Robert Gagné's Instructional Design Approach



By Kathy L. Maschke



    When Robert Gagné initially published his influential book, The Conditions of Learning (Gagné, 1965), his instructional design theories were heavily rooted in the behaviorist psychology paradigm. However, in later editions of The Conditions of Learning (Gagné, 1970, 1977, 1985), Gagné's theories evolved to incorporate cognitivist psychology theories, specifically the information-processing model of cognition. According to Gagné, "This model posits a number of internal processes that are subject to the influence of a variety of external events. The arrangement of external events to activate and support the internal processes of learning constitutes what is called instruction" (Gagné, 1974).

    In the preface to the second edition of The Conditions of Learning, Gagné commented further on this shift to the information-processing model of cognition and it’s influence on his approach to designing instruction. He stated, "I consider this form of learning theory to represent a major advance in the scientific study of human learning" (Gagné, 1977). In 1989, Michael J. Striebel noted, "Instructional design theories such as Gagné's theory, take the cognitivist paradigm one logical step further by claiming that an instruction plan can generate both appropriate environmental stimuli and instructional interactions, and thereby bring about a change in cognitive structures of the learner (Striebel, 1989).

    This paper will define and explore the three major aspects of Gagné’s approach to instructional design, which include: nine events of instruction, conditions of learning and learning outcomes. How Gagné’s theory correlates to the Walter Dick and Lou Carey’s systems approach to instructional design will also be considered (Dick and Carey, 1996).

A Seminal MODEL

    Gagné’s approach to instructional design is considered a seminal model that has influenced many other design approaches and particularly the Dick & Carey systems approach. Gagné proposed that events of learning and categories of learning outcomes together provide a framework for an account of learning conditions. The diagram below, from the third edition of The Conditions of Learning (Gagné, 1977), illustrates his vision of how the events of learning impact the conditions learning, which ultimately result in the learning outcomes, or learning capabilities.



    In The Conditions of Learning, Gagné acknowledges that he was considering the question "What factors really can make a difference to instruction?" when developing his learning and instructional design theories. His model proposed that the conditions of learning—some internal and some external to the learner—that affect the process of learning make up the events of learning. When deliberately planned, those events constitute instruction. "Thus it is reasonable to define instruction as being made up of events external to the learner which are designed to promote learning" (Gagné, 1977).

Events of Learning

    Gagné’s model proposed nine events of learning or instruction. These events are specific functions of communication behaviors that he identified as components of instruction. Gagné divided these nine events into two groups: the first five represent communication behaviors that occur before the acquisition of information. The last four occur after acquisition has developed. (Newell, 1970). The nine instructional events are outlined below and applications for group, tutorial, and individual delivery are provided (Gagné, 1974). According to Gagné, the events of instruction are labels that "serve to relate the internal processes to the external events that constitute instruction; that is they provide names for the total set of events (internal and external) that must be considered to take place during each phase of learning" (Gagné, 1974). Gagné’s model recommends these nine events be considered to facilitate and maximize instruction:


Instructional Event Group Instruction Tutorial Instruction Individual Learning
Activating motivation; Instructor establishes common motivation among learners Tutor discovers individual motivation Learner supplies own motivation
Informing the learner of the objective Instructor communicates objectives to learners Tutor communicates objective to learner Learner confirms or selects objective
Directing attention Instructor stimulates attention of learners Tutor adapts stimulation to learner attention Learner adopts attentional set
Stimulating recall Instructor asks for recall by learners Tutor checks recall of essential terms Learner retrieves essential items
Providing learning guidance Instructor elaborates or provides hints or prompts learners Tutor provides guidance only when needed Learner supplies own strategies
Enhancing retention Instructor provides retrieval cues to learners Tutor encourages learner to use his own cues for retrieval Learner supplies own retrieval cues
Promoting transfer Instructor sets transfer tasks for all learners Tutor sets transfer tasks adapted to learner’s capabilities Learner thinks out generalizations
Eliciting Performance Instructor uses a test to assess performance of learners Tutor asks for performance when learner is ready Learner verifies his own performance
Providing Feedback Instructor provides feedback to learners, varying in immediacy and precision Tutor provides accurate and immediate feedback Learner provides own feedback

Conditions of Learning

    In addition to the nine events of instruction, Gagné's instructional design theory proposed eight different conditions or types of learning. As an instructional psychologist, Gagné perceived learning conditions as building blocks for designing instruction. By categorizing each type of learning, the instructional designer is aware that each type of learning can potentially require a different event of instruction to optimize learning. The following chart outlines the eight conditions learning (Gagné, 1977).

