Robert Gagne introduced his Nine Events of Instruction in 1965 as the essential events that lead to learning. This time-tested approach is backed by learning research that still holds strong today, and many practitioners use these events to structure their instructional sessions.
This is the appeal of Gagne’s events — they are practical guidelines for introducing research-backed principles into your instruction. By satisfying each of the events appropriately, you ensure that your instructional design approach is founded on learning science.
Gagne clearly wasn’t thinking about eLearning in 1965. However, his principles transfer to online environments fairly well.
In this article, we’ll look particularly at how you can adapt Gagne’s 9 Events to create an instructionally-sound eLearning course.
Let’s get started!
To satisfy Gagne’s 1st event, “gain attention,” he traditionally recommended presenting a change in stimulus (such as turning on and off the lights in a classroom).
However, the essence of this event is to drum up interest in what’s to come and draw the learner into the experience.
To gain the learner’s attention in an eLearning experience, you can use some of the following approaches:
- Present an engaging story that’s relevant to the content
- Incorporate an engaging interactive element, such as allowing the user to choose their avatar
- Ask a thought-provoking question and collect the user’s response
- Present an engaging video or animation
Remember, the user’s experience of this event shouldn’t feel like work. Your approach to gaining attention should inspire your users to attend to the learning experience.
The best approaches to gaining attention in eLearning courses are either fun for the users or highly relevant to their needs and interests.
To satisfy Gagne’s 2nd event, you must tell the learner what they’re going to learn.
This helps prime them for the learning experience. It sets expectations about what the experience will cover and what skills or knowledge they can expect to take away from it.
If you’re an instructional designer, then you’re likely trained in crafting learning objectives. You know how to tick all of the necessary boxes and ensure that your objectives translate directly into measurable outcomes.
However, you don’t need to show your learners these well-crafted objectives. The technical terms and level of detail in these objectives often causes learners’ eyes to glaze over.
Instead, present your learning objectives in conversational language. Rather than saying that you will learn how to “Describe the purpose of each component in the Plantatron 2000” and “Fix each component in the Plantatron 2000,” it would be better to tell the learners that they will learn “learn all about the Plantatron 2000, including how to fix it if it breaks.”
Before presenting new instructional content, Gagne recommends that you stimulate recall of prior knowledge.
By helping the learner bring prior knowledge into their working memory, it makes it easier for them to incorporate new knowledge into their long-term memory.
This is because, from the cognitive information processing perspective, new information is encoded into long-term memory when connections are drawn between new information and information that already exists in long-term memory.
By encouraging these connections and helping your learners drum up prior knowledge, you’re doing your part in helping promote long-term learning.
Some ways you can do this are:
- Asking questions that require the learner to draw on their pre-existing knowledge
- Asking the learner to summarize their pre-existing knowledge on the subject
- Referring to pre-existing knowledge that you’re confident the learners already possess
At this point, Gagne recommends that you present the instructional content. You should break the content into chunks to make it easier to digest, and you should provide examples to help your audience learn from.
In the context of eLearning, content may come in the form of animated videos, text-based slides, PDFs, narrated slideshows, and so much more.
It’s up to you to ensure that your content is aligned with your learning objectives, and it’s also a good idea to adhere to Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning.
Gagne’s 5th event refers to the guidance that you should provide your learners to help them acquire the new skills and knowledge. Guidance takes many forms, but it’s important that you don’t skip this event.
If you think about Gagne’s 4th event as your chance to present all of the necessary content, then Gagne’s 5th event is your chance to provide strategies and suggestions that your learners can use to learn or remember the content more easily.
The most common examples of guidance are:
- Mnemonic devices (such as “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos” to remember the order of the planets)
- Tips or suggestions about how to study the material (e.g. “Making flashcards is a great way to help you remember the vocab words”)
In the context of eLearning, you can provide guidance by:
- Making recommendations about how often the user should return to the course
- Suggesting which guides or job aids the user should use to complete the activities
- Offering ideas about what the learner can do on their own time to reinforce the new skills or knowledge
Eliciting performance is synonymous with “providing practice opportunities.” If you’re an instructional designer, you likely already know how important practice is within an instructional experience.
Practice gives the learner a chance to experiment with their new knowledge and skills. By repeatedly applying the new knowledge or skills, they can gradually encode the new content into long-term memory.
Within eLearning, you can provide practice opportunities in the form of multiple-choice questions, gamified experiences, drag-and-drop interactions, scenario-based questions, simulations, and so much more.
Providing feedback goes hand-in-hand with eliciting performance.
When you provide practice opportunities, you must provide feedback so that the learner can see what they’re doing well in addition to what they need to improve on.
