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Robert M. Gagné

    “Curriculum is a sequence of content units arranged in such a way that the learning of each unit may be accomplished as a single act, provided the capabilities described by specified prior units (in the sequence) have already been mastered by the learner.”

    If we take a closer look at Robert Gagné’s definition of curriculum, we’ll see his fundamental belief that learning is ongoing and built continuously on prior knowledge. Robert Gagné is well-known for establishing the science of instruction, and for recognizing necessary mental conditions for successful learning. His theory of effective learning and designing instructions had an enormous influence on American education, military, and industrial training.   

    According to Gagné, instructions are a “set of planned external events which influence the process of learning and thus promote learning.” Similar to Bloom’s philosophy, his findings supported the idea of learning hierarchies, pointing out that individuals rarely learn a higher intellectual skill without already knowing the lower skill. Gagné’s research on learning and instruction methodology had a tremendous impact on education. His hierarchical learning theory promoted the development of a more scientific approach to instruction. It helped teachers to break skills into simple components and teach those components in an arranged sequence, strengthening correct responses along the way. Applying his ideas in practice, teachers all over the world were able to ensure an effective and systematic learning program with well-thought-out lesson plans and a holistic view of teaching.


    Robert Mills Gagné was born on August 21, 1916, in North Andover, Massachusetts, and died on April 28, 2002, in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. In 1937, he got his BA from Yale, and only three years later, his Ph.D. from Brown University. He worked as a psychology and educational psychology professor at many universities across the US (Connecticut College for Women, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton, University of California, Berkeley, and Florida State University). He had quite an impressive career as a professor and researcher. The application of his research goes beyond education and psychology and he was appointed as a research director for the Air Force in Texas, and later served as a consultant to the Department of Defense. It was during his time in the military that birthed his Conditions of Learning theory (8 types of conditions of learning categorized by complexity) that was published in 1965.

    Gagné dedicated his entire career to focusing on planned or purposeful learning that happens in the classroom or training programs. His theory of instruction was widely used in the field of instructional design, and educational technology. Until his death in 2002, Robert Gagné never stopped his passion for teaching and learning, leaving a legacy that may guide future research.


    Robert Gagné’s theory on conditions of learning was created under the influence of the behaviorist learning theories, and suggested the existence of eight types of conditions of learning classified by complexity:

    • Signal learning, also known as classical conditioning based on the famous Pavlov’s dogs experiment, where the learning process is based on the connection between an environmental (conditioned) stimulus to a naturally appearing (unconditioned) stimulus
    • Stimulus-response learning or operant conditioning: Based on B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism, and unlike classical conditioning, which changes only reflex reactions, operant conditioning shapes new behavior
    • Chaining or a more complex operant conditioning
    • Verbal association: When we create connections using verbal associations
    • Discrimination learning: When we reply differently under the influence of different stimuli
    • Concept learning: When we learn a universal response through a class of stimuli
    • Rule learning: When a rule represents a chain of two or more ideas
    • Problem solving: When we apply previously learned rules and ideas to newly created situations

    Gagné believed that we can classify the results from these types of conditions of learning into five categories of performance:

    Category of performanceExplanationApplication
    Verbal informationDeclarative knowledge (verbally stated facts)Connect old and newly learned material. New material should be linked to previously learned information, and distinctive through visual demonstration.
    Intellectual skillsProcedural knowledge (exercised in a performance of a task using higher skills that incorporate lower skills)The lower skills have to be learned first or be already present (existence of previous knowledge).
    Cognitive strategiesMethods used to solve problemsThe previous learning has little use, instead place the accent on learning through practice
    Motor skillsFunctions, including specific body movement to conduct a certain taskCombine previous learning and practice to increase motor skills learning
    AttitudesA mental position (acquired mental state) that influences a person’s actions in a situationUse a human model to learn from

    Besides the eight special conditions of learning and its results, Gagné created nine events of instruction that should represent an initial point in every type of learning and every instructional design:

    1. Gain attention (reception): Teachers have to motivate students to pay attention and engage with the content.
    2. Inform objectives (expectancy): Teachers need to set clear objectives and explain them to the students.
    3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge (retrieval): Teachers should activate prior knowledge when learning new concepts by asking relevant questions.
    4. Present stimulus material (selective perception): Teachers present the subject’s material using suitable teaching techniques.
    5. Provide learner guidance (semantic encoding): Teachers guide the students in their learning through clear instructions, communication, visual or other resources.
    6. Elicit performance (responding): Teachers elicit performance through practice, allowing students to apply their knowledge immediately after the clarification of instructions.  
    7. Provide feedback (reinforcement): Teachers offer students the possibility of immediate performance evaluation.
    8. Assess performance (retrieval): Teachers assess students’ performance to check whether the learning objectives have been reached.
    9. Enhance retention and transfer (generalization): Teachers advise students how to transfer and apply their knowledge in the real world.

    Gagné’s research didn’t end with the nine events of instruction. Later on, he proposed a theory of cumulative learning, based on the idea that new learning depends on the link between previous knowledge and skills and the capability of learning transfer, or as he used to say:

    “There is a specifiable minimal prerequisite for each new learning task. Unless the learner can recall this prerequisite capability… he can’t learn the new task.”


    Gagné’s theory of learning had a profound impact on education and teaching methodology. He gave teachers instructional guidelines aiding the learning process. Each of the nine steps is a form of communication that engages students in the learning process, helping them preserve their knowledge. Here’s an even more detailed analysis of his theory for proper implementation in our classroom:    

    • Gain students’ attention: You can start the lesson by showing students a short interesting film related to the material. Ask thought-provoking and intriguing questions or encourage students to pose questions to one another.
    • Inform objectives: Inform students about what’s expected of them. Make sure they understand the objectives and explain them before the beginning of the lesson. Don’t forget to establish and describe criteria for standard performance.
    • Stimulate recall of prior knowledge: Activate students’ prior knowledge by asking questions about their previous experiences and their understanding of previous concepts. Teach students how to understand new information by relating it to their experience or previous knowledge.
    • Present stimulus material: Use different visual materials, media, group work, and practical examples when presenting the lesson to the students to gain their interest and engage them in discussions. Use different strategies to provide effective instruction.
    • Provide learner guidance: Encourage students to use different strategies and resources in the learning process. Teach them how to learn. Give them time to process the information and discuss the subject. If necessary, give instructional support through examples, concept mapping, role-playing, visualizing, and case studies. Be prepared to assist your students outside the classroom.
    • Elicit performance: Ask students deep-learning questions and have them collaborate. Prepare a brief test for your students after each unit to let them see how much they know, and for you to see if they understand everything before moving on. Use either oral and written assignments; individual or group projects, presentations, quizzes, and tests to help students show their comprehension and apply their knowledge.
    • Provide feedback: Review and discuss test results with students to evaluate and facilitate learning and to help students identify knowledge gaps. Do it on time, before it is too late! Once they receive confirmatory feedback, they will know that they did well, and it will encourage them to be even better in the future. Use corrective and descriptive feedback to inform the students of their mistakes and help them improve their performance.
    • Assess performance: Use tests and different assessment methods, such as oral questioning, active learning activities, projects, crafts, and quizzes, to see if the students have achieved the course objectives. Make sure students have multiple options to show their proficiency.
    • Enhance retention and transfer: Allow students to connect course concepts to potential real-world situations.

    Use Gagné learning theory to create quality classroom instructions, facilitate information processing, and help students achieve course goals and implement them in and outside the classroom.

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