Robert Gagne's Theory

The Basics
Robert Gagne was an experimental psychologist who was concerned with learning and instruction for several decades. His earlier work was in a behaviorist tradition, but later he was influenced by the information-processing view of learning and memory. He is well known for his synthesis of research on learning and the identification of internal and external conditions of learning.

Gagne stressed that different variables influence the learning of different types of tasks. He identified five domains of learning outcomes:

  • information
  • intellectual skills
  • cognitive strategies
  • motor skills
  • attitudes

Based upon his analysis of research, he believed that the set of variables influencing the learning of tasks in one domain may not influence the learning of tasks in other domains. One may generalize research findings to other tasks within that domain, but not to tasks in other domains.

Thus, factors found to influence the learning of one piece of information (e.g., overlearning positively affects the learning of telephone numbers) may be applied to other tasks in that domain (e.g., the learning of names), but not to the tasks in other domains (e.g., the learning of a new concept).

Gagne stressed the cumulative nature of learning intellectual skills in which mastery of higher-level skills (e.g., rules) depends primarily upon the prior mastery of lower-order skills or concepts. Accordingly, intellectual skills are arranged in a hierarchical order so that successful instruction begins with teaching lower-order skills and progresses upwards.

Gagne placed considerable influence on identifying the appropriate sequence of instructional events that promote successful learning. In essence, manipulation of these events (gain attention, inform learner of objectives, provide guidance, etc.), when coupled with the appropriate external conditions of learning, can stimulate the presumed internal process in short- and long-term memory and cause learning to occur. Gagne’s ideas about instruction are based to a large extent upon the information processing approach and the presumed internal processes of learning and his distinctions among domains of learning outcomes.

Podcast Review 

You can hear Dr. Hannum reviewing Gagne's theory by clicking in the icon above. This was recorded during a graduate seminar on learning theories. You can also Download podcast

View of Learning 
Here is a comprehensive set of objectives for Gagne along with points based on these objectives:


1. Define and give examples of the five domains of learning outcomes.

Domain Definition Example
Verbal Information Stating facts, names, labels, or describing organized bodies of knowledge Naming the three branches of government; describing the rules of a card game; explaining Freud's theories; listing causes of inflation
Intellectual Skills Using discriminations, concepts, and rules to solve problems Distinguishing between different stimuli like recognizing that two musical notes are different, identifying things that belong in the same category like different types of virus; applying a rule to determine something like calculating the distance it will take a car to stop; solving a problem that is new for you such as determining how much paint it will take to paint the exterior of your house
Motor Skills Executing body movements in coordinated fashion Playing catch with a baseball; writing your name with a pen; assembling a swing set
Attitude Choices we make to behave in certain ways Choosing to follow proper etiquette when having dinner with new acquaintances; showing regard for a sick co-worker by offering to help them get their work done; being open to new ideas by allowing someone to express his suggestion fro accomplishing a work task when it differs from your suggestion
Cognitive Strategy Using ways to control one's thinking and learning processes Determining how to approach a new learning situation; deciding how to go about learning a long list of items; creating a way to remember the names of several people you just met


2. For each domain, describe the relevant conditions of learning.

Domain Conditions
Verbal Information

1. provide a meaningful context
2. provide opportunity for practice storing and retrieving information in memory
3. stress relationships among content to be learned
4. provide additional practice over time

Intellectual Skills 1. recall of specific prerequisite intellectual skills
Motor Skills 1. observation of a model performing skill in a correct manner
2. opportunity to practice performing the skill
3. receiving feedback on your performance that shows you what to change and how
Attitude 1. observation of a model who shows the desired choice and is reinforced as a result
2. making the desired choice and receiving direct reinforcement as a result
Cognitive Strategy 1. provide opportunities to work with novel problems
2. have students monitor their cognition
3. allow students to observe expert problem solvers at work


3. Describe the information processing view of the act of learning (process) and what is happening in each of the three memory structures.

