Robert Gagné and the Conditions of Learning
Laura J. Dowling
Walden University
August 8, 2001

Robert Gagné and the Conditions of Learning


"Learning is something that takes place inside a person's head- in the brain" ---Robert Gagné

Instruction may be viewed as the intentional arrangement of conditions in the learning environment to facilitate attainment of identified goals (Driscoll, 2000, p. 25). This instruction consists of learning activities that are designed to facilitate student attainment of curriculum goals and component objectives. The instructional system provides many different types of activities. Activities are defined as anything that students are expected to do in order to learn, practice, apply, evaluate, or in any other way respond to curricular content (Brophy and Alleman, 1991, p. 9).

Instructional theory is defined as identifying methods that will best provide the conditions under which these activities can be carried out and the learning goals can be attained (Reigeluth, 1983). Reigleugh also explained that instructional theory must either build on or be compatible with existing learning theories.

Robert Gagné, a noted educational theorist, began his research into learning and instructional theory as a developer of training in the military during World War II. While working in the Air Force, he researched military training problems and came to the conclusion that there was more to training than the theoretical framework supported by the behavioral theorists as introduced in previous years (Perry, 2001). Gagné developed many of his original ideas for systematic training during his time on the military.

After that, he turned his attention to the world of education. Robert Gagné first published The Conditions of Learning in 1965. The main aim of this theory was for classroom education. He continued to develop this theory for the next twenty years when the fourth edition was published in 1985. Because of the time involved in the formulation and changing of this theory, it has evolved from one that started out as behaviorist in nature into one that is very much at the center of the cognitivist thinking circle (Driscoll, 2000, p. 346). Through this evolution, Gagné incorporated three major components. The first involves a taxonomy of learning outcomes. The second involves the conditions of learning. Lastly, Gagné provides nine events of instruction (Galbraith, 1997).

Major Tenets and Promoters

Gagné claims that people learn in many ways, spanning the gamut from behaviorist, Skinnerian-type conditioning to more cognitive processes. He suggests, however, that there are two steps that are critical in applying his theory. The first is to specify the type of learning outcome and the second is to determine the events of learning (Perry, 2001). It is important to note that Gagné's theory is more closely aligned to an instructional type theory instead of a learning theory. That is because he has formulated an outline that describes the conditions under which "one can intentionally arrange for the learning of specific performance outcomes" (Perry, 2001).

Robert Gagné's theory supports the following ideas:

  1. Learning causes an observable change in the learner.
  2. Skills should be learned one at a time.
  3. Each new skill learned should build on previously acquired skills.
  4. Learning and knowledge are both hierarchical in nature.

(Braxton, Bronico, & Looms, 1995)

   Taxonomy of learning outcomes.

Robert Gagné (1985) classified the types of learning outcomes. A good way to identify the types of learning is to ask how learning might be demonstrated:

  1. Cognitive Domain
    1. Intellectual skills - concepts are demonstrated by labeling or classifying things
    2. Intellectual skills - rules are applied and principles are demonstrated
    3. Intellectual skills - problem solving allows generating solutions or procedures
    4. Cognitive strategies - are used for learning
    5. Verbal information - is stated
  2. Psychomotor Domain
    1. Motor skills - enable physical performance
  3. Affective Domain
    1. Attitudes - are demonstrated by preferring options

    Conditions of learning.

Once the outcomes, or goals, have been decided upon, the instructor can begin to consider the best way to design the instruction to obtain those goals. Each of the learning outcomes can be met with specific conditions under which the lesson will ensue. These conditions are similar in design to Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive learning outcomes (Bloom, 1956) in that they both recognize the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective domains and specified conditions under which the outcomes could best be met (Driscoll, 2000, p. 348).

Gagné, & Driscoll (1988), developed the following conditions of learning with standard verbs to correspond to the learning outcomes:

  1. Verbal Information: state, recite, tell, declare
  2. Intellectual Skills
    1. Discrimination: discriminate, distinguish, differentiate
    2. Concrete Concept: identify, name, specify, label
    3. Defined Concept: classify, categorize, type, sort (by definition)
    4. Rule: demonstrate, show, solve (using one rule)
    5. Higher Order Rule: generate, develop, solve (using two or more rules)
  3. Cognitive Strategy: adopt, create, originate
  4. Motor Skill: execute, perform, carry out
  5. Attitude: choose, prefer, elect, favor

   Nine events of instruction.

According to Gagné, learning is a step by step process. Each step must be accomplished before the next in order for learning to take place.

  1. Gaining attention.

  2. To ensure reception of coming instruction, the teacher gives the learners a stimulus. Before the learners can start to process any new information, the instructor must gain the attention of the learners. This might entail using abrupt changes in the instruction.
  3. Tell learners the learning objective.

  4. The teacher tells the learner what they will be able to do because of the instruction. The teacher communicates the desired outcome to the group.
  5. Stimulating recall of prior learning.

  6. The teacher asks for recall of existing relevant knowledge.
  7. Presenting the stimulus. Display the content.

  8. The teacher gives emphasis to distinctive features.
  9. Providing learning guidance.

  10. The teacher helps the students in understanding (semantic encoding) by providing organization and relevance.
  11. Eliciting performance.

  12. The teacher asks the learners to respond, demonstrating learning
  13. Providing feedback.

  14. The teacher gives informative feedback on the learners' performance.
  15. Assessing performance.

  16. The teacher requires more learner performance, and gives feedback, to reinforce learning.
  17. Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts.

