Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory

Robert Gagné’s seminal work is his conditions of learning theory. It includes five categories of learning outcomes and the nine events of instruction. Together, these two themes of Gagné’s learning theory provide a framework for learning conditions.

Gagné’s work (1985) focuses on intentional or purposeful learning, which is the type of learning that occurs in school or specific training programs. He believed that events in the environment influence the learning process. His theory identifies the general types of human capabilities that are learned. These capabilities are the behavioral changes (learning outcomes) in a learner that a learning theory must explain. Once the learning outcomes are identified, an analysis of the conditions that govern learning and remembering can occur (Gagné, 1985, p. 15).

For example, a learner who is participating in a situation where the right conditions for learning are invoked, then he or she will experience the five categories of learning outcomes that include the human capabilities of intellectual skills, verbal information, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes.

Gagné also relates learning outcomes to the events of instruction. He provides systematic statements of theory to describe the ways that instructional events are designed for each of the learning outcomes or capabilities.

While Benjamin Bloom (1956) developed his taxonomy of cognitive outcomes based on increasingly complex levels, Gagné (1985) developed his five categories of learning outcomes based on the characteristics of the content that a learner must learn. His outcomes do not consist of any particular order or complexity of levels, other than the sub-categories within the Intellectual Skills category. Gagné separated Bloom’s knowledge class into a category he named verbal information, and he added another category of learning outcomes he named cognitive strategies. He believed cognitive strategies were learning strategies that learners adopted and applied in the process of learning, and that they are not subject specific (Wager, n.d.).

Description of Gagné’s Conditions of Learning Theory

Gagné’s conditions of learning theory draws upon general concepts from various learning theories in order to define what learning is. The theory looks at the observable changes in human behaviour that confirm that learning has occurred. Gagné’s theory provides an answer to the question, “what is learning?” In answering that question, Gagné provides a description of the conditions under which learning takes place by referring to situations in ordinary life and in school where learning occurs, and by referring to experimental studies in learning.

Gagné (1985) postulates that proof of learning shows by a difference in a learner’s performance before and after participating in a learning situation. He claims that the presence of the performance does not make it possible to conclude that learning has occurred; but instead, it is necessary to show that there has been a change in performance. In other words, the capability for exhibiting the performance before learning requires consideration as well as the capability that exists after learning (p. 16).

The following four elements provide the framework for Gagné’s Conditions of learning theory.

  • Conditions of Learning
  • Association Learning
  • The Five Categories of Learning Outcomes
  • The Nine Events of Instruction

Conditions of Learning

Gagné (1985) describes two different types of conditions that exist in learning: internal and external. Capabilities that already exist in a learner before any new learning begins make up the internal conditions necessary for learning. These internal conditions are transformed during the learning process. External conditions include different stimulus’s that exist outside the learner such as the environment, the teacher, and the learning situation. This means that each new learning situation begins from a different point of prior learning and will consist of a different external situation, depending on the learner and on the learning environment. Therefore, the useful prototypes of learning by association (described next) are delineated by internal and external learning conditions (p. 17).

Association Learning

There are three basic prototypes of learning that demonstrate the characteristics of associative learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and verbal association. Gagné adds a fourth that relates to the three prototypes: chaining. Classical conditioning is the process where the learner associates an already available response with a new stimulus or signal. Operant conditioning is the process where a response in a learner is instrumental and thereby leads to a subsequent reinforcing event. Verbal association occurs when the learner makes verbal responses to stimuli that are words or pairs of words. Chaining is a process where a learner connects individual associations in sequence. For example, a learner can recite verbal sequences consisting of lists of words, or the alphabet from A-Z (Gagné, p. 24).

Gagné (1985) believes these four prototypes of associative learning are components of learned human capabilities and link together as basic forms of learning (pp. 17-18). Gagné refers to them so he may present a comprehensive picture of how these prototypes of learning relates to the five categories of learning outcomes.

The Five Categories of Learning Outcomes

One of the themes of Gagné’s theory is distinguishing the types of outcomes that learning has: the categories of learned capabilities – observed as human performances – that have common characteristics. Gagné describes five categories of human performance established by learning:

  • Intellectual skills (“knowing how” or having procedural knowledge)
  • Verbal information (being able to state ideas, “knowing that”, or having declarative knowledge)
  • Cognitive strategies (having certain techniques of thinking, ways of analyzing problems, and having approaches to solving problems)
  • Motor skills (executing movements in a number of organized motor acts such as playing sports or driving a car)
  • Attitudes (mental states that influence the choices of personal actions)

The five categories of learning outcomes provide the foundation for describing how the conditions of learning apply to each category.

