Applying Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning in the Training Classroom

Improve learning outcomes and ensure a greater retention of knowledge and skills.
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Improve learning outcomes and ensure a greater retention of knowledge and skills

By Dave Donohue

In 1965, Robert Gagne published “The Conditions of Learning.”  In the book, Gagne defined learning as, “a change in an individual’s capacities that continues during a specific period, and that cannot be ascribed to the natural process of aging.”  He described five categories of learning and sought to present a common framework that could be applied across learning categories. 

Gagne’s Five Categories of Learning

Intellectual Skills

Verbal Skills

Cognitive Strategies (students developing ways to learn)

Motor Skills

Attitudes

Gagne also established a theory of instructional design and teaching that guides instructors and, when correctly applied, speeds learning.  Gagne’s research suggested that all learning is based on previous learning and that there is a hierarchy to learning and that, when placed in sequence, learners move through each step in the process of acquiring new information and skills.  When the steps are completed in sequence, learners become engaged in the learning process and retain the information or skill being taught, allowing them to benefit from learning opportunities.  The Levels of Learning provide a checklist for trainers that can be used when designing and delivering training.

The Nine Levels

Gagne proposed nine ascending levels of learning, with each level serving as a step in the learning process.  The first level, Reception, involves gaining the attention of the learner and providing a clue that there is a shift into the learning process.  A common example of this level in action is when early childhood educators prepare students for learning activities.  They will often use specific activities such as songs or hand clapping to signal the shift into learning.  Adult educators should also use specific prompts to signal to learners that learning activities are about to take place.  This may include icebreaker activities or asking questions to guide the learner into the activity. 

The second level, Expectancy, provides the learner with the expectations of the lesson, describing what will be taking place and how mastery will be demonstrated.  This prepares the learners by helping them identify what to focus on during the learning process.  By understanding the criteria for success, learners guide their learning process with a focus on the desired learning outcomes.

The third step, Retrieval, recognizes that future learning is built on past learning.  In this level, past learning is reviewed and linked to the current learning objectives.  By tying the current learning previous learning, instructors are able to move learners from what they know through the zone of proximal development, where the learner is able to perform with assistance, into areas where learners are truly using newly acquired knowledge and skills in new ways. 

The fourth level, Selective Perception, presents the new information to the learners using multiple activities and media.  The fifth level, Semantic Encoding, builds on the information presented in level four and reinforces the concepts using additional activities and media to ensure that the new knowledge and skills are deeply encoded and remembered.  By using multiple media, activities, and learning opportunities to support the learning objective, instructors can reinforce learning and learners can strengthen the biological processes associated with learning and retaining new information and skills. 

Level six, Responding, provides learners the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the new knowledge or skill and is immediately followed by level seven, Reinforcement, where they receive feedback regarding their understanding or performance.  These levels provide opportunities for recalling information and skills and receiving feedback on how well the material was recalled.  Frequent quizzing, both graded and ungraded, that provides feedback and corrective information is key to long-term recall, retention, and application of newly acquired knowledge and skills.

Gagne’s Levels of Learning conclude with Generalization.  At this level, the learners have demonstrated mastery of the new knowledge and skill and are now applying it in new and unique ways.  The learners can connect past learning to what has been learned and connect it with future application. 

Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning

The framework established by Gagne assists instructors and course developers with a framework that can be applied after the learning objectives are established, which helps prepare and deliver content while addressing the conditions needed for optimal learning.  By identifying the prerequisites that should be completed, the hierarchy provides a basis for developing the sequence for instruction, including the order of learning and methods for ensuring adequately delivering new information and skills and methods for ensuring maximum learning retention.  The Levels of Learning can be combined and fit well with other learning models such as the ADDIE, 4MAT, and ARCS models, allowing greater flexibility to apply this well-tested concept with different instructional design models. 

