From Attention to Retention: Unpacking Gagné’s Principles with Achieve

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Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Here at Macmillan Learning, we understand that learning is a process that begins at birth (or even before) and continues indefinitely. It’s how we acquire new knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes, and preferences. We also understand that learning is a robust process that can be optimized to suit different needs and learning styles. It’s both an intuitive and active process.

Today many students are more comfortable learning online and in hybrid classrooms. As a result, it’s pivotal that we, as instructional designers, continue to evolve and adapt to student needs. Thus, it follows that Macmillan Learning’s flagship digital learning platform, Achieve, uses core instructional design principles to provide an exceptional learning experience that’s personalized, engaging, and supports learners of all abilities.

Instructional design is like the architect’s blueprint but for education. It’s the strategic art of planning, producing, and delivering educational content and experiences, whether in digital or physical formats. The primary goal is to ensure that this process is dependable and results in efficient, effective, and engaging knowledge acquisition.

“The Achieve platform was built on a foundation of learning science and instructional design principles,” says Sarah Gray, Research Specialist on the Learning Science and Insights team at Macmillan Learning. She noted that to drive learner outcomes, the company applies what it learns from research to improve product design as well as the user experience.

Today we’ll dive into how Achieve incorporates core learning science and instructional design principles in its product. While there’s no universal way to implement instructional design, one model that's been cited for more than 50 years belongs to Robert Gagné, an American Educational psychologist. Here are his Nine Instructional Design Principles, and the features within Achieve that support them:

  1. Gain attention: The first principle is to grab the students’ attention and ensure they’re engaged. Many Achieve courses come with Lecture and iClicker slides that serve as visual aids and help students pay attention during class. For example, film class instructors can share a slide where they ask students to list their favorite movie directors. This can immediately get the student thinking about movies and why they prefer some directors’ styles over others.

  2. Tell the learners the learning objective: What will the student gain from the instruction? Achieve has Learning Objectives (LOs) attached to many assignments informing them of the exact outcome they’re trying to arrive at. Additionally, Achieve also has Draft Goals in its Writing Assignments, which help give students some direction during the drafting process. This guidance acts as a de-facto LO that helps students figure out what to focus on for that particular draft. For example, if instructors notice that their student is struggling with writing their topic sentences, they can set their topic sentences as a Draft Goal for them to focus on. Doing this helps the student keep the objective in mind and understand what they’re working toward.

  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning: Many courses in Achieve come with various Instructor Activity Guides. These guides are resources for instructors who want to organize activities or group work in remote or in-person classes. These guides include pre-class assignments that serve as mental primers, designed to connect the day’s lesson with prior learning. These tasks get them ready and make it easier to remember and contextualize new knowledge with the old.

  4. Present the stimulus: Achieve comes with a variety of stimuli such as videos and podcasts, which cater to diverse learning styles and preferences. For example, in a Communication course, students may find it more helpful to see an example of body language rather than just read about it.

  5. Provide learning guidance: How can instructors make sure that students can get the support they need? Through LearningCurve, Achieve’s adaptive quizzing feature. Let’s say that a student has been learning how to write effective theses. One solution is to assign them the LearningCurve for Argument and have them learn by answering multiple-choice questions of varying difficulty levels on this topic. LearningCurve gamifies the learning process by rewarding students points based on how many tries they take to get the correct answer. It also allows students to refer to the e-book for help, encouraging them to read and learn.

  6. Elicit performance: Students can demonstrate their comprehension and application of the content they’ve learned in class through formative assessments. There are quizzes, reflection questions, and video activities that ask students to apply key concepts they learned in practice. These assessments all help instructors track how well their students understand the core principles of the lesson and whether they’re able to demonstrate understanding of those principles.

  7. Provide feedback: Imagine a virtual classroom where students are asked to complete a writing assignment. In Achieve, students are able to peer review and provide feedback on each other’s work. Peers provide constructive feedback on each other's writing, offering diverse perspectives and insights. The instructor can also add a layer of valuable feedback on the next draft, identifying areas of improvement and growth. This dual feedback loop supports a robust learning environment where students not only receive feedback from their teacher but also their peers.Yin blog2.png

  8. Assess performance: For this important principle, Achieve excels in helping instructors identify how well their students have been performing. The Diagnostics feature comes with a pre-test to identify knowledge gaps, a personalized study plan that’s tailored to fill those gaps, and a final test to assess whether students have truly learned the content. For example, if a student has problems with subject-verb agreement but is otherwise solid with pronouns and sentence fragments, results on their pre-test would reflect that imbalance and automatically generate a study plan.

    Through using the Diagnostics feature, instructors can also see which students are having trouble with which topics. If instructors are interested in the data, they can use Achieve Reports which provides further insight into which LO students struggle with, which assignments students are excelling at, and also student login activity. These tools are all available to help both instructors and students get the most out of Achieve, but more importantly, their learning journey.  How’s that for coverage?

  9. Enhance retention and transfer to other contexts: Hearkening back to earlier principles, the best examples of how students can retain and transfer key ideas to other contexts is through videos and reflection questions. If students watch videos in their history courses that demonstrate how specific geography shaped regional politics, for example, they can apply what they’ve learned to other similar situations across different continents and time periods. This knowledge can also be transferred towards other subjects as geography can also have an effect on studying biology, history, economics, etc. Furthermore, reflection questions can be used to gauge students’ knowledge and ask how they can apply that knowledge elsewhere. 

These examples showcase only a fraction of what Achieve offers in alignment with Gagne’s Instructional Design principles on the learning journey. It's a flexible tool designed not just for convenience but to inspire innovation—where the value goes beyond prescribed use. Gray concludes that "Good instructional design needs to bridge the gap between what learning research says works best and what instructors and students can practically use in the classroom. Co-design with learners is at the heart of what we do."