In the information processing view of learning a stimulus impacts of learners senses and is brought into his brain first into this sensory register. There are sensory registers for difference senses such as a visual sensory register that accepts input from the eyes and an acoustic sensory register that accepts input from the ears. The information in the sensory register is an exact copy of what impinges our sense organs and that information resides in the sensory register for a fraction of a second before being lost. If we attend to the information in our sensory registers while it is there we can transfer some of that information into our short-term memory thus preventing it from being loss or forgotten. Short-term memory is our conscious memory in which we process information. Short-term memory is constrained in size in that we can maintain approximately 7 pieces of information in short-term memory at one time. Fortunately we can overcome some of the size limitation by grouping pieces of information together to form a larger piece that will still occupy only one of our slots in short-term memory. In general, information remains in short-term memory for about 30 seconds before it disappears. We can, however, Keep this information alive in short-term memory for a longer period of time by reintroducing or rehearsing this information. In essence, we can restart the 30-second clock by repeating these the information in short-term memory. The information that we organize and keep holding in short-term memory for longer than 30 seconds has a chance of being transferred into long-term memory especially when we can relate this new information to information that already exists in our long-term memory. Long-term memory is considered to be vast, almost unlimited in size, and permanent. For learning to be effective we need to pay attention to the external stimuli and bring these into our sensory registers, transfer that into short-term memory where the new information is organized and meaning is derrived and then organizing the new information and storing it in our long-term memories where it should reside for a long time. This is a process of information storage. The other side of this is an equally important process called information retrieval. This is where we go into our long-term memories searching for something that is stored there, pull it back out into our short-term memories and then use it to help solve a problem or make meaning of a new situation. This is a complete cycle in the information processing view of learning.

5. Define sensory register, short-term memory, long-term memory, rehearsal, chunking, encoding, storage, and retrieval.
These are all terms associated with the information processing view of learning that Gagne used as basis for much of his work. The sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory are the three structures to human memory. The sensory register holds the direct input from the senses for a brief period time, milliseconds, before it is lost. The information resides in the sensory register in the same form as the senses. That is, information that comes from our eyes is stored in the visual sensory register as an image, information coming from the ears is stored in an acoustic sensory register as sounds. This century registers are considered to be vast and hold more or less exact copies of the stimuli our senses detect but only for a very brief period time before they disappear unless they're transferred to short-term memory. Short-term memory is I working memory that holds about seven pieces of information for about 30 seconds. This gives us the opportunity to process that information comparing and contrasting it with other information that resides in a long-term memory and deriving meaning from it. From short-term memory the information that we focus on and manipulate can be transferred to long-term memory where it is stored permanently in a vast network of knowledge apparently unlimited in size. We can use several processes in short-term memory to help improve the chance we will remember something. We can repeat a piece of information to ourselves thus rehearsing it or restarting the 30-second clock to keep that piece of information alive for a longer period of time in our short-term memories. We can group the new piece of information with other pieces of information to form meaningful chunks for storage in long-term memory that will make it easier for us to get back to that information because it will be more meaningful. Think about chunking in short-term memory as a process of sorting and grouping information together to form meaningful relationships that are then stored in long-term memory. Encoding is a process that happens in short-term memory where we are taking the essence or meaning of the stimulus that comes from the sensory register and dealing with that rather than with the physical form of the stimulus. As noted earlier, storage is a process of bringing in a stimulus and placing it in long-term memory while retrieval is a process of going back into long-term memory locating a piece of information and bringing it back into short-term memory or conscious thought.

6. Describe the proper sequencing of events of learning and the rationale for the sequencing.
As part of his theory Gagne built upon the information processing model by considering what must happen externally to the learner to facilitate this internal processing of information that goes on during learning. That is, what can a teacher do to facilitate a student learning new content based on the information processing model of learning. January identified nine separate things which he called the events of learning that should happen to optimally facilitate a students internal processing of information. These nine Events of Learning are:

  1. Gain Learners’ Attention
  2. Inform Learners of Objectives
  3. Stimulate Recall of Prerequisites
  4. Present Stimulus for Learning
  5. Provide Prompts & Guidance
  6. Provide for Practice
  7. Provide Feedback
  8. Assess the Performance
  9. Promote Transfer & Retention

These Events of Instruction are sequenced in this order because each event impacts the internal processing of information as we attend to input from our senses, move information into the sensory register, and then into short-term memory where it is encoded, stored in long-term memory, and finally retrieved or brought from long-term memory back to short-term.

