The Phases of Learning


True or False? Teachers teach students by motivating them to learn, then presenting information, and finally checking to see what they learned, going back to reteach and recheck as necessary. Is this a reasonably complete description of the teaching/learning process? The answer is, no, it is not. The fact that many teachers adhere to this oversimplified perception of the process offers a good explanation for why many of their students fail to learn. The teaching/learning process can be much better described by the eight events of learning described by Gagne (1985), shown in Figure 3.2.


  1. Attention: Alertness
    1. Expectancy
      1. Retrieval to Working Memory
        1. Selective Perception
          1. Encoding: Entry to LTM
            1. Responding
              1. Feedback
                1. Cueing Retrival

Figure 3.2. The eight phases of learning (based on Gagne, 1985).


In order for effective learning to take place, the learner must go through all eight of these phases. A serious breakdown at any one phase or a cumulative breakdown over several phases can bring learning to a halt. When teachers, textbook writers, computer programmers, or others decide to develop instructional materials or presentations, it is important that they verify that all eight of these events will occur. If the instructional designer does not plan for all eight phases, then either (1) some other person or material must supply the missing steps or (2) effective learning will not occur. The box on page xxx (Box 3.4) describes a situation in which learning did not occur until correction was made for an important step that had been omitted. The following paragraphs briefly describe each of these phases of learning:

1. Attention. As we shall discuss in chapter 6, learning is not likely to occur in the absence of attention. Attention is essential for getting information into the working memory and keeping it active there. Therefore, the first phase in the learning process is that the learner must focus attention on the learning activity. Although this is listed as the "first phase," attention must be maintained throughout the other phases as well. {See Figure 3.2.}

2. Expectancy. During this phase, the learner develops an expectancy that something desirable will happen as a result of the proposed learning process. The result is a motivation to engage in the subsequent phases of the learning process. Strategies for enhancing motivation will be discussed in chapter 5 of this book. {See Figure 3.2.}

3. Retrieval of Relevant Information to Working Memory. The learner retrieves from long-term memory the structures that will be helpful in learning new information or solving problems that have been encountered. Retrieval from long-term memory will be discussed in chapter 6. The nature and development of the cognitive structures will be discussed in chapter 4. It is also reasonable to assume that it is helpful to activate the thinking strategies discussed in chapter 7. {See Figure 3.2.}

4. Selective Perception. During this phase the learner focuses attention on the essential features of the instructional presentation. The transfer of information from the sensory register into working memory will be discussed in chapter 6. It is not always possible for teachers to ascertain by simple inspection where students are focusing attention; and learners often fail to learn because they have focused on the wrong information. {See Figure 3.2.}

It is possible for teachers to help learners direct their attention appropriately through strategies as diverse as simply asking them what they are thinking about (Peterson & Swing, 1992) and using measures of attention to ascertain where they are focusing (e.g., Posner & Friedrich, 1986).

Failures at this selective perception can occur either because the presentation inadequately draws attention, because the learner fails to direct attention, or because of a combination of both of these reasons. A frequent source of faulty selective perception is a fundamental misconception about the topic under consideration: the learner may think he/she is focusing on the correct information, when in reality this is a mistake.

Teachers often assume that because their own attention is focused on the right aspects of the presentation, their students must be focusing on the same aspects. It is best to test this assumption and to make corrections when necessary.

5. Encoding: Entry of Information into Long-Term Storage. During this phase the learner encodes the information - that is, transfers the information into long-term memory by relating it to information that is already stored there. This process of encoding will be discussed in chapter 6. The active construction of information will be the topic of constructivism in chapter 4. {See Figure 3.2.}

6. Responding. During this phase the learner retrieves and actively uses the information that has been stored in long-term memory. The learner demonstrates through an active performance that the learning has taken place. {See Figure 3.2.}

7. Feedback1. During this phase the learner determines the degree to which the performance during the previous phase was satisfactory. When the feedback indicates acceptable performance, this usually serves as reinforcement to the learner. Principles of reinforcement will be discussed in chapters 10 and 11. As chapter 5 will show, reinforcement interacts heavily with motivation. That is, students who evaluate themselves negatively or extrinsically are likely to develop an orientation toward extrinsic motivation, which is likely to interfere with achievement. {See Figure 3.2.}

8. Cueing Retrieval. During this phase the learner practices recalling or applying the information after it has been initially learned in order to enhance retention of the information or to transfer the learning beyond its original context to a new application. {See Figure 3.2.}


When we say that the learner must go through all eight of these phases in order for learning to occur, this does not mean that the teacher is the person responsible for causing all eight of them occur. Somebody (usually either the teacher or the student) must see to it that all of these phases occur, but the actual role of the teacher will vary from situation to situation and from student to student. For example:

  • The teacher might give an introduction to a topic that catches the student's attention (phase 1) and causes the student to develop an expectancy (phase 2) that it would be interesting to know more about the topic.

