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18. Conditions-based models for designing instruction

18.1 Introduction
18.2 Evolution of the Condition-Based Theory
18.3 Contributions of R.M. Gagné
18.4 Examples of Conditions-Based Models
18.5 An examination of the Propositions of a Conditions-Based Theory
18.6 Conclusions
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18. Conditions-based models for designing instruction

Tillman J. Ragan
Patricia L. Smith
University of Oklahoma



One of the most influential and pervasive theories underlying instructional design are the propositions that: (a) There are identifiably different types of learning outcomes, and (b) the acquisition of these outcomes requires different internal and external conditions of learning(1). In other words, this theory suggests that all learning is not qualitatively the same, that there are learning outcomes across contents, contexts, and learners that have significant and identifiable similarities in their cognitive demands on the learner. Further, each learning outcome category has significant and identifiable differences in its cognitive demands from the demands of other learning outcome categories. Finally, as this family of theories is instructional in nature, they propose that these distinctive cognitive processing demands can be supported by equally distinctive instructional methods, strategies, tactics, or conditions.

These propositions underlie what Wilson and Cole (1991) terms a "conditions-of-learning" paradigm of instructional design. Models of instructional design that follow a conditions-based theory are predicated upon the seminal principles of Robert Gagné (1966): (a) Learning can be classified into categories that require similar cognitive activities for learning (Gagné termed these "internal conditions of learning"); and, therefore, (b) within these categories of learning, similar instructional supports are needed to facilitate learning (Gagne termed these "external conditions of learning").

The influence of a conditions-based perspective can be found in the task analysis, strategy development, assessment, and evaluation procedures of conditions-based instructional design models. However, the point at which the conditions based perspective has the greatest influence and most unique contribution is on the development of instructional strategies. According to conditions-based models, when designing instructional strategies, instructional designers must determine the goals of instruction, categorize these goals as to outcome category, and select strategies that have been suggested as being effective for this category of learning outcome (or devise strategies consistent with the cognitive processing demands of the learning task).

Examples of conditions-based models of design have been authored by Gagné (1985) and Gagné, Briggs, and Wager (1988), Merrill (1983), Reigeluth (1979), Merrill and Li (1990), and Smith and Ragan (1993). Other authors, though they may not posit a complete approach to instructional design or "model," have suggested conditions-based approaches to strategy design ( e.g., Horn, 1976; Landa, 1983). Interestingly, several of these explications (Jonassen, Grabinger & Harris, 1991; West, Fanner & Wolf, 1991) present the instructional processes first and then suggest the learning outcomes for which these strategies might be appropriate.

The purpose of this chapter is to describe the evolution of the conditions-based perspective, exemplify and compare conditions-based models, and examine the assumptions of the conditions-based model both theoretically and empirically. These assumptions are:

  1. Learning goals can be categorized as to learning outcome or knowledge type.
  2. Learning outcomes can be represented in a predictable prerequisite relationship.
  3. Acquisition of different outcome categories requires different internal processes (or, different internal processes lead to different cognitive outcomes).
  4. Different internal processes are supported by identifiably different instructional processes (or, different instructional processes lead to different internal processes).

1. I We refer here to "conditions of learning" as described by Gagné (1985) as external conditions of learning, that is, those instructional supports that are designed to promote learning, rather than instructional conditions as described by Reigeluth and Menill (1978), which are primarily learner and learning context variables.


Updated June 11, 2001
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