David Ausubel's Theory


The Basics
David Ausubel was a cognitive learning theorist who focused on the learning of school subjects and who placed considerable interest on what the student already knows as being the primary determiner of whether and what he/she learns next. Ausubel viewed learning as an active process, not simply responding to your environment. Learners seek to make sense of their surroundings by integrating new knowledge with that which they have already learned.

Ausubel was leery of the research on learning done in labs often using stimuli that were not typical of school subjects. For example, at the time Ausubel was writing a large amount of the research on learning involved having students memorize non-sense terms such as "sdrgp" or paired associates such as "table-banana" since these were likely new and unfamiliar to learners. For Ausubel this was simply rote learning that remained isolated from other knowledge the learner had acquired. It was not potentially meaningful while schools subjects were potentially meaningful. Rote learning was unlike the learning of school subjects, so Ausubel sought to study how we learn content, like school subjects, that is potentially meaningful. He wrote often about "meaningful learning" and this is why he rejected the research on rote learning as appropriate if we want to improve learning in schools.

The key concept for Ausubel is the cognitive structure. He sees this as the sum of all the knowledge we have acquired as well as the relationships among the facts, concepts and principles that make up that knowledge. Learning for Ausubel is bringing something new into our cognitive structure and attaching it to our existing knowledge that is located there. This is how we make meaning, and this was the focus of his work. 

Podcast Review 

Click the above icon to hear Dr. Hannum reviewing Ausubel's theory. This was recorded during a graduate seminar on learning theories. You can also Download podcast

View of Learning 
Here is a comprehensive set of objectives for Ausubel along with points based on these objectives:

1. Describe meaningful verbal learning and contrast it with rote learning.
Ausubel's focus was on meaningful learning rather than rote learning. To him new learning was meaningful when it could be related in a non-arbitrary fashion to that which a person already knew. Meaning happens when new information is taken into a person's existing cognitive structure and is related to the previously learned content forming new connections between this new information and the existing information. This is how meaning works according to Auusbel. Rote learning, on the other hand, happens when the new information cannot be related to the previously learned content in any substantive manner. In essence, there is nothing in the person's existing cognitive structure to which she or he can relate the new information to form meaning. Thus, it can only be rotely learned. Meaningful learning sticks and becomes the basis for learning additional information. Rote learning does not stick because it does not have these meaningful connections. Thus, it fades from memory rather quickly.

2. Describe the difference between discovery and reception learning.
Ausubel does not see an advantage for discovery learning. To him all learning happens the same way by being compared and contrasted with prior knowledge that exists in a person's cognitive structure. If a person has relevant content in his or her existing cognitive structure to which the new information can be related, then the learning can be meaningful. Likewise if the person does not have relevant content in his or her cognitive structure, then the new information can only be learned in a rote manner. The key point here is that the process of learning does not depend on whether the content has to be discovered by the learner through a discovery learning process or the content is given to the learner in the final form as is done in reception learning. In fact, Ausubel sees several limitations of discovery learning and no advantages. For one thing, discovery learning almost certainly will take longer because the learner has to figure out what here she has to learn and then go about the process of bringing the new knowledge in and relating it to prior knowledge in their cognitive structures to form meaning. Another limitation is of discovery learning is that the student may discover some information that is not so and therefore learn erroneous content.

3. Describe the process of subsumption.
Subsumption Is the process by which new previously unencountered information is brought into a students existing cognitive structure and systematically compared and contrasted with prior knowledge and subsequently this new knowledge takes on meaning and becomes anchored within that person's cognitive structure.

4. Define cognitive structure. Describe its organization and describe how it is involved in the learning process.
Cognitive structure represents both the content of that which we already know and it's organization. Our cognitive structures are organized with the larger, more inclusive, abstract ideas and concepts at the top. More specific information resides at lower levels within our cognitive structures. Thus the concept of animals would reside at a higher level in a cognitive structure than the concept of household pets, and the concept of household pets would reside at a higher level in the cognitive structure than the concept of dog. The cognitive structure is a key concept influencing learning according to Ausubel because unless someone has relevant prior knowledge in his or her cognitive structure to which the new information can be related the new information can only be learned in a rote fashion and this is more prone to be forgotten.

5. Define meaningfulness and describe why material can only be potentially meaningful.
Meaningfulness refers to new information that has been brought into an existing cognitive structure and has been related to ideas with in that cognitive structure in a substantial form. This new information to call me when a series of connections was formed between the new information and existing information within the cognitive structure. Because this process by which material takes on meaning is an internal process, the instructional materials themselves can only be potentially meaningful. Meaning happens when, and only went, a learner incorporates new information into their cognitive structure and relates that to which he or she already knows to form new meaning. That is, learning materials themselves can only have the potential for becoming meaningful. The meaning cannot happen until the learner incorporates and material into their cognitive structures.

