Gagne’s Event Number Three: Stimulate recall of prior learning

In my post last Friday, I misled you about this past Tuesday, saying that I would talk about Gagne’s instructional event number 3, stimulating recall of prior learning. I forgot that my newsletter was going out that day and I never post on the blog on that day. Sorry. So now let’s look at the event I promised. What does Gagne mean when he advises you to “stimulate recall of prior learning”?

Here is one way to understand it. In any workshop I conduct that has multiple days of training, I always open each day with a small group exercise. I get the learners to pick a number from one to ten, and say that someone calls out “six,” I instruct them to come up with a list of the six most important ideas, skills, or practices that they remember from the session. I give them a few minutes, then I go around the room getting one comment from each table, continuing until they have no more.

As they state each one, I question them more deeply, asking what else they remember about it, why it’s a good idea, and so on. Then I add comments about each one. By the time we finish the activity, about 20-30 minutes, all the content from the previous day is now top of mind, and it is much easier to “layer in” new content.

The brain tends to absorb and process this new content more easily because there is context. You see similar examples in soap operas and serials, where the announcer says, “When we last saw Jane and Phil, they were planning their wedding…” and immediately you recall that discussion. We do this very naturally in our personal conversations. “Hey, remember last week when we said we were going to…?”

Context also works well for future discussion and learning. In many instructive programs, customer relationships and interpersonal communication it’s useful to set expectations. For example, I have learned that in a training program, some learners are uncomfortable if they don’t have an agenda. In fact most of us are more comfortable if we know what is coming next. And in fact, you knew when you opened this post just what I was going to talk about.

Providing context and organizing the dialog or program is essential in getting people engaged with you. All of us have gone through the agony of listening to those who have an attention disorder and cannot organize their thoughts, or a friend who speaks in a “stream of consciousness” manner. It’s even worse if they’re your boss or spouse.

Context helps listeners and learners to be in sync with you, and it makes it easier for people to think, converse and learn. Gagne recognized that engaging recall of prior learning is a critical step in the next level of development. We’ll look at Step Four, “present the learning content,” on Tuesday.


Think Like Your Customer

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

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