Conditions of Learning

The theory that different types or levels of learning require different types of instruction was developed by U.S. educational psychologist Robert Gagne (1916-2002) in The Conditions of Learning and the Theory of Instruction (1965). This theory outlines the relation between learning objectives and appropriate instructional designs.

According to Gagne, there are five main categories of learning - verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills and attitudes. There are different conditions, both internal (such as attention, motivation and recall) and external (such as arrangement and timing of stimulus events), that have to be in place for each type of learning. For example, in order to learn cognitive strategies one should have the chance to practice developing new solutions to problems. On the other hand successful learning of attitudes requires a credible role model or persuasive arguments.

Gagne identified a sequence of nine instructional events that should satisfy or provide the necessary conditions for learning:

1. Gaining attention - When a lesson starts, learners often think about many other things than the lesson. Capturing and keeping their attention is therefore of crucial importance for the instructor. For example, this can be done via gesturing, speaking loudly or providing an interesting visual. 2. Informing learners of the objective - Another important thing to do is to clearly describe the goal of the lesson and explain how the lesson would be useful to the learners. By doing so the instructor allows the learners to form expectations about the lesson and lets them know what they should attend to. 3. Stimulating recall of prior learning - In many cases in order to be able to understand and learn new information one must have certain existing knowledge or skills, sometimes referred to as prerequisites. By reminding the learners of prior learning the instructor helps them build on their previous knowledge or skills. 4. Presenting the material - This is when the new knowledge is introduced. It could be useful to present the information in small parts in order to avoid memory overload. Although many instructors start their lessons at this point, the previous three events could actually improve the effectiveness of education. 5. Providing guidance for learning - This is the point when the teacher gives instructions on how the students can learn the new knowledge. This guidance may take the form of giving examples, relating new information to existing knowledge, showing images or offering mnemonics. 6. Eliciting performance - At this point the instructor gives the learners a chance to practice the newly acquired behavior, skills or knowledge, thereby confirming that the material has been understood correctly. It is generally considered that repetition increases the chance of retaining knowledge. 7. Providing feedback - This instructional event is of crucial importance as it allows both the instructor and the learners to see if there are misunderstandings and correct them. There are various ways to give feedback, for example, via a test, quiz or verbal comments. However, one should keep in mind that feedback has to be specific and explanatory. 8. Assessing performance - The instructor has to make sure that the new knowledge has been reliably stored. In order to really learn the new information students need additional practice, which is often in the form of homework. One popular way to assess performance is via graded tests. 9. Enhancing retention and transfer - In order for instruction to have a long-term effect on learners, one should try to increase the chance of the new knowledge being retained for future needs. It is important that after the end of the lesson the students are ready to transfer the newly acquired knowledge and skills to different problems and situations. One can enhance retention and transfer of the new information by giving examples of similar situations, providing additional practice in various situations, reviewing the lesson.

In The Conditions of Learning and the Theory of Instruction Gagne named several steps to be followed when planning and designing instruction. First, the instructor should identify the types of learning outcomes as well as the prerequisite knowledge or skills they may require. Then one should identity the internal and external conditions needed to achieve the outcomes. Other steps are specifying the learning context, recording the characteristics of the learners and selecting the media for instruction. There should also be a plan how to motivate learners. Finally, the instruction design should be tested both via formative evaluation (before actually being used) and summative evaluation (after being used).

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Instructional-Design Theories and Models: An Overview of Their Current Status
Charles M. Reigeluth.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983
Librarian’s tip: "Conditions of Learning" begins on p. 82
Instructional Theories in Action: Lessons Illustrating Selected Theories and Models
Charles M. Reigeluth.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987
Librarian’s tip: "The Events of Instruction" begins on p. 16
Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology
David H. Jonassen.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 24 "Conditions Theory and Models for Designing Instruction"
Lesson Planning Strategy for Effective Mathematics Teaching
Panasuk, Regina; Stone, Walter; Todd, Jeffrey.
Education, Vol. 122, No. 4, Summer 2002
The Guidance Role of the Instructor in the Teaching and Learning Process
Alutu, Azuka N. G.
Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 1, March 2006
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