Schema Theory and Gagne's Events of Instruction

Description of Learning Theories

Schema Theory is an information processing theory that explains how knowledge is interpreted, stored and retrieved for processing and utilization in internal knowledge structures known as schema.

Gagné’s nine events of instruction provides a way to arrange instruction to support the processes of internal learning—the development of schema—within a learner.


Schema theory describes how new information is processed within a learner and Gagné’s nine events of instruction provides a way to structure instruction to bring about learning outcomes. As such, the two ideas address different aspects of the instructional design process and are not comparable but are quite compatible with each other.

Why use these theories?

Gagné (1978) stated that modern learning theories support the basic notion that “the effects of instruction may best be understood by exploring the three-term relation Instruction → Memory Structure → Learning Outcome.” (p. 187)

To create a learning outcome based on this simple three-part process, Gagné’s nine events of instruction can serve as a model for instruction and Schema theory as an explanation of the memory structure and the result of the interaction between the two would be the learning outcome. Although this model is more simplistic than current research would suggest, it does provide a model worthy of consideration by the novice instructional designers.

Example Application

Gagné’s Events of Instruction and Schema theory can be applied to the development of any instructional lesson.
Each of the nine events should be addressed through instructional strategies and the effect of the event on the learner’s existing and developing or emerging schemata should also be considered. In essence, Gagné’s events and schema theory work together to create a successful learning outcome.

For example, If the instructional goal is to teach the basic functions of a DSLR camera:

Gagné’s first event, gaining attention, could be accomplished by showing learners photographs taken using a DSLR camera. This would focus the learner’s attention on the topic at hand and begin the process of accessing existing schemata related to photography.

Gagné’s third event, stimulating recall of prerequisite learning, could be accomplished by asking learners to think about their experiences using film, automatic or DSLR cameras. This would focus the learner’s attention beyond their basic photography schemata to their schemata related to the direct experience taking photographs.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Schema theory and Gagné’s nine events of instruction were developed decades ago and both information processing theory and instructional event designs have been further developed since Schema theory and Gagné ’s events were originally proposed.

The most common criticism of Schema theory is the notion that the concept of schema is vague, fuzzy and flexible and as such can be adjusted in almost unlimited ways to meet almost any circumstance. Additionally, learner’s can store inaccurate information in schema simply for ease of assimilation.
Gagné’s nine events of instruction have been criticized for being more instruction or teacher focused rather than learner focused. Several adapted version of Gagné’s events have been proposed to address this concern.

Despite the drawbacks, Schema theory and Gagné’s nine events of instruction provide both useful and practical concepts for the novice designer to consider when approaching the instructional design process.


Clark, Donald (1999) Theory into Practice Database, The Events of Instruction, Theory into Practice Database,, retrieved June 20, 2010.

Derry, S.J. (1996) Cognitive Schema Theory in the Constructivist Debate. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4).
Dick, W., L. Carey & J.O. Carey (2009). The Systematic Design of Instruction (7th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.

Ertmer, Peggy A., Newby, Timothy J. (1993) Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4) pp. 50-72.

Gagné , Robert M. (1970) Some New Views of Learning and Instruction. The Phi Delta Kappan, 51(9) May 1970: 468-472.

Gagné , Robert M. & R.T. White (1978) Memory Structures and Learning Outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 48(2): 187-222. Spring 1978.

McVee, M.B., K.Dunsmore &.R. Gavelek. (2005) Schema Theory Revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4)
Retrieved June 14, 2010, from

Smith, P., and T.J. Ragan. (2005) Instructional Design (3rd ed.). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Tuckman, Bruce W. (1996) My Mentor: Rober M. Gagné . Peabody Journal of Education. 71(1) Mentors and Mentoring: 3-11.

Wilcox, C., & Williams, L. (1990) Taking stock of schema theory. Social Science Journal 27(4), 373. Retrieved June 11, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database

Created by
Joan Brandwein
IM 504
June 28, 2010