6. Differentiate among derivative, correlative, and obliterative subsumption.
We have seen that subsumption is a process by which new information is brought into an existing cognitive structure, related to the content there, and linkages formed so that the new information becomes meaningful and is remembered. New content can be learned, that is subsumed, in one of two fashions. The new content can be compared with the existing content and then take on meeting. This process is called correlative subsumption. On the other hand, the new content maybe derived from existing content and then take on meaning. This process is call derivative subsumption. There is a third form of subsumption, called deliberative subsumption, that does not relate to learning but rather to forgetting. In Ausubel's view, forgetting is a process where we lose the specific details of a piece of information because it was not firmly established in our cognitive structure. For example, we may be no longer to tell the distinction between a yellow pine and a loblolly pine although at one point we were able to do so. We can tell they're both trees and indeed both pine trees but we can't which is which. In essence, the distinctiveness between these two types of pine trees has been lost or obliterated.

7. Describe progressive differentiation and how it is involved in a cognitive structure.
Progressive differentiation is a characteristic of a cognitive structure that describes how it is organized with the more abstract concepts at the top and the more distinct concepts at lower levels. Because this is the way our cognitive structures are organized, Ausubel believes we should teach in a fashion that begins at the highest level of a cognitive structure and progressively distinguishes the new information from existing information as we worked down to the lower more specific levels. This method of teaching by going from abstract to concrete is also referred to as progressive depreciation according Ausubel. Thus the term progressive differentiation refers to two things: 1) how our cognitive structures are organized from general to specific and 2) the sequence in which we should teach new content starting with the more general and then progressively distinguishing that as we go to the more specific.

8. Define anchorage.
Anchorage is the term Ausubel uses to refer to the process of bringing new information into a cognitive structure, comparing it with information that already exists in that cognitive structure, and forming new relationships between this new information and the existing information to produce meaningful learning.

9. Describe the process of forgetting.
As previously noted, Ausubel refers to forgetting as a process by which we lose the specifics of a piece of previously learning information. That is to say that the anchors that held the new information in place and related it to other knowledge are no longer there. Because of this the previously learned piece of information has lost its distinctiveness and been subsumed into a larger category. Thus we would no longer be able to identify a particular type of skin rash as we once could but rather could only say that it's a rash. That particular type of skin rash has been a obliterative subsumed to use Ausubel's term.

10. Describe why meaningfully learned materials are retained longer than rotely learned materials.
Meaningfully learning materials are retain much longer because they have more connections with other pieces of knowledge within our cognitive structure and because these connections are more stable. By definition rotley learning materials do not have a strong network of connections with other content in a cognitive structure and because they are not firmly linked in with existing knowledge they are lost much more quickly than meaningfully learned materials.

11. Describe how a cognitive structure is both a dependent and independent variable in learning.
A cognitive structure is a dependant variable because it is changed through the process of learning when new information is acquired and brought into a cognitive structure and new relationships are established within that cognitive structure. This is an outcome of learning and thus represents a dependent variable. A cognitive structure is also an independent variable in that the most important influence on learning is whether someone has sufficient information organized in a stable fashion within their cognitive structure to which the new information can be related. If a person has relevant information in their cognitive structure to which the new material could be related, then meaningful learning can happen. If they don't have information in their cognitive structure to which the new information can be related, then it cannot be meaningfully learned. In this sense a cognitive structure is an in de pent variable because it is the cause of learning.

12. Identify the principle variables that influence meaningful learning.
The most important variable influencing learning is the extent to which a student has existing knowledge in their cognitive structure to which the new material to be learned to be related in a non-arbitrary fashion. Thus, a student's prior knowledge is the key variable influencing meaningful learning. Another variable that influences learning is whether the doing content is presented in a direct expository fashion through receptive learning as opposed to discovery learning in which a student has to first figure out what here she is to learn and then go about the process of learning or subsuming it. Another variable that influences learning is whether the material is taught in a general to specific sequence to facilitate progressive differentiation.

