Conditions-based Theory

Ragan, Tillman J. and Smith, Patricia L. (2004) “Conditions Theory and Models for Designing Instruction.” In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 623-649.

The incredible value of this article is in so clearly summing up Gagnés work and relating it to other theories: learning outcomes vary across contents, contexts, and learners; distinctive cognitive processing demands can be supported by different methods, strategies, and conditions. An early discussion of the background for Gagné noted that instructional design effectiveness varied among rote learning, skill learning and problem solving; however, the authors express doubt in a hierarchy of skills (and report that aside from the intellectual category, Gagné later moved away from his original taxonomic chain).

Rule-using (intellectual) skills are stored in hierarchical structures: verbal learning stored as propositional networks or schemata; rules stored as “if…then” productions; problem-solving are interconnections of schemata and productions. Gagné differentiated problem-solving (and concept formation) from other types in that PBL does not include any portion of the solution in the problem itself. One of Gagné’s contributions was to tie external events or instruction to internal events of learning; the latter he suggested were most impacted by prior knowledge; manner of long-term encoding; and requirement for retrieval and transfer to new problems.

The article’s coverage of multiple additions to Gagne’s work was equally clear. Merrill’s Component Display Theory categorizes learning objectives as a performance level (remember, use, or find) and a content type (fact, concept, principle, or procedure). Five operations (based 4 memory structures: associative, episodic, image, and algorithmic) can be conducted on subject matter:

  1. identity (facts)
  2. inclusion (concepts)
  3. intersection (concepts)
  4. order (procedures)
  5. cause (principles)

Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory proposes three structures: conceptual (parts, kinds, matrices); procedural (order, decision); and theoretical (descriptive, prescriptive). Smith and Ragan argue that a middle ground exists between instruction-supplied and learner-initiated events. Tennyson describes three storage processes (declarative, procedural, and conceptual) and three retrieval processes (differentiating, integrating, and creating). Declarative knowledge is stored as associative networks or schemata; procedural knowledge is related to intellectual skills; and contextual (is this the same as conceptual?) knowledge is related to problem-solving. Finally, Ellen Gagné contributes the idea that declarative knowledge can be represented by propositions, images, linear orderings, or schemata (composed of the first three, while procedural knowledge is represented as a production system.

After agreeing with the fundamental premises (of conditions-based theory, the article demonstrate the lack of a proven link between learning categories and external conditions:

  • competition may be superior when a task is simple, but cooperative goal structures are more effective in problem-solving
  • explicit organization affected achievement although sequence modification did not
  • punishment is more effective than reward for discrimination learning
  • introductory students benefited more from direct guidance while advanced students performed better with more opportunities for autonomy
  • novice learners need more explicit learning guidance in employing cognitive strategies

The call for additional research is apropos although the need for additional knowledge of the relationship between internal learner conditions and subsequent learning is complicated by the difficulty in determining those internal (private) conditions.


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