Gagne also identified four principles of instruction that support the use of the learning hierarchy.  These are as follows:

  1. Different instruction is required for different learning outcomes.
  2. Events of learning operate on the learner in ways that constitute the conditions of learning.
  3. The specific operations that constitute instructional events are different for each different type of learning outcome.
  4. Learning hierarchies define what intellectual skills are to be learned and a sequence of instruction.
Applying Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning
LevelDescriptionApplication
9 – Enhancing Retention and Transfer (Generalization)The final level in Gagne’s hierarchy.  Newly acquired knowledge and skills are applied and transferred to new and unique situations.Associate course concepts with past and future learning (reinforcing connections).Incorporate questions from previous tests and assessments in subsequent exams and evaluations to reinforce the new information or skill.Clearly describe the goals of the lesson.Align class activities with course goals.
8 – Assess Performance (Retrieval)Test and evaluate performance to determine mastery of material.Provide pre- and post-tests.Embed formative assessment into the course (i.e., oral questioning, short interactive activities, quizzes).Provide multiple evaluation opportunities throughout the training course.Build effective grading rubrics.
7 – Provide Feedback (Reinforcement)Follow performance with meaningful feedback and correction, reinforcing key points and activities.Provide confirmatory feedback (confirming that they correctly performed).Provide evaluative feedback (describing how accurate the performance is).Provide remedial feedback (guiding them to the correct answer).Provide descriptive feedback (suggestions on how to improve performance)Allow for peer-to-peer evaluation.Provide opportunities for self-evaluation.
6 – Eliciting Performance (Responding)Participants use or demonstrate acquisition of the new knowledge or skill.Facilitate activities by asking deep learning questions, providing peer collaboration opportunities and practical labs.Provide multiple formative assessments such as written assignments, individual and group projects, and presentations.Provide frequent quiz and test opportunities.
5 – Provide Learning Guidance (Semantic Encoding)Provide alternative approaches to illustrate the new information or skill.Use case studies, graphics, metaphors, and storytelling.Provide scaffolding to support learning.Model varied learning strategies such as mnemonics, concept maps, and role-playing.Use examples (what to do) and nonexamples (what not to do).Include evaluation rubrics with activities and projects.Provide timelines for work completion.
4 – Presenting the Stimulus (Selective Perception)Present the new information in a logical, easy to follow manner using different media and styles.Present multiple versions of the same content (i.e., show a video, discuss the content, and use group work).Use a variety of media.Incorporate active learning.Provide links and opportunities for out-of-class work and further research.Post content.Conduct surveys.Create wiki’s and blogs.
3 – Stimulate Recall of Prior Learning (Retrieval)Match the new information or skill with previously acquired learning (link what is already known with what they will learn).Ask questions about previous experiences.Ask about understanding of previously learned concepts.Relate previous course materials to current topic.Have students incorporate prior learning into current activities.Use discussion boards for sharing ideas and thoughts.
2 – Informing Learners of the Objective (Expectancy)Introduce what is to be learned and why it is being delivered.Describe the required level of performance.Describe the performance criteria.Have learners establish the criteria for success.Include course objectives on assessment prompts, slides, syllabus, and instructions.
1 – Gaining Attention (Reception)Gain the attention of the learners and establish that a period of learning is starting.Use novelty, uncertainty, or surprise.Pose thought-provoking questions.Have students pose questions to other students.Conduct an icebreaking activity.Conduct surveys.Use discussion boards to prompt the beginning of the learning activity.Discuss related current events.

By applying Gagne’s Levels of Learning in the context of the five types of learning and the four principles of instruction, emergency services trainers and course developers are able to improve learning outcomes; ensure a greater retention of newly acquired knowledge and skills; enhance long-term recall and application of material; and, at the same time, reduce time spent in ineffective teaching environments, save time and money, and improve outcomes and quality.

References

University of Florida Center for Instructional Technology and Training (2018).  Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction.  Retrieved from http://citt.ufl.edu/tools/gagnes-9-events-of-instruction/.

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (2020). Gagne’s Nine Event of Instruction.  In Instructional Guide for University Faculty and Teaching Assistants.  Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional.guide.

Janse, B. (2019). Gagne’s Conditions of Learning.  Retrieved from https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/gagnes-conditions-of-learning.

Culatta, R. (2020). Conditions of Learning (Robert Gagne). Retrieved from https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/conditions-learning/.

Mindtools (2020). Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/gagne.htm.

Dave Donohue has been involved in emergency services since 1979 and the fire/EMS service since 1982.  He has served in agencies in Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland and is currently a member of the Community Volunteer Fire Company of District 12 in Fairplay, Maryland.  He works full time for a federal fire and EMS training and education center located in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is an instructor for the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute.  He can be reached at dkdonohue@aol.com.

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