In detail

Ausubel's Theory of Significant Learning

Ausubel's Theory of Significant Learning

David Paul Ausubel was an American psychologist whose most significant contribution he made in the fields of educational psychology, cognitive psychology, learning and development, investigating how our learning is organized and the significant advances in it.


  • 1 Fundamentals of Ausubel's theory
  • 2 The Theory of Learning according to Ausubel
  • 3 What is meaningful learning?
  • 4 The previous organizers

Fundamentals of Ausubel's theory

Under the influence of Jean Piaget, Ausubel believed that the understanding of concepts, principles and ideas are achieved through deductive reasoning. Similarly, he believed in the idea of meaningful learning instead of memorization. In the preface to his book "Educational Psychology: A Cognitive Point of View", He says:

“The most important factor that influences learning is what the student already knows. Determine this and teach it accordingly "(Ausubel, 1968)

This led Ausubel to develop an interesting learning theory and significant advance organizers.

The Theory of Learning according to Ausubel

Ausubel considered that learning new knowledge is based on what is already known before. That is to say, The construction of knowledge begins with our observation and recording of events and objects through concepts that we already have. We learn by building a network of concepts and adding new ones to existing ones.

Ausubel's learning theory states that new concepts that must be learned can be incorporated into other more inclusive concepts or ideas. These more inclusive concepts or ideas are the previous organizers. Previous organizers can be phrases or graphics. In any case, the advanced organizer is designed to provide what cognitive psychologists call, the "mental scaffolding": to learn new information.

Thus, the concept map developed by Ausubel and Novac, is an instructional device that uses this aspect of the theory to allow the instruction of the students; It is a way of representing relations between ideas, images or words.

Ausubel also emphasizes the importance of receiving learning instead of learning by discovery, and meaningful learning instead of learning by heart. He states that his theory applies only to the reception of learning in the school environment. He did not say, however, that discovery learning does not work; but rather that it is not entirely effective.

What is meaningful learning?

Ausubel's theory also focuses, as we have already said, on meaningful learning. According to their theory, to learn significantly, people must relate new knowledge to relevant concepts they already know. The new knowledge must interact with the student's knowledge structure.

Meaningful learning can be contrasted with memory learning. The latter can also incorporate new information into the pre-existing knowledge structure but without interaction. Mechanical memory is used to retrieve sequences of objects, such as telephone numbers, for example. However, it is of no use to the student in understanding the relationships between objects.

Because meaningful learning implies recognition of the links between concepts, this learning is transferred to the long term memory. The most crucial element in meaningful learning is how new information is integrated into the knowledge structure over time.

Accordingly, Ausubel considers that knowledge is organized hierarchically; that there is significant new information to the extent that it may be related to what is already known.

The previous organizers

Ausubel defends the use of Previous organizers as a mechanism to help link new learning material with existing related ideas. The theory of previous Ausubel organizers is divided into two categories: comparative and expository.

The comparative organizers

Comparative organizers activate existing schemes and are used as a reminder to bring to the work memory What is relevant. A comparative organizer is used both to integrate and to discriminate. It serves to integrate new ideas with basically similar concepts in the cognitive structure, as well as to increase discrimination between new and existing ideas that are essentially different, but similar.

The exhibition organizers

Exhibition organizers are often used when the new learning material is not familiar to the student. Then what the student already knows is related to the new material, to make the unknown material more plausible for the student.


Ausubel, D. P. (1973). Education and knowledge structure. Research on the learning process and the nature of the disciplines that make up the curriculum. Ed. The Athenaeum. Buenos Aires. P. 211-239.
Ausubel, D. P. (1976). Educational psychology. A cognitive point of view. Ed. Trillas. Mexico.
Ausubel, D. P. (2002). Acquisition and retention of knowledge. A cognitive perspective. Ed. Paidós.
Moreira M. A. and Greca, I. Mª. (2003). Conceptual Change: critical analysis and proposals in the light of the Theory of Significant Learning. Ciência & Educação, vol. 9, no. 2, p. 301-315.
Vygotsky, L. (1995). Thought and language. Ed. Paidós. Barcelona.