Since giving feedback is an essential element of any instructional eLearning experience, you should provide detailed explanations for why each incorrect answer is incorrect and why each correct answer is correct. It’s best to provide this feedback as soon as possible after the learner answers the question or performs the task.
Digesting relevant feedback helps the learner adjust their mental models and cognitive skills as needed so that they can do better on the assessment or on the job. Don’t overlook this event!
Gagne’s 8th event, assess performance, helps the instructional designer just as much as it helps the learner.
This event entails providing a scored assessment to measure the degree to which the participants learned the new knowledge or skills.
The most common way to conduct an assessment within an eLearning course is to include a scored set of questions at the end of the experience. You can also include scored software simulations if the new skill is related to a task on the computer.
If you’d like to get more creative and you have a larger budget, you can create a gamified assessment. Also, if you’d like to learn more about how to create good assessments, I recommend researching psychometrics.
The assessment results are helpful for the learner because they can use the results to gauge how well or how poorly they know the new knowledge or skills; likewise, this data helps designers because they can adjust their instructional experience as needed based on the participants’ performance.
Gagne’s 9th event prompts you to help the learner transfer the new skills or knowledge to their lives or to the job.
For example, if I develop an eLearning course on how to fix a machine, I would provide a quick-reference PDF that the participant can take away to use on the job. By providing artifacts like this, you’re bridging the experience from the training environment to the real world.
You can also enhance transfer in eLearning by including questions about how the learner will use the new knowledge or skills in their everyday lives.
By encouraging the learner to think about how they’ll use the new material, you’re helping them draw connections between the new material and their real needs. Bridging this gap while they’re still in the learning environment increases the likelihood that they will remember it in the work environment.
Finally, you can enhance transfer and retention by mirroring the work environment as closely as possible in the learning environment. Use realistic backdrops, speech, and activities.
The more that the learning environment resembles the performance environment, the higher the likelihood that the new material will transfer successfully.
Now let’s imagine that we’re developing an eLearning course that teaches Gagne’s 9 Events. We can use his events to create an outline for the course.
Let’s go through each of his events and see how it can be applied to the course that we’re designing.
1. Gain Attention
Play an audio clip from a Robert Gagne interview as each element of the title screen appears (course title, photo of Robert Gagne, and “Get Started” button).
2. State Objectives
State that “you will learn who Gagne is, what each of his nine events entails, and how you can use his nine events to create an instructional experience of your own.”
3. Stimulate Recall
Ask “Imagine that you’re tasked with designing an instructional experience from scratch. How do you approach the project?” and present options:
- A. Follow a predefined process
- B. Include the elements that you believe are most important
- C. Look at similar instructional experiences and model those
After the user selects an answer, inform them that Gagne’s Nine Events provide a research-backed approach that they can use to create comprehensive instructional experiences from the ground up.
4. Present Content
Break up the content into the following sections and present narration, graphics, and on-screen text as needed:
- Who is Robert Gagne?
- Gagne’s 9 Events
- How to Apply Gagne’s 9 Events
5. Provide Guidance
Suggest that participants repeatedly study Gagne’s 9 Events until they can pull them from memory. Inform participants that while Gagne’s events help provide the structure for the experience, they will still need to use other instructional design principles to design and write the content itself.
Also suggest that participants analyze some of their past lesson plans and see which of Gagne’s events are satisfied and how. Tell them that this will help them apply Gagne’s 9 events moving forward.
6. Elicit Performance
Tell participants to imagine that they’re leading a workshop on effective communication. Ask them, event by event, how they will apply each event to design the workshop.
7. Provide Feedback
Provide a suggested response for each event and ask the user to compare their response to the suggested response. Provide a “Learn More” button that the learner can select to read an explanation of how the suggested response satisfied the event.
8. Assess Performance
Ask the user a series of 10 scored multiple-choice questions about Gagne’s 9 Events at the end of the experience.
9. Enhance Retention and Transfer
Provide a PDF job aid that briefly explains each of Gagne’s 9 Events and how to satisfy them. Also provide a screen that shows how the user decided to satisfy each of the events for the practice activity. Explain how this could be used as the foundation for the ensuing design and development.
Tell the user that these events can be incorporated any time they need to design a comprehensive instructional experience — no matter the medium.
As you can see, Gagne mapped out each element necessary for an instructionally-sound learning experience. However, these nine events do not need to occur in the order that we’ve covered them in this article.
Instead, you can incorporate these events at every step of your experience — address the learner’s prior knowledge whenever it makes sense to do so, incorporate attention-grabbing elements however you can, and include loads of practice and feedback for each objective.
These elements should all be present, but there isn’t a predefined structure that your experience must align to.
Once you’ve memorized Gagne’s 9 Events and you feel comfortable incorporating each event into your design, you will likely find that you become much more efficient and confident with your instructional design.