Gagné (1985) postulates that if the five categories of learning outcomes and the ways of analyzing learning requirements are combined in a rational and systematic manner, then it will be possible to describe a set of ideas that make up a theory of instruction (p. 243). He adds that a theory of instruction should attempt to relate the external events of instruction to the outcomes of learning by showing how these events lead to appropriate support or enhancement of internal learning processes (p. 244).

The Nine Events of Instruction

The events of instruction are the external events that help learning occur, and are designed to achieve each of the five different learning outcomes. Gagné numbers the instructional events from one to nine, showing a sequential order.

The nine events are as follows:

  • Gaining Attention
  • Informing Learners of the Objective
  • Stimulating Recall of Prior Learning
  • Presenting the Stimulus
  • Providing Learning Guidance
  • Eliciting Performance
  • Providing Feedback
  • Assessing Performance
  • Enhancing Retention and Transfer

Together, the conditions of learning, association learning, the five categories of learning outcomes, and the nine events of instruction provide a description of the framework for Gagné’s conditions of learning theory.

Main Elements of Gagné’s Conditions of Learning Theory

The following links provide a summary of the two main elements of Gagné’s theory.

  • The Five Categories of Learning Outcomes
  • The Nine Events of Instruction

The Five Categories of Learning Outcomes

In his theory, Gagné (1985) describes five categories of human performance established by learning (learning outcomes): intellectual skills, verbal information, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes. They are comprehensive and do not follow any specific order. Any learned capability will have the characteristics of one or another of these categories.

Below is a brief summary of each of the five categories, summarized from Gagné & Driscoll (1988) Essentials of Learning for Instruction (pp. 44-59).

Intellectual Skills

Intellectual skills involve the use of symbols such as numbers and language to interact with the environment. They involve knowing how to do something rather than knowing that about something. Intellectual skills require an ability to carry out actions. Often they require the interactions with the environment through symbols such as letters, numbers, words, or diagrams. When a learner has learned an intellectual skill, he or she will be able to demonstrate its application to at least one particular instance of the subject matter learned.

Out of the five categories, intellectual skills is the only category that is divided into sub-categories. The division is according to the complexity of the skill level, and how they relate to each other. The more complex skills require the prior learning or mastery of the simpler skills before the learning process is complete. The links below will take you to a brief summary of the five sub-categories of intellectual skills.

  • Discriminations
  • Concrete Concepts
  • Defined Concepts
  • Rules
  • Higher-Order Rules

Discriminations:  Discriminations is the first skill to master in intellectual skills. It is the ability to distinguish one feature of an object or symbol from another such as textures, letters, numbers, shapes, and sounds. The human performance or learning outcome achieved by discrimination is the ability to tell the difference among various stimuli. It is the prerequisite to further learning.

Concrete Concepts:  Concept learning occurs after discriminations learning is complete. Concrete concepts are the simplest of the two concept types and consist of classes of object features, objects, and events. Some are relational such as up, down, far, near, higher, lower. The performance or learning outcome achieved from mastery of concrete concepts is the ability to identify a class of objects, object qualities, or relations by pointing out one or more examples or instances of the class.

Defined Concepts:  Concepts not only require identification, but also definition. Defined concepts require a learner to define both general and relational concepts by providing instances of a concept to show its definition. For example, if a learner were to explain the concept alliteration, he or she must define alliteration, and then be able to identify the components of alliteration, such as consonant sound, beginning, sentence, etc., and then be able to provide specific examples of alliteration.

Rules:  Once concepts are learned, the next sub-category of intellectual skills is rules. A rule is a learned capability of the learner, by making it possible for the learner to do something rather than just stating something. For example, when a learner learns the rule for forming an adverb to modify an adjective, he or she knows that ly must be added to the modifier. Because a learner knows the rule to add ly, he or she can apply it to an entire class of words instead of learning an adverbial form for every adjective in the language, enabling the learner to respond correctly to words he or she has never seen before. Rules make it possible to respond to a class of things with a class of performances.

Higher-Order Rules:  Higher-order rules are the process of combining rules by learning into more complex rules used in problem solving. When attempting to solve a problem, a learner may put two or more rules together from different content in order to form a higher-order rule that solves the problem. A higher-order rule differs in complexity from the basic rules that compose it.
Problem solving using higher-order rules occurs in writing paragraphs, speaking a foreign language, using scientific principles, and applying laws to situations of social or economic conflict.

Verbal Information

Another category of learning outcomes is verbal information. This refers to the organized bodies of knowledge that we acquire. They may be classified as names, facts, principles, and generalizations. Verbal information is referred to as declarative knowledge, or knowing that.

