Meet Robert M. Gagné

A thought leader in the world of learning and instructional design, Robert M. Gagné and his colleagues contributed much to draw upon for guidance in higher education and workplace learning.

Have you heard of Robert M. Gagné? Well, if not…Robert M. Gagné, Ph.D., was a scientist with specialties in psychology and educational psychology. He was a thought leader in the world of learning and instructional design. And he and his colleagues contributed much to draw upon for guidance in higher education and workplace learning.

According to Wikipedia, “Gagné pioneered the science of instruction during World War II when he worked with the Army Air Corps training pilots. He went on to develop a series of studies and works that simplified and explained what he and others believed to be ‘good instruction.’ Gagné also was involved in applying concepts of instructional theory to the design of computer-based training and multimedia-based learning.”

A few of associated tools for your proverbial “tool belt” include:

  • “The Conditions of Learning and theory of Instruction” (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1965)
  • “Principles of Instructional Design” (Briggs, Gagné, & Wager, HBJ College Publishers, 1992)
  • “Essentials of Learning for Instruction” (Gagné, Driscoll, Prentice-Hall, 1988)
  • 5 Domains of Learning
  • 9 Events of Instruction

5 Domains of Learning

In 1985, Gagné began to classify learning into distinct groups, and ultimately streamlined his research into five domains:


  1. Intellectual Skills

2. Cognitive Strategy

3. Verbal Information


4. Motor Skills


5. Attitude

You may recognize these domains as they appear in Bloom’s Taxonomy, too. (Isn’t it nice when there is synchronicity?)

Cognitive: Mental skills (knowledge)

Affective: Growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self)

Psychomotor: Manual or physical skills (skills)

So What?

You may be thinking: Why does any of this matter? And…SO WHAT?

Well, if the goals of the work of the Learning and Development (L&D) profession is to set our learners up for success and sustained retention of the learning, then what Robert Gagné and his colleagues have written matters quite a lot—even for our own success doing this work. Knowing these principles and taking them to heart means…drumroll…designing, developing, and facilitating learning experiences that tap into and awaken the three domains increases the likelihood of the learning meeting the objectives, better outcomes, and greater levels of learning retention. In addition, and most importantly, it means the learners have barrier-free access to the learning content, found the learning experience a valuable use of their time, and are finding success on the job! Note: Business data and metrics should bear this out. Hopefully, you discerned how to compare and contrast this information when doing the needs assessment.

9 Events of Instruction

The 9 Events of Instruction have application in pretty much every aspect of L&D professionals’ work. Are you thinking, “So what?” again? As you read through them, notice how they are in direct alignment to what works best with adult learners. Use the “events” to guide all of your learning content planning and discussions going forward.

  1. Gain the attention of the learners (students).
    Craft learning content that is intended to capture learners’ attention immediately, using methods that point directly to what is in it for them. Demonstrate exactly how the learning applies to the work and how it will improve their workflow and help them to be more successful on the job.
  2. Inform learners (students) of the objectives.
    This doesn’t mean the first slide in an e-learning course or training class must be the course objectives every time, no exceptions. Instead, it means the learning content needs to be clear up front specifically about the expectations of the learners and what leadership has in mind, with respect to the business—and how leaders define success. Provide a forum for the learners to define their own goals for completing the learning content, as well. Continually asking the learners to dial back into WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) always matters.
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning.
    Adult learners require this. How else would they decide whether it is worth it to spend time completing the course or class? Relevance matters. Use scenarios, situations, stories, and simulations to make relevance obvious.
  4. Present the content.
    Organize and group the learning content in ways that make sense to the learners and how they do their work.
  5. Provide learning guidance.
    Provide tools and strategies that help learners to learn how to learn. Scaffold the learning content. Use role-plays to embed the learning and to see the relevance back on the job. Tips, tools, subject matter expertise, stories from others, lessons learned expertise, and “what to avoid” information all work, too.
  6. Elicit performance (practice).
    It is important that the learners are able to practice right away. Provide practice exercises, formative assessments, individual or group projects—whatever makes the most sense in your situation.
  7. Provide feedback.
    Learners deserve ongoing feedback regarding their performance and progress. When they complete projects, they deserve to receive critical feedback that helps propel them forward in the process. Ideally, a plan for supervisory feedback is crafted in parallel to the learning content, for use back at work, too.
  8. Assess performance.
    Use formative assessments to check in with learners along the way. This means quizzes, Socratic questioning, verbal check-ins, projects, and assignments. When the learning is to take place over time or is highly complex, it may be advantageous to administer a pre-assessment to determine the level of proficiency and competency. Post-assessments work well, too. Use them to determine what has changed with respect to proficiency and competency.
  9. Enhance retention and transfer.
    Doing all of this helps with enhanced retention of learning. On-the-job, supervisor or peer observation, and feedback using predetermined metrics work well, too. Or bring learners back to a refresher or update course/class. No matter what the plan, the important thing is to do it.

See? Robert M. Gagné and his colleagues’ work is pretty important to our own work. Application helps to prioritize learner success!

Dawn J. Mahoney, CPTD, owns Learning in The White Space LLC, a freelance talent development (“training”) and instructional design consultancy. She is passionate about developing people through better training, better instructional design, and better dialog. E-mail her at: