Learning is fluid: People learn lots of different material in lots of different ways. There’s no single “correct” approach to designing learning experiences. Even so, following a design model can help eLearning designers craft courses that get results.

Educational psychologist Robert Gagné’s theories of learning and instructional design are renowned for their broad applicability. His most famous work, Conditions of Learning, outlines eight kinds of learning. It also introduces Gagné’s nine events of instruction. These “events” or steps of instruction offer a logical order that emphasizes feedback and assessment. Instructional designers can use the nine events as a scaffold to guide their planning. Here’s how it could work.

1. Get the learners’ attention

How do instructors capture learners’ interest? Virtual training consultant Cindy Huggett suggests immediate engagement as they “enter” the virtual space: “Do you have an activity right there, ready to go? Something that is welcoming and greeting and engaging?” That grabs learners’ attention—and puts them on notice that the session will be interactive and their participation is expected.

For asynchronous eLearning, use a story or example that connects the study topic to learners’ experience or job duties to show relevance and pique their interest.

2. Provide a learning objective

Most eLearning designers already write learning objectives. The problem is, the learning objectives are often presented in one (or more) boring, text-heavy screens. Ugh.

Instead, designers should strive to keep the previous step in mind—and hold learners’ interest. One option? Use a two-minute video to describe the importance of the material to be covered. Even better, use an example that works for steps one and two: It captures learners’ attention and illustrates why compliance with these rules matters, or what happens when people do the process in an unsafe way, or how someone benefited from following the process.

3. Remind learners of what they know

Nudging learners to remember what they already know serves several purposes:

  • It allows them to expand that knowledge
  • It allows the instructor to avoid wasting time by going over information and concepts that learners have mastered
  • It allows students to learn from one another

Tools to stimulate recall include asynchronous discussion boards and synchronous or asynchronous chats. Quizzes and interactive exercises are also time-tested ways to find out what learners already know, but they lack the added advantage of pooling shared knowledge among the group.

4. Teach new material

Present new eLearning material in a way that is relevant and engaging. That means emphasizing a clear connection to their job duties. Material can—and should—take a number of formats: videos, readings, short presentations by the instructor, curated web resources, etc.  

Modern eLearning chunks material in small, focused pieces, whatever the format. Ideally, resources are accessible on mobile devices as well as laptop and desktop computers. Presenting material in small, easy-to-access units allows employees to integrate learning into a busy schedule.

5. Offer guidance

In a flipped classroom model, class time—in a virtual classroom—is spent applying the new information. Learners might work individually or in small groups to solve a problem or answer questions; the instructor provides coaching and guidance.

Asynchronous eLearning also provides opportunities for coaching via study guides, checklists, and discussion boards—where an instructor might monitor and participate in the conversation.

One technique that works in both synchronous and asynchronous discussions is asking learners to identify the toughest passage from a reading, or the concept they are struggling most to grasp. This can focus the conversation around areas where students most need guidance.

6. Elicit performance

At this stage, learners haven’t fully mastered the information; eliciting performance is about seeing where they need additional information or a course correction. Quizzes and exercises—which can be matching, learning games, simulations, or branching scenarios where they choose from multiple courses of action—will vary based on the topic of study. In some cases, learners might “practice” by writing a draft of a report or creating initial sketches for a software project, providing immediate applicability to work tasks.

7. Provide feedback

Feedback on practice exercises needs to correct any misunderstandings and fill in gaps in learners’ knowledge. It should be constructive and point toward improvement, which means it must specifically address each learner’s performance. Encouragement, such as “attaboys” and prizes in learning games, can help keep employees motivated but is not enough to further their learning.

8. Assess, and assess again

The assessment marks the end of the formal learning period; it’s time to evaluate whether learners have achieved the learning goals. This might be done via exam or evaluation of materials produced. It’s often helpful to create an evaluation rubric to ensure that all learning goals are evaluated and that all learners are evaluated according to the same criteria.

Many instructors assess incrementally—at the end of each module or after completing a particular section. This method allows instructors to be sure that learners are keeping up and have mastered foundational material before moving on.

9. Performance support and knowledge transfer

Formal instruction is complete; now the real questions arise: Are learners using what they’ve learned? Is the learning “sticky”—will they remember it weeks or months later? Designers can create job aids or even chatbots to provide performance support and cement learning.

If learning goals are closely tied to job responsibilities, one can measure knowledge transfer through improved job performance. At the outset, instructional designers should not only have created relevant learning goals, but also defined what success looks like and how it is measured. Now’s the time to examine those goals and evaluate whether they’ve been achieved.

Putting it all together

Gagné believed that implementing these nine events would enable learning; most instructional designers already incorporate many of these steps in their designs. Thus, while adopting a design model might not radically alter the way a designer creates eLearning, it can provide structure that ensures that nothing is omitted.