  18. The teacher provides varied practice to generalize the capability.

(Driscoll, 2000)

Environment for Utilization

Unlike many of the other educational theories, Robert Gagné's theory is based on the premise that the responsibility for learning lies squarely on the shoulders of the instructor. The instructor must be in a position to break down the lesson into fundamental parts. The proper events and conditions for teaching each part must be ascertained and created by the instructor. All of the component parts are taught sequentially, each building on the previous. If the proper instructional events and conditions are provided (stimulus) the student will learn (response) (Briner, 1999).

Although the theory may be used in a wide array of environments, because of its systematic instructional design principles, it is more widely used in training in the military and business sectors. However, since education has become more outcome-based in recent years, and Gagné originally designed it for use in the classroom setting, his theory has since become more widely used in the K-12 educational setting (Roblyer & Edwards, 2000). It is important to note that this environment must be highly structured so as to implement corrently the practices that Gagné prescribes for effective learning.

The events of instruction can basically be carried out in a traditional classroom with the teacher in control. For the most part, the students will work individually, but there is room within this practice for group work.

Technology Related Issues

The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (1972) described the systems approach in the following manner:

When scientific and experimental methods are applied in an orderly and comprehensive way to the planning of instructional tasks or to entire programs, this process is sometimes known as the systems approach to instructional development. Implicit in the systems approach is the use of clearly stated objectives, experimentally derived data to evaluate the results of the system, and feedback loops which allow the system to improve itself based on evaluation. A systematic approach usually involves: needs assessment..., solution selection..., development of instructional objectives..., analysis of tasks and content needed to meet the objectives, selection of instructional strategies, sequencing of instructional events, selection of media, developing or locating the necessary resources, tryout/evaluation of the effectiveness of the resources, revision of resources until they are effective, and recycling continuously through the whole process (p. 38).

Because Gagné's approach is systematic in design, the above commentary would fit the model. This would lend the theory to computer tutorials and software intended to move the student through a set approach toward intended goals. Much of the commercial software available for educational purposes does, indeed, follow this approach.

On the other hand, using a systematic approach for many of the open ended activities such as web quests and computer based collaborative projects would not follow Gagné's approach. The systems based instructional process, it seems, is often difficult to replicate and portray in many computer simulation and constructivist models. Gagné's theory is less effective when creative thinking, personal interpretations, deep understandings, or self-guided learning are desired.

Usability of Theory in Differing Populations


Because of the more modern constructivist design models of instruction that have been developed and adopted in recent years, the rigid structure of Gagné's theory seems outdated and unusable to many teachers. They do not see that Robert Gagné's theories will fit well into this educational setting because it is too structured (Haines, 1996 and Perry, 2001). However, there is still plenty of room to include structure in the classroom, and many students need the variety that both the constructivist and the systematic environments offer. Many students will thrive in a constructivist environment for a few weeks, but the time comes when they will need to take a different approach to their learning. From teaching practice, this is especially noticable in the early or middle years.

   Adults and older adults.

During formal instruction, most of the events of instruction are generally provided by the instructional materials or by the instructional personnel. More sophisticated learners such as adults and older adults are be able to supply many of the events for themselves. The manner in which the materials are used also helps to determine which events of instruction should be embedded within the materials and which events may be provided for by the instructional staff or student. Many adults are highly motivated to learn and may have prior experience or expertise in the course work. It is important that the instructor know the level of student knowledge and motivation in any class, but with a much wider range of experience in the adult student, it is especially important.

   Business and government.

Just as with the military for which this instruction was originally developed, Gagné's principles will work well with the business and government populations as long as there is a structured environment for the instruction to exist. There are many businesses that do not operate on the same structure that many of the more formal businesses do such as the traditional IBM structures. These smaller more creative businesses might not be able to implement the nine events of instruction as well because they operate on a more apprenticeship learning style.


Gagné's theoretical principles can work in a number of ways for instructional design implementations in the teaching of medicine. One example might be in the teaching of medical diagnostic problem solving. Some of the events of instruction would not be necessary because it can be expected that medical students have a reasonable amount of motivation so that they are already attentive to the lesson (Driscoll, 2000, p. 371).


The military is where Gagné began to formulate his theories, and this is where the best use of his techniques can still be seen today. Because the military has to train so many people, and they all must function at the same level of expertise with a given skill, this theory works especially well.

   Creative/artistic populations.

Of all of the above populations, this one seems to be the most ill-suited for the structure involved in Gagné's systematic instruction. The very nature of the work suits itself to unstructured exploration and discovery. Th ere is not always a right answer or a right way to do something or learn something, for instance, when learning how to create a work of art.


Robert Gagné created a landmark instructional design theory. Synthesizing ideas from behaviorism and cognitivism, he provides an easy to follow and clear template for designing instructional events. Instructional designers who follow Gagné's theory will likely have tightly focused, efficient instruction (Perry, 2001). This can be especially helpful for new teachers who need help in staying focused to the curriculum goals, or more experienced teachers that need a realignment to those goals.

Some educators believe that Gagné's taxonomy of learning outcomes and principles of instruction oversimplify the learning process by over prescribing (Haines, 1996). While it is true that using the theory solely in any educational setting would never work, using them as part of a complete instructional package can assist many educators in becoming more organized and staying focused on the instructional goals.


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