The performance or learning outcome achieved through verbal information is the ability of being able to state in a meaningful sentence what was learned. Some examples of acquired verbal information are the ability to define Piaget’s stages of cognitive development; or, stating the rules for scoring in a tennis match.

Cognitive Strategies

Cognitive strategies refer to the process that learners guide their learning, remembering, and thinking. Where intellectual skills are oriented toward aspects of the environment by dealing with numbers, words, and symbols that are external, cognitive strategies govern our processes of dealing with the environment by influencing internal processes. A learner uses cognitive strategies in thinking about what was learned and in solving problems. They are the ways a learner manages the processes of learning, remembering, and thinking.

The performance or learning outcome achieved through cognitive strategies is having the ability to create something new such as creating an efficient system for cataloging computer discs.

Motor Skills

Motor skills are the precise, smooth, and accurately timed execution of movements involving the use of muscles. They are a distinct type of learning outcome and necessary to the understanding of the range of possible human performances. Learning situations that involve motor skills are learning to write, playing a musical instrument, playing sports, and driving a car. The timing and smoothness of executing motor skills indicates that these performances have a high degree of internal organization.


Another distinct category of learning outcomes is attitudes, the internal state that influences the choices of personal actions made by an individual towards some class of things, persons, or events. Choices of action (behaviours) made by individuals are influenced significantly by attitudes. For example, an attitude towards the disposal of trash will influence how a person disposes of pop cans, food containers, organics, etc. An attitude towards music will influence the choice of music an individual will listen to.

General classes of attitudes include attitudes that affect social interactions, attitudes that consist of positive preferences towards certain activities, and attitudes that pertain to citizenship, such as a love of country or showing concern for social needs and goals.

The performance or learning outcome achieved through attitudes is evident in an individual’s choice of actions. For example, choosing swimming over running as a preferred exercise, or choosing not to participate in group events reflects how attitude motivates choices.

The Nine Events of Instruction

Gagné’s (1985) nine events of instruction attempts to relate the external events of instruction to the outcomes of learning by showing how these events lead to the enhancement of internal learning processes (p. 244). Gagné emphasizes that the purpose of an instructional theory is to propose a rationally based relationship between instructional events, their effects on learning processes, and the learning outcomes that occur as a result (p. 244).

The following is a list and a brief summary of each of Gagné’s nine events of instruction summarized from Gagné (1985) (pp. 246-255).

1.    Gaining Attention
2.    Informing Learners of the Objective
3.    Stimulating Recall of Prior Learning
4.    Presenting the Stimulus
5.    Providing Learning Guidance
6.    Eliciting Performance
7.    Providing Feedback
8.    Assessing Performance
9.    Enhancing Retention and Transfer

1. Gaining Attention

The first event of instruction is to gain the attention of students so they are alert for the reception of stimuli. An instructor can achieve this by introducing a rapid stimulus change either by gesturing or by suddenly changing the tone or volume of their voice. Another way of stimulating alertness is by visual or auditory stimuli related to the subject matter. The stimulus chosen for gaining attention will work equally well for all categories of learning outcomes.

2. Informing Learners of the Objective

The second event of instruction is to inform the learner of the purpose and expected outcomes of the learning material. This will provide them with an expectancy that will persist during the time learning is taking place. Feedback at the end of the lesson will provide the learner with confirmation of learning.

An important part of this event of instruction is to provide learners with motivation if learner motivation is not apparent. An instructor can achieve learner motivation by relating an interesting career field to the learning material.

Instructional techniques that will inform the learner of objectives for all five categories of learning outcomes are described below.

Intellectual Skills:  Instructors can demonstrate the activity to which the concept, rule, or procedure applies.

Cognitive Strategy:  Instructor describes or demonstrates the strategy

Verbal Information:  Instructor describes what the learner will be expected to state.

Attitude:  The learner encounters attitude later in the process. (This occurs through instructor demonstration or modeling during instructional event five, providing learning guidance.

Motor Skills:  Instructor demonstrates the expected performance.

3. Stimulating Recall of Prior Learning

The third event of instruction asks the instructor to recall skills or knowledge learners have previously learned. The best kind of recall should naturally relate to the subject matter being learned. The instructional technique for stimulating recall will be different for the different learning outcomes as described below.

Intellectual Skills:  Instructor recalls prerequisite rules and concepts

Cognitive Strategy:  Instructor recalls simple prerequisite rules and concepts
Verbal Information:  Instructor recalls well organized bodies of knowledge

Attitude:  Instructor recalls a situation and action involved in personal choice. He or she reminds learner of the human model and model’s characteristics.