  • The student might then open the textbook and find a good presentation that focuses his attention exactly on the key points necessary to understand that topic (phase 4).

  • While reading the textbook, the student might without even being aware that it is happening bring to mind information that he already has previously learned that is related to the text presentation (phase 3).

  • The student might easily fit the information into long-term memory by relating it to previous knowledge; or he may be concerned that he might forget the information and run a computer program that offers a drill on the topic to make it easier to retrieve it later (phase 5).

  • The learner might ask himself questions about the topic or answer review questions published in the textbook; and eventually he might take a test designed by the textbook company and administered by the teacher (phase 6).

  • While studying from the textbook, the student might check the answer key to see if his responses are correct; and the teacher would grade the test and return it to the student (phase 7).

  • After successfully passing the unit quiz, the student might still occasionally review the material in order to keep it available for the final examination. In addition, he might find occasions to generalize the information to other settings by applying what he has learned when he sees the relationship of the information to other problems or topics (phase 8).


If the learner does all these activities by himself, effective learning will occur. If any phase does not occur or occurs imperfectly, learning will be weakened. In such cases, the teacher should intervene to help the learner accomplish the activities that comprise that phase of learning. For example, if the student does not respond on his own, the teacher could assign review questions as a homework assignment, call on the student in class, provide class time to let students study together, or supply interesting problems that stimulate the learner to use the information that was encoded during phase 5.



Amazing Anecdote!

One night a wife found her husband standing over their baby's crib. Silently she watched him. As he stood looking down at the sleeping infant, she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, delight, amazement, enchantment, skepticism.

Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, with eyes glistening she slipped her arm around her husband.

"A penny for your thoughts," she said.

"It's amazing!" he replied. "I just can't see how anybody can make a crib like that for only $46.50."

Moral of the story: Don't automatically assume that someone else's selective perception is focused where yours is.


The main features of the phases of learning are summarized in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1.
Gagne's Phases of Learning.




Examples of


Solutions for





Attention: Alertness


Student ignores teacher.

Student is falling asleep.


Change stimuli.

Call for attention.

Increase level of arousal


Sensory register - Ch 6

Level of arousal - Ch 5

Discipline - Ch. 13





Teacher doesn’t specify objectives

Student’s culture doesn’t value stated goal.


State objectives.

Employ principles of motivation.

Understand culture and individual differences.


Objectives - Ch . 15

Motivation - Ch. 5

Individual diffs - Ch. 9


Retrieval to Working Memory


Student not ready to receive information from lesson.


Review prerequisite knowledge.

Teach missing skills


Advance organizers - ch 6

Task analysis - ch 15



Selective Perception


Attention deficit disorder causes failure to attend.

Discipline problems cause distractions.

Teacher or materials fail to direct attention.


Treat disorder.

Use effective management and discipline techniques.

Use Media to direct attention.


Individual diffs - ch. 9

LD - Ch 9

Discipline & Management - Ch. 13

Educational Media - Ch. 15


Encoding: Entry to Long-term Storage


Student fails to encode.

Student’s background does not supply necessary structures.

Student’s misconception causes faulty acquisition.


Use long-term memory strategies.

Teach culture or adapt to student’s culture.

Confront and clarify misconceptions.


Long-term Memory - Ch. 6

Cultural diversity - Ch. 9

Misconceptions - Ch. 4 & 6



Student fails to practice a skill or concept.

Subsequent information interferes with earlier learning.

Learning disability interferes with response

It's unrealistic to expect learner to perform.

Provide practice opportunities, wait time, learning probes, etc.

Prevent retroactive interference.

Treat disability.

Have a model perform the behavior and receive feedback

Practice - Ch. 15

Wait time - Ch. 15

Learning probes - Ch. 15

Retroactive interference - Ch. 6

Practice - Ch. 15

LD - Ch. 9

Modeling and vicarious reinforcement - Ch. 12



Teacher fails to provide feedback.

Student doesn't recognize or like feedback.

Student receives no direction from feedback.

Student gets feedback on wrong task.

Provide feedback.

Teach self regulation.

Make sure reinforcement is reinforcing.

Use corrective feedback - not just negative feedback.

Make sure tests are valid.


Testing - Ch 14

Behavior Modification - Ch. 10 & 11

Self-regulation - Ch 7

Corrective feedback - Ch. 15




Student cannot find key to trigger recall.

Student learns, but then forgets

Student is restricted to original context.