7. Describe the subcategories of intellectual skills, provide examples of each, and describe the relationship among the various subcategories.
Intellectual skills are the domain of learning the Gagne placed the most emphasis on in his own work. He thought that mastery of intellectual skills was fundamental to education and much more important than learning specific information. There are several subcategories of intellectual skills organize from simple skills to more complex skills. The ability to master the more complex skills is a direct result of having already mastered the specific prerequisite lower-level or simpler skills. Think of intellectual skills as arranged in a hierarchy with the most complex skills at the top.

Intellectual Skill Example
Problem Solving Encountering a new situation in which you have to decide which rules to apply and in what combination and sequence to resolve a novel problem. Determining how to reduce your company's energy consumption by 15% next year; figuring out how to raise additional funds for a charity; determining how much an addition to your home will cost
Rule Learning Applying a rule, a principle or formula to resolve a situation. Calculating how many miles per galleon a car got; determining how much change a customer gets from a $8.25 purchase when he gave you a $10 bill; determining the impact of a 5% increase in mortgage rates on home ownership
Defined Concepts Grouping objects based on a classifying rule. Identifying a country that freely elected its leaders by popular vote as a democracy; classifying a period of time in which real wages and prices for goods and services rise as inflationary
Concrete Concept Grouping objects based on physical characteristics. Sorting different tree leaves into groups based on their species; identifying different skin rashes according to the type of rash; classifying different birds into their types
Discriminations Telling that two or more stimuli are different. Distinguishing between two different heart sounds or recognizing that two fish are not the same

8. Describe what is meant by prerequisite knowledge.
In the domain of intellectual skills prerequisite knowledge is that knowledge that is essential to have in order to master subsequent higher order learning. Prerequisite knowledge is the building block for higher level learning. In order to solve a specific problem the person must first have mastered a set of related rules that can be combined to generate the solution to that problem. These rules that learning builds upon form the prerequisite knowledge for problem-solving.

9. Define learning hierarchy, provide an example of one, and indicate why it exists only in the domain of intellectual skills.
A learning hierarchy exists only in the domain of intellectual skills and refers to the structure of these skills from simple, prerequisite skills to more complex skills. This can be represented visually in a form that resembles an organizational chart with problem solving at the top and rules below that followed by concepts below that and discrimination below that. Going from the bottom to the top in the learning hierarchy shows that person first has to learn discriminations before you can learn concepts because concepts depend on discriminating certain characteristics to identify or classify objects into categories. Continuing up the hierarchy concepts must be learned before one can acquire rules because rules describe the relationships among concepts. Before one can learn to apply the rule that the area of a triangle equals 1/3 its height times its base that person much already know the concepts of triangle, area, height and base.

10. Define cumulative learning.
Cumulative learning is a term that can be used to describe Gagne's work with intellectual skills because of the way new skills build on previously learned skills. Learning is a process of accumulating a large set of intellectual skills.

11. Distinguish between learning structures and learning processes.
Within the context of the information processing model, the learning structures refer to the three memory structures: sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Learning processes referred to those specific processes that happen within these memory structures. For instance, rehearsal and encoding are examples of learning processes that happen within short-term memory.

Gagne has had considerable influence on education and training in corporate and government sectors as well as some influence in public schools. A clear contribution of Gagne was the field of instructional design that seeks to take what is known about human learning and apply it to instruction. He is generally regarded as the "father" of instructional design. He had wide influence on people who follow a systematic approach to designing instruction.

Two contributions of Gagne stand out: his ideas about domains of learning and his concept of instructional events. Educators widely agree that we can't teach all content the identical way. We recognize that teaching students how to solve problems or use concepts is different from teaching information. This follows directly from Gagne's domains of learning. Many educators also develop their teaching plans around Gagne's instructional events by starting lessons by gaining the learners' attention, informing them of the objectives and continuing through practice and assessment. This is pure Gagne!

Gagne is recognized among educators for his accomplishments and his influences. He holds a lofty status in the field of instructional design. Many, if not most, corporate training programs are based on his work.