13. Describe progressive differentiation and integrative reconciliation as they relate to instructional materials.

As previously noted progressive differentiation is the process of introducing new content at its highest level of generality or abstraction and then progressively getting more specific about that content as you compare it with other content that exists within a person's cognitive structure. Instructional materials should follow the same sequence. That is when a new concept is introduced the instructional materials should first described the new content's relationship with prior knowledge in a person's cognitive structure in the most abstract, general terms. Then as the instructional materials continues it should become more specific and give more detail to progressively distinguish the new content from the existing knowledge so that learners see the uniqueness of the new content. Thus, instructional materials should progressively differentiate the contest they introduce. The point of progressive differentiation is to show and preserve the uniqueness of the new content so that it is not confused with the existing content. An opposing process is also important in learning and should also be a part of the design of instructional materials. This process is just the reverse of progressive differentiation. In this process, called integrative reconciliation, the new material is compared with the existing knowledge to show similarities, not differences. In essence, progressive differentiation points out differences, or contrast, while integrative reconciliation points out similarities, or comparisons. By using these opposing processes in the design of instruction mercurial you can at the same time maintain the distinctness of a new idea through progressive differentiation and also show the similarities of this idea with other known ideas through integrative reconciliation.

14. Define advance organizers and describe why they influence learning.
Advance organizers are introductory passages they precede instructional materials that introduce new content. Advance organizers are short passages, typically just a few sentences, and at a higher level of abstraction than the learning passages that will follow. The point of an Advance organizer is to stimulate that part of the cognitive structure under which the new information should reside. In essence, an advanced organizer gives students a heads-up about where the new material should fit into their cognitive structures. An advanced organizer is not an objective because it does not indicate what the student will learn nor what she or he will be able to do after they've completed the instruction. An advance organizer is also not a summary or overview presented at the beginning because an advance organizer does not contain the same information in the body of the text that follows. It is to a condensed version of the new content. Rather the advanced organizer is at a higher level of abstraction and inclusiveness.

15. Describe readiness for learning.
Ausubel's emphasis was on meaningful learning not rote learning. In his view learning will will be meaningful if the student has pre-existing knowledge in his or her cognitive structure to which the new material can be related. Thus, a student is ready to learn some specific content when they have sufficient pre-existing knowledge knowledge in their cognitive structure to which the new material could be related. For Ausubel, unlike Piaget or Bruner, readiness to learn does not relate to some stage of development but rather to the existence of specific prerequisite knowledge in their cognitive structures.

16. Describe the importance of practice in learning, how/why it works, and placements of practice trials.
Recall that Ausubel views learning as a process of subsumption In which new information is brought into a cognitive structure, compared and contrasted with the current information that resides in that structure, and then the new information is incorporated and becomes a part of the student's cognitive structure. Practice is essential to this part of the learning process because it provides the opportunity for the students to compare and contrast the new information with that which they already know so that they can subsumed the new information into their cognitive structures. Practice works because it provides the occasion for students to strengthen the relationship of the new information with information already in their cognitive structure and thus ensure that the new information is sufficiently anchored so it doesn't disappear. Practice matters in this theory, but so does the placement of the practice. Stronger learning results from practice that is spread out over time rather than bunched together and happening all at once. It produces stronger learning when a student is provided an opportunity to practice new learning on multiple occasions.

17. Distinguish between Ausubel and behaviorists in terms of their explanation of why practice works.
Practice is a very important feature of learning for the behaviorists like Skinner, and practice is also an important feature of learning for a cognitive theorist like Ausubel. However, their understanding of why practice works and how it works to influence learning is quite different. In Skinners behavioral theory practice is important because learning happens only when a behavior is reinforced. Practice, then, provides the opportunity for the behavior to be omitted and for reinforcement to occur thus ensuring learning. Practice does nothing more then provide the opportunity for reinforcement, which in their theory is what causes learning to occur. In Ausubel's cognitive theory the importance of practice is to provide opportunity for the internal processing by which new information is brought into a cognitive structure, sorted out, and connected with other information so that it becomes anchored in a meaningful manner and thus learned.

Ausubel published his major book about learning theory, "Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View," in 1968 with a second edition in 1978. He was an early cognitive theorist at a time behaviorism was the dominate theory influencing education. For a variety of reasons, Ausubel never received the recognition and acclaim that should have been his.

Many of his ideas found their way into the mainstream of educational psychology, but he seemed to miss out on the credit. For example, Ausubel should be crediting with creating advance organizers that are common in textbooks today. He also emphasized starting with the "big picture" or fundamental structure of a subject and filling in the details later. This approach is widely practiced today but stood in stark contrast to the behavioral notion of starting with the smallest bits of content and building from there. Ausubel stressed that the most important thing influenced learning is what the student already knows, that is, the content of his or her cognitive structure. Today we try to match instruction to the student's pre-existing knowledge so that it will be meaningful. Pure Ausubel here!

While Ausubel's name is not widely recognized in education, his ideas have a continuing impact. He helped break us from the lock-step approach to teaching that came from behaviorism. He got us considering what was going on internally within learners' brains when we were trying to teach them. He saw learning as an active process, not a passive experience. He wanted us to engage the students and help them relate the new content to that which they already know so that they can make sense of it.