In 1972 Robert Gagné developed his taxonomy of learning. Gagné's work has been particularly influential in the design of instructional materials (particularly for military personnel) and as such his theory has been classified as an instructional theory. Gagné theory is based upon an Information Processing model and described several factors that influence learning and as such are called the Conditions of Learning.

There are three elements in Gagné's theory: a taxonomy; internal and external factors necessary to achieve learning and nine events of instruction.

Let us now take a closer look at Gagne's eight categories of learning.

1. Signal Learning. This is the simplest form of learning, and consists essentially of the classical conditioning first described by the behavioural psychologist Pavlov. In this, the subject is 'conditioned' to emit a desired response as a result of a stimulus that would not normally produce that response. This is done by first exposing the subject to the chosen stimulus (known as the conditioned stimulus) along with another stimulus (known as the unconditioned stimulus) which produces the desired response naturally; after a certain number of repetitions of the double stimulus, it is found that the subject emits the desired response when exposed to the conditioned stimulus on its own. The applications of classical conditioning in facilitating human learning are, however, very limited.

2. Stimulus-response learning. This somewhat more sophisticated form of learning, which is also known as operant conditioning, was originally developed by Skinner. It involves developing desired stimulus-response bonds in the subject through a carefully-planned reinforcement schedule based on the use of 'rewards' and 'punishments'. Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that the reinforcing agent (the 'reward' or 'punishment') is presented after the response. It is this type of conditioning that forms the basis of programmed learning in all its various manifestations.

3. Chaining. This is a more advanced form of learning in which the subject develops the ability to connect two or more previously-learned stimulus-response bonds into a linked sequence. It is the process whereby most complex psychomotor skills (eg riding a bicycle or playing the piano) are learned.

4. Verbal association. This is a form of chaining in which the links between the items being connected are verbal in nature. Verbal association is one of the key processes in the development of language skills.

5. Discrimination learning. This involves developing the ability to make appropriate (different) responses to a series of similar stimuli that differ in a systematic way. The process is made more complex (and hence more difficult) by the phenomenon of interference, whereby one piece of learning inhibits another. Interference is thought to be one of the main causes of forgetting.

6. Concept learning. This involves developing the ability to make a consistent response to different stimuli that form a common class or category of some sort. It forms the basis of the ability to generalise, classify etc.

7. Rule learning. This is a very-high-level cognitive process that involves being able to learn relationships between concepts and apply these relationships in different situations, including situations not previously encountered. It forms the basis of the learning of general rules, procedures, etc.

8. Problem solving. This is the highest level of cognitive process according to Gagne. It involves developing the ability to invent a complex rule, algorithm or procedure for the purpose of solving one particular problem, and then using the method to solve other problems of a similar nature.


The taxonomy learning comprises five categories:

·      verbal information

·      intellectual skill

·      cognitive strategy

·      attitude

·      motor skill

Intellectual skill can be further sub-divided into:

·      stimulus recognition

·      response generation

·      procedure following

·      use of terminology

·      discrimination

·      concrete and defined concepts

·      rules

Internal and external factors

Different internal and external conditions are necessary for for each type of learning. For example, for verbal information to be learned there must be a chance to practice in different situations and environments. For cognitive strategies to be learned there must be the opportunity to practice new solutions to problems.

The Nine Instructional Events

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.

Robert Gagne: Learning and Instruction


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?

The Instructor’s Role

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.

Example Application

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.