are utilised properly they should be effective, irrespective of whether they are delivered by a living practitioner or via a computer-based tutorial.

Event 1: Gaining Attention

The starting point for any learning process is the learner being receptive to the receipt of information. This can be achieved by practitioners calling individuals by name or calling the whole class to order so that their attention is completely focused upon them (Driscoll, 2000).

Event 2: Informing the Learning of the Objective

Practitioners are able to engage pupils far more easily if they make them aware of the learning objective/s, thus making them aware of the skills that they will have acquired at the end of the session. Sharing these objectives with the pupils will enable them to develop expectations about what is expected of them and what they are expected to learn during the course of a taught lesson (Driscoll, 2000).

Event 3: Stimulating Recall of Prior Learning

In order to contextualise learning, it is important that learners are asked to recall previously acquired knowledge on which they can build new knowledge. This can take the form of a simple Q&A or starter activity to bring the learner on task, and enable them to make the links and/or connections between specific material knowledge.

Event 4: Presenting the Stimulus

This instructional event will depend upon the skill that is to be learnt. It is critical that the stimulus presentation should focus upon the essential features of the desired outcome, in order that learners understand the nature of the learning experience (Driscoll, 2000).

Event 5: Providing Learning Guidance

As with the previous event, this will depend upon the desired learning outcome. However, this event seeks to build upon the initial entry of information into the memory of the learner to promote long-term retention by providing meaningful context.

Event 6: Eliciting Performance

The preceding five events attempt to ensure that learning has occurred. This event enables learners to demonstrate their learning to themselves, those around them and practitioners. It is the performance of a skill or required behaviour which will provide the best indication of learning having taken place.

Event 7: Providing Feedback

It is in reviewing performance alongside practitioners that learners are provided with the feedback that is essential to improving their performance. It is critical that this feedback not only informs learners whether their work is correct or not, but also provides them with indicators as to how well they have done, the areas on which they need to work and how to go about improving their overall performance (Driscoll, 2000).

Event 8: Assessing Performance

This stage of the process can only take place once learners have had sufficient opportunity to practice and refine their learning in order that a skill can be performed dependably. Most definitions of learning agree that demonstrations of skills must be retained over time to indicate acquisition of knowledge, which necessitates not only formative but summative assessment. Formative assessment is the ongoing process of evaluating learners progress, providing them with immediate feedback in order to develop their skills, whereas a summative assessment occurs at the end of a unit in order to demonstrate children's ability to perform a skill and/or particular aspect of learning (Driscoll, 2000).

Event 9: Enhancing Retention and Transfer

It is important to recognise the value of utilising various activities to enhance retention and transfer of skills as a part of previous steps (for example, starter activities to revise existing learning). Practitioners who plan things carefully can also build opportunities for learning enhancement as a part of the learning guidance phase, the performance phase, and the assessment and feedback phases.

Strengths and Limitations

Gagne's notions have both strengths and weaknesses. Many students, particularly those who have learning issues, respond to a regime of learning that has a set routine and is systematic in nature, which is clearly the case here. In essence, learners are provided with a blueprint for their learning which can instil confidence through the application. Another strength is the fact that these ideas can be adjusted to suit the needs of a variety of different learners (Active Learning Theories, n.d.). The limitations include the fact that the steps can often require a good deal of guided assistance when teaching new ideas. Where critical thinking is involved, there needs to be a good deal of guided instruction in order to avoid confusion in meeting a desired goal. This restricts the ability for learners to be creative and engage in independent exploration. In many ways, this could be seen as a less challenging or imaginative way of teaching children (Active Learning Theories, n.d.).

It is important to note that the nine events of instruction could be seen as the foundation blocks for lesson planning which are still encouraged in modern classrooms. These ideas link to strategies that practitioners could and/or should utilise in order to facilitate learning and instruct their pupils effectively - it is the challenge of the classroom teacher to move away from their direct instruction at an appropriate time, in order that pupils are able to creatively use their new-found knowledge in solving problems.

Selected bibliography

Active Learning Theories (n.d.) 'Learning Theories - Robert Gagne's 9 Events of Instruction.' Retrieved 20th June 2017 from http://activelearningtheories.weebly.com/pros--cons2.html .

Driscoll, M. P. (2000) Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Gagne, R. M. (1985) The Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction. (4th Ed) New York: CBS College Publishing

Gagne, R. M., Driscoll, M. P. (1988) Essentials of learning for instruction. (2nd Ed) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Quinn, F. M. (2000) The Principles and Practice of Nurse Education. (4th Ed) Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Ltd

Moore, B., Stanley, T. (2010) Critical Thinking and Formative Assessments. Increasing the Rigour in Your Classroom. Abingdon: Routledge

Tuckman, B. W., Monetti, D. M. (2011) Educational Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

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