Learning Condition Definition
Signal Learning The learner associates an already available response with a new stimulus or signal
Stimulus-Response Learning The learner responds precisely to a discriminated stimulus
Chaining The learner acquires a connection to a set of individual stimulus-responses in a sequence (two or more stimulus response connections equals a chain)
Verbal Association The learning acquires a connection to a set verbal chains
Discrimination Learning The learner makes different identifying responses to many different and seemingly similar stimulus
Concept Learning The learner becomes capable of making a common response to a class of stimuli
Rule Learning The learner recognizes a chain of two or more concepts
Problem Solving The learner recalls and connects a combination of previously learned rules which can be applied to achieve a solution for a novel situation

Learning Outcomes

    Gagné classified learning outcomes into five categories or taxonomies. These represent the variety of capabilities or outcomes that are possible as a result of the learning process. According to Gagné, "One way to make sense of the enormous variety of outcomes learning produces is to consider them as performance categories." The different learning outcomes—or performance categories—"not only differ in the human performances they make possible, they also differ in the conditions most favorable for their learning" (Gagné, 1977). The following table outlines the five categories and provides a definition and example of each (Gagné, 1974, 1977). 

Taxonomy Definition Outcome Example
Attitudes Experiences of success following the choice of a personal action Choosing swimming as a preferred exercise
Verbal Information Declarative knowledge; facts, concepts, principles, or procedures Stating the provisions of the First Amendment to the US Constitution
Intellectual Skills Procedural knowledge that requires prior learning of simpler component skills: The learner demonstrates the application of a skill:
Distinguishing printed b’s from d’s.
Concrete concepts
Identifying the spatial relationship "below."
Defined concepts
Classifying a "city" by using a definition.
Demonstrating that water changes state at 100° C.
Higher order rules; problem solving; more than one rule
Generate, by synthesizing applicable rules,
Cognitive Strategies Unique, effective, creative strategies; seeing problems in new and insightful ways; finding solutions to what others did not see as a problem Originating a novel plan for disposing of a fallen leaf.
Psychomotor Skills Single fluid motions vs. complex procedures; cognitive skills involved; non trivial psychomotor skills Executing the performance of planing the edge of a board.



    Gagné’s learning theories have had a positive influence on the evolution of the systems approach to designing instruction. The continued process of evaluation and revision that Gagné has subjected his instructional design model to has been the key to its ongoing acceptance and success. Dick & Carey's instructional design model stresses and incorporates much of Gagné's model. Their systems approach to instructional design especially relies on Gagné's domains of learning or learning outcomes. According to Dick & Carey, "The first step in conducting a goal analysis is to categorize the goal into one of Gagné’s (1985) domains of learning. Each goal should be classified into one of the domains because of the implications for the goal analysis and to identify the appropriate subordinate skills analysis techniques" (Dick & Carey, 1996). In adopting Gagné’s learning theories, Dick & Carey chose, however, to omit the fifth domain of learning—cognitive strategies—from their model. They felt that "From the instructional design perspective these can be treated like intellectual skills and taught as such" (Dick & Carey, 1996).

    Dick & Carey also adopted Gagné’s hierarchical approach to analyzing goals. "The hierarchical analysis technique suggested by Gagné consists of asking the question "What must the student already know so that, with a minimal amount of instruction, this task can be learned? By asking this question, the designer can identify one or more critical subordinate skills that will be required of the learner prior to attempting instruction on the step itself…This hierarchy of skills is helpful to the designer because it can be used to suggest the type of specific subordinate skills that will be required to support any step in the goal" (Dick & Carey, 1996).


    Gagné’s learning theories have had an important impact on many instructional design models, and notably on the systems approach developed by Dick & Carey. Additionally, Gagné has revised and refined his instructional design approach to reflect ongoing research and developments in psychology and a shift away from the behaviorist paradigm. Consequently his model has evolved to incorporate cognitivist learning theories and the most significantly the information-processing model of cognition. Gagné's instructional design approach has endured in its evolution as a seminal model in the field of instructional technology.



    Dick, W. & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction. (4th ed.). New York: Harper Collins College Publishers.

    Gagné, R. M. (1974). Essentials of learning for instruction. (2nd ed.). Hinsdale, IL: The Dryden Press.

    Newell, J.M. (1970). Student's guide to the conditions of learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Gagné, R. M. (1977). The conditions of learning. (4nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc.

    Streibel, M. (1995). Instructional plans and situationed learning. In G.J. Anglin (Ed.), Instructional technology: Past, present, future (2nd ed). (pp. 145-160). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.


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