Motor Skills: Instructor recalls the “executive subroutine” (the procedure that constitutes the active framework within which the motor skill is executed, practiced, and refined), and part-skills (the different parts of the procedure), if appropriate.

4. Presenting the Stimulus

The fourth event of instruction is presenting a stimulus that is related to the subject matter. The content of the stimulus should be specific to the learning outcome. For example, if the stimulus is verbal information, printed prose such as a chapter in a textbook or an audio tape will achieve the learning objective. If the stimulus is an intellectual skill, the instructor can display the object and/or symbols that require a concept or rule; or, he or she can present the problem learners need to solve.

The instructor must present the stimulus as an initial phase of learning, so clear indication of stimulus features such as underlining, bold print, highlighting, pointing, or using a change in tone of voice to emphasize major themes is helpful.

The instructional techniques for presenting the stimulus to different learning outcomes are as follows:

Intellectual Skills: Instructor delineates features or the objects and symbols that require defining as a concept or a rule

Cognitive Strategies: Instructor describes the problem and shows what the strategy accomplishes

Verbal Information: Instructor displays text or audio statements, showing or highlighting the distinctive features

Motor Skills: instructor displays the situation at the initiation of the skilled performance, and then demonstrates the procedure

Attitude:  Instructor presents a human model that describes the general nature of the choice that learners will be required to make.

5. Providing Learning Guidance

The fifth event of instruction, providing learning guidance requires the instructor to make the stimulus as meaningful as possible. There are several ways to achieve this, depending upon the learning outcome expected. An instructor can enhance meaningfulness by using concrete examples of abstract terms and concepts, and elaborating ideas by relating them to others already in memory.

The instructional techniques for providing learning guidance to different learning outcomes are as follows:

Intellectual Skills:  Instructor provides varied concrete examples of the concept or rule

Cognitive Strategies:  Instructor provides a verbal description of the strategy, followed by an example

Verbal Information:  Instructor elaborates content by relating to larger bodies of knowledge; uses images and/or mnemonics

Attitude:  Instructor uses the human model and describes or demonstrates an action choice, followed by observation of reinforcement of model’s behaviour

Motor Skill: Continue practicing procedure, focusing on precision and accurately timed execution of movements

6. Eliciting Performance

The sixth instructional event eliciting performance asks a learner to demonstrate the newly learned capability. This may be verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategy, attitude, or motor skill. The learner of verbal information will have the ability to “tell it.” The learner of a new concept or rule (intellectual skills) will have the ability to demonstrate its applicability to a new situation not previously encountered during learning. The learner of a cognitive strategy of problem solving will solve an unfamiliar problem whose solution may use the strategy. The learner of a motor skill demonstrates the learned performance. The learner demonstrates the new attitude in the choices the learner makes.

7. Providing Feedback

The seventh instructional event, providing feedback, asks the instructor to reinforce the newly acquired learning. An instructor can accomplish this through informative feedback where the instructor informs the learner of the degree of correctness or incorrectness of the performance. This feedback may be verbal or written.

8. Assessing Performance

The eighth instructional event, assessing performance, consists of assessments to verify that learning has occurred. In order to assure that learning is stable, an instructor will require additional instances of the performance.

The instructor assesses performance through testing the learner. The purpose of testing is to establish that the learned capacity is stable, and to provide additional practice to assist in consolidating the learned material.

9. Enhancing Retention and Transfer

The ninth instructional event, enhancing retention and transfer, refers to retaining the learned capability over a long period of time and transferring it into new situations outside of the learning environment. Practice ensures retention, especially with verbal information, intellectual skills, and motor skills.

Instructors can enhance retention and transfer by conducting spaced reviews. This means conducting recalls of information learned at various intervals of a day or more after the initial learning. However, the recall is further enhanced when additional examples are spaced in time over days and weeks following the initial learning, and when including a variety of different situations.


Bloom, Benjamin S.; Engelhart, Max D.; Furst, Edward J.; Hill, Walker H.; &     Krathwohl, David R. (Eds.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives –     The Classification of Educational Goals – Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain.     London, WI: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd.

Gagné, Robert M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction (4th Edition). New York: CBS College Publishing.

Gagné, Robert M., & Driscoll, Marcy Perkins (1988). Essentials of Learning for Instruction (2nd Edition). New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Wager, Walter Ed D. (n.d.). Legacy of Robert M. Gagné. Retrieved from Florida State University Department of Education on August 7, 2009 at:

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