Student relies on rote memory rather than understanding.


Use distributed practice.

Use overlearning.

Use variety of examples during instruction.

Teach metacognitive strategies.


Memory - Ch 6

Transfer - Ch. 6

Thinking Skills - Ch 7

Overlearning - Ch. 6



Click here to see a Useful Example from Taekwando


Review Quiz 2 - Learning Phases Matching Exercise


Listed below are the phases of learning and examples of activities teachers or teaching materials may perform in order to influence or support these phases. Match each activity with the internal process that would occur during each instructional activity.

a. Attention

b. Expectancy

c. Retrieval to Working Memory

d. Selective perception

e. Encoding

f. Responding

g. Feedback

h. Cueing Retrieval

1 _____ The computer program responds, "Wrong. But you're getting close!" when the child gives an incorrect answer during a computer drill.

2 _____ The teacher snaps her finger to remind John to stop talking and to pay attention.

3 _____ A teacher tries to help a child remember how to spell a word by stating the rule "I before E except after C."

4 _____ A computer program flashes key words in a sentence as it presents the definition of a concept on the screen.

5 _____ A dance instructor reviews with students two basic moves that will be combined into a new, more complex move.

6 _____ The physics teacher tells students that at the end of the unit they will be able to estimate the distance a projectile will travel by knowing the angle at which it is shot and the force exerted on it.

7 _____ On each weekly quiz, the math teacher includes 50 questions - 25 covered that week and 25 from previous weeks. (Focus here on the 25 from the previous weeks.)

8 _____ The teacher encourages a child to use in science class a strategy that she learned in social studies class.

9 _____ When the student cannot remember the capital of Ohio a week after learning it, the teacher says it begins with C.

10 _____ The English teacher gives a student an 85% on the final exam and also gives detailed information regarding the nature of each mistake.


{Click here to go to answers.}




Online Links
Gagne's Phases of Learning


What You Absolutely Have to Do to Learn Something

This web site gives a detailed presentation of Chapter 2 of a Study Skills book that runs parallel to Educational Psychology: Applied Approach. This chapter describes the phases of learning from the perspective of a learner. That is, it teaches the reader how to make use of information about these phases in order to become a better student.


Mastery Learning


Traditional instruction holds time constant and allows achievement to vary within a group of students. A college course may last sixteen weeks, for example, and at the end of that time students who have mastered the subject thoroughly receive grades of A, those who have mastered very little get grades of F, and so on. Mastery learning, on the other hand, holds achievement constant and lets the time students spend in pursuit of the objectives vary. In the same college course, a few students might meet the standards in ten weeks; most might meet the standards in sixteen weeks; but a few students might take twenty-five or thirty weeks to meet these standards.

Mastery learning overlaps considerably with other principles discussed in this chapter and throughout the rest of this book.

Mastery learning takes into account the elements cited by Carroll in the preceding section and states that given enough time and help, about 95 percent of the learners in any group can gain complete mastery of the designated instructional objectives. Mastery learning is not synonymous with pass/fail grading, nor does it imply that standards should be lowered. When mastery learning is successful, high standards are articulated and students receive ample time and help to meet these standards. Additional information about mastery learning can be found in Guskey and Gates (1986), Slavin (1987), and Levine (1987).

Mastery learning overlaps considerably with other principles discussed in this chapter and throughout the rest of this book. Mastery learning has received formal emphasis only in the past thirty years, but students and teachers have known about this principle for a long time. For example, if you have ever had trouble learning something, you very likely believed you could master it if you were given enough time and if you worked hard enough. That is a very simple statement of the principle of mastery learning.

Two problems often arise with mastery learning.

  • First, grouping and scheduling may become difficult. Teachers often find it easier to force people to work at a constant pace and to complete tasks at a predictable rate than to permit wide variations in activities within a class.

  • Second, while slow learners spend extra time on minimum standards, the faster learners may be forced to wait when they could be progressing to higher levels of achievement.


These problems are not insurmountable. We can overcome them by providing individualized attention, setting high but attainable standards, and making additional materials available for learners who master objectives more quickly than others.

Topics Related to Mastery Learning:


 Online Links
Mastery Learning


Implementation of Mastery Learning and Outcome-Based Education: A Review and Analysis of Lessons Learned by Doris W. Ryan

This article analyzes mastery learning and relates it to Outcome-Based Education. An abstract of this1998 article can be found online at this web site, from which you can also download the entire article for free:


Connecting Performance Assessment to Instruction

This ERIC Digest from 1995 is subtitled "A Comparison of Behavioral Assessment, Master

Click on a topic from the following list, or use your web browser to go where you want to go: