Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 4a - Gagné's hierarchy of learning

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Gagné's hierarchy of learning

In 1956, the American educational psychologist Robert M. Gagné proposed a system of classifying different types of learning in terms of the degree of complexity of the mental processes involved. He identified eight basic types, and arranged these in the hierarchy shown in Figure 1. According to Gagné, the higher orders of learning in this hierarchy build upon the lower levels, requiring progressively greater amounts of previous learning for their success. The lowest four orders tend to focus on the more behavioural aspects of learning, while the highest four focus on the more cognitive aspects.

increasing complexity

Figure 1 : Gagné's hierarchy of learning:

Let us now take a closer look at Gagné's eight categories of learning.

1. Signal Learning. This is the simplest form of learning, and consists essentially of the classical conditioning first described by the behavioural psychologist Pavlov. In this, the subject is 'conditioned' to emit a desired response as a result of a stimulus that would not normally produce that response. This is done by first exposing the subject to the chosen stimulus (known as the conditioned stimulus) along with another stimulus (known as the unconditioned stimulus) which produces the desired response naturally; after a certain number of repetitions of the double stimulus, it is found that the subject emits the desired response when exposed to the conditioned stimulus on its own. The applications of classical conditioning in facilitating human learning are, however, very limited.

2. Stimulus-response learning. This somewhat more sophisticated form of learning, which is also known as operant conditioning, was originally developed by Skinner. It involves developing desired stimulus-response bonds in the subject through a carefully-planned reinforcement schedule based on the use of 'rewards' and 'punishments'. Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that the reinforcing agent (the 'reward' or 'punishment') is presented after the response. It is this type of conditioning that forms the basis of programmed learning in all its various manifestations.

3. Chaining. This is a more advanced form of learning in which the subject develops the ability to connect two or more previously-learned stimulus-response bonds into a linked sequence. It is the process whereby most complex psychomotor skills (eg riding a bicycle or playing the piano) are learned.

4. Verbal association. This is a form of chaining in which the links between the items being connected are verbal in nature. Verbal association is one of the key processes in the development of language skills.

5. Discrimination learning. This involves developing the ability to make appropriate (different) responses to a series of similar stimuli that differ in a systematic way. The process is made more complex (and hence more difficult) by the phenomenon of interference, whereby one piece of learning inhibits another. Interference is thought to be one of the main causes of forgetting.

6. Concept learning. This involves developing the ability to make a consistent response to different stimuli that form a common class or category of some sort. It forms the basis of the ability to generalise, classify etc.

7. Rule learning. This is a very-high-level cognitive process that involves being able to learn relationships between concepts and apply these relationships in different situations, including situations not previously encountered. It forms the basis of the learning of general rules, procedures, etc.

8. Problem solving. This is the highest level of cognitive process according to Gagné. It involves developing the ability to invent a complex rule, algorithm or procedure for the purpose of solving one particular problem, and then using the method to solve other problems of a similar nature.

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