Using Instructional Learning Theory as an Approach to Content Development

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Many learning theories have arisen out of psychology and the study of human behavior, including how we learn, how we process and store information and interact with our environment.

Robert Gagne proposed this theory and established five major learning categories, namely:

  • Verbal information;
  • Intellectual skills;
  • Cognitive strategies;
  • Motor skills; and,
  • Attitudes.

In the theory, Gagne postulated each learning category needed a different instruction method for the student to acquire and learn the content. For example, learning new cognitive strategies and attitudes required different approaches as the former requires opportunities for the learner to practice developing solutions for problems, while the latter needs the student exposed to, and ideally interacting with, a credible role model and persuasive arguments.

Gagne’s Theory has been applied to instructional design in all domains, although the focus is on intellectual skills. During the initial application of his theory, Gagne primarily focused on military instruction. Later applications focused on designing general instruction and the use of instructional technology.

Gagne proposed nine instructional events needed to facilitate learning. however, he also presented the concept that all nine may not be needed in all situations, depending upon the specific learning category involved. Let’s first consider the nine steps.

  • Gaining attention — pique the learner’s interest. We need to get them curious about the topic being presented. If the learner is curious, they will naturally want to know more about the topic.
  • Informing learners of objectives — discuss what will be taught. The adage “tell them what you are going to teach them; teach them, and then tell them what they learned” comes to mind here. The idea is to set in motion what material you will be covering.
  • Stimulating recall of prior learning — ask questions to call upon what they already know. Many topics are related in some way to information and experiences the learner already has. This approach of building on prior knowledge helps learners form relationships between the known information and what they are about to learn, making it easier to associate and recall later.
  • Presenting the stimulus — teach the lesson. This is where we convey the information we are covering to the learners.
  • Providing learning guidance — allow teacher-facilitated student practice. As teachers, we can ask questions to elicit the application of the material just presented. This helps with association and recall, and integration with prior knowledge.
  • Eliciting performance — have learners complete a task on what was taught. Assignments of various natures help the learner apply the new knowledge and reinforce learning.
  • Providing feedback — let the learner know how they did on the task. Review the learner’s progress on completing the task so they can improve.
  • Assessing performance — evaluate learners on their knowledge of what was taught. Grades and other evaluation techniques are used to gauge the effectiveness of the learning process.
  • Enhancing retention and transfer — provide activity to help learners remember what was taught. Often this involves some sort of assignment or evaluation soon after the information was presented. Often the information is very “fresh” and the students can easily recall it, however, sometime later they have difficulty remembering it, suggesting the information was not learned.

This begs the question then, “how do we apply these to a learning situation”? Gagne provided some good examples in this 1985 book, “The Conditions of Learning”. The following examples are taken from the book. Not all of the conditions are presented. If you which to know more, you can check out the book, or review the conditions at My eCoach.

Learning Category: Motor Skills Example: Executing performances involving the use muscles, e.g., doing a triple somersault dive off the high board.
Critical Learning Conditions: 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.

Learning Category: Intellectual Skills Example: Discriminations: Distinguishing objects, features, or symbols, e.g., hearing different pitches played on a musical instrument. Concrete Concepts: Identifying classes of concrete objects, features, or events, e.g., picking out all the green M&Ms from the candy jar. Defined Concepts: classifying new examples of events or ideas by their definition, e.g., noting “she sells seashells” as alliteration Rules: Applying a single relationship to solve a class of problems, e.g., calculating the earned run averages (ERA) of the Atlanta Braves. Higher-Order Rules: Applying a new combination of rules to solve a complex problem, e.g., generating a balanced budget for a state organization. Critical Learning Conditions: 1. Call attention to distinctive features. 2. Stay within the limits of working memory. 3. Stimulate the recall of previously learned component skills. 4. Present verbal cues to the ordering or combination of component skills. 5. Schedule occasions for practice and spaced review. 6. Use a variety of contexts to promote transfer.

In these two examples, we can see the nine steps are not evenly applied in all situations. This itself is not a problem, because we need to be aware of the content and context to identify the best approach to teaching the content so a student can learn it.

There are four principles to this theory. 1. Different instruction is required for different learning outcomes. Not all learning outcomes, nor learners for that matter, are created equal. We need to consider alternative strategies based upon the content and the learner. 2. Events of learning operate on the learner in ways that constitute the conditions of learning. 3. The specific operations that constitute instructional events are different for each different type of learning outcome. We have seen already in two brief examples, how the conditions of learning can vary based upon the content. Another example is presented later in this article. 4. Learning hierarchies define what intellectual skills are to be learned and a sequence of instruction.

Indeed, if we look at the application of the nine steps and the different learning categories, there can be different steps required for each category as Gagne proposed in his book, “The Conditions of Learning”.

If the conditions for learning can be different for each learning outcome, how do we as instructors adapt?

Based upon the desired learning outcomes and the learner’s characteristics, instructors need to arrange the conditions of learning and events of instruction to create a learning environment conducive to the content and the learning process.

By creating a comfortable learning environment, which is also realistic for the specific content, we can challenge learners to identify and solve problems related to the content and combine both new and existing knowledge.

Finally, we support the effort put forth by the learner in acquiring the new knowledge through ongoing feedback and evaluation, along with encouraging the learner to reflect on the learning process and their specific achievements.

The conditions of learning formulated by Gagne are similar to guidelines as they are more heuristic than prescriptive. This provides a lot of freedom for the instructor while remaining within the principles of the theory.

The nine events form a structure for lesson and content development, which can be easily integrated. When combined with tools like a Hierarchical Task Analysis, the structure can quickly identify all of the content, the order in which it needs to be presented and provide insights into the applicable conditions of learning.

Students should master the concepts and skills in one step before moving on to the next. This creates retention and transfer opportunities leading to durable learning.

Finally, lessons following this approach is a process-oriented model. If you apply the model to define the instructional events and conditions of learning, it is difficult to miss any major parts of the process.

The comprehensive approach established by Gagne does not include any planning activities. For some, this may be a weakness, but on the other hand, I think more of this approach is related to planning — by working the conditions for learning as you are developing the structure and presentation strategies in the planning process, we get a solid content layout and presentation structure.

The implementation of the theory with the nine steps can feel onerous and long. However, there is overlap in the activities and as instructors, some steps will be “second nature” and completed without thinking about it.

Finally, some goals are easy to classify as learning outcomes, while others may feel like we are forcing them into a specific bucket.

The following example from Instructional Design illustrates a teaching sequence corresponding to the nine instructional events for the objective, Recognize an equilateral triangle:

  1. Gain attention — show a variety of computer-generated triangles
  2. Identify objective — pose a question: “What is an equilateral triangle?”
  3. Recall prior learning — review definitions of triangles
  4. Present stimulus — define equilateral triangle
  5. Guide learning- show an example of how to create equilateral
  6. Elicit performance — ask students to create 5 different examples
  7. Provide feedback — check all examples as correct/incorrect
  8. Assess performance — provide scores and remediation
  9. Enhance retention/transfer — show pictures of objects and ask students to identify equilaterals.

Gagne (1985, chapter 12) provides examples of events for each category of learning outcomes.

Driscoll, M.P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Robert Gagne — Instructional Design Timeline

Gagne, R. (1962). Military training and principles of learning. American Psychologist, 17, 263–276.

Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning (4th Ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Gagne, R. (1987). Instructional Technology Foundations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Gagne, R., Briggs, L. & Wager, W. (1992). Principles of Instructional Design (4th Ed.). Fort Worth, TX: HBJ College Publishers.

Gagne, R. & Driscoll, M. (1988). Essentials of Learning for Instruction (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mergel, B. (1998). Instructional design and learning theory.

Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2000). The impact of RM Gagne’s work on instructional theory. The Legacy of Robert M. Gagné, 147–181.

Conditions of Learning — Robert Gagne

Chris is a highly-skilled Information Technology AWS Cloud, Training and Security Professional bringing cloud, security, training and process engineering leadership to simplify and deliver high-quality products. He is the co-author of more than seven books and author of more than 70 articles and book chapters in technical, management and information security publications. His extensive technology, information security, and training experience makes him a key resource who can help companies through technical challenges.

This article is Copyright © 2019, Chris Hare.

Chris is the co-author of seven books and author of more than 70 articles and book chapters in technical, management, and information security publications.

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