David Ausubel's Notion of Meaningful Learning


The Learning Theories of David P. Ausubel:

The Importance of Meaningful and Reception Learning

Thomas L. Thompson

University of Alaska-Southeast


David Ausubel’s contributions to the psychology of learning have gained both praised and criticism from educational psychologists and educators alike. His emphasis on meaningful learning may not be controversial, but the fact that he believes receptive learning can be just as meaningful as discovery has gained more attention and detractors. In the following pages Ausubel’s theories on rote vs. meaningful learning, reception vs. discovery learning, his own defense of his theories, and his criticism of those who declare that the only meaningful learning is through discovery will be investigated. The topics of subsumption, anchorage, retention, advanced organizers, and signaling techniques will be explored with in the context of Ausubel’s defense and critique.


It might seem appropriate the Ausubel came to educational psychology from the field of medicine considering that his study of the human brain provided the larger context that would enable him to study the workings of the brain more effectively. This assumption of course is in reference to one of Ausubel’s most important theories of learning, subsumption. Before considering the more specific aspects and definitions of Ausbel’s theories, the stage first needs to be set with a discussion of his comparison between rote and meaningful learning.

Rote and Meaningful Learning

In an attempt to acquire meaningful knowledge, the learner can approach the task in two different ways (Good & Brophy, 1990, p. 126). If a person attempts to memorize her driver’s license number without relating the numbers to anything more than a random series, that is rote learning. On the other hand, if a person attempts to create some connection to something that they already know, they experience meaningful learning. An example might be a man memorizing a long distance phone call by recognizing that the ten digit number is actually three series of three, three, and four digits. Furthermore, the numbers (to him) can be recalled because he is familiar with that state’s area code. The middle set of numbers is the same as the aircraft he usually flies in (747 or 727 for example), and the last four digits are a familiar high school basketball score (50-61, the home team lost). Materials learned that have relation to experiences or memories that are firm in the person’s memory are more likely to be retained. Whereas, "Rotely learned materials are discrete and isolated entities which have not been related to established concepts…" and may soon be forgotten (Ausubel, 1962).

Is meaningful learning just what rote learning is not? This is true only if you keep in mind that meaningful learning is very connected to the process of knowledge retention within cognitive structures. Rote memory works at times for short term memory as we know from casual meetings with new people and exposure to a new joke. But the knowledge can only be effectively retained if it is meaningful, and thus must be processed in a way that it can be subsumed and anchored in the mind.

Subsumption is the process by which new information enters the consciousness and is directed or organized to fit within an already existing larger (more broad, more general, etc) category. For example, in a physics classroom the concept of magnetic fields and how they look and act may be more easily assimilated if the student has already been introduced to a general fields model that already contains electric fields and gravitational fields. The distinction about the introduction of this new information is that facts or concepts much be "subsumed" into the larger context, subordinate concept (Good & Brophy, 1990, p. 199). Anchorage of the knowledge is dependent on how well the subsuming concepts are organized, and the degree of anchorage determines how well the knowledge is retained in the long term.

Reception and Discovery Learning

In my most recent exposure to the teaching of physics I was a part of a workshop that included 24 high school teachers in Arizona. It is appropriate to mention this group as the workshop itself was entitled "Physics Modeling and Technology" and was a presentation of discovery learning. In fact, this modeling is considered a new and improved form of modeling in which the students are led to a laboratory, given the most general of directions, and then are released to find graphical, verbal, and mathematical models of a certain phenomena. It is pure discovery. The teachers in the workshop also found it to be difficult, time consuming, and unclear if the model or "objective" was not provided early in the lesson. Ausubel would merely nod knowingly.

(Ausubel puts a great deal of importance on the difference between rote and meaningful learning. In his comparison between reception learning and discovery learning it is important that the reader know that that while these opposing approaches to learning are valuable to contrast, they are not on the same level of importance as meaningful learning.)

Supporters of discovery learning declare that this type of learning is where real knowledge is obtained, where conservation of memory is ensured, and where subverbal awareness is first encountered (Langford, 1989,p. 55). Bruner is a leading advocate of discovery learning and has said that the most meaningful learning takes place when it is motivated by the students own curiosity and uncovered by individual or group exploration (Good & Brophy, 1990, p. 192). Ausubel contends that those who stand behind discovery learning and criticize expository teaching are missing most important point. That is, whether the method of learning is discovery or reception does not determine the meaningfulness of the material.

Ausubel’s most common critique of discovery learning is that although it can be effective in certain situations, for the most part it is cumbersome and overly time (Langford, 1989,p. 56). Additionally, unless the teacher provides a greater context the learning is unorganized and will have no better chance of retention than rote memorization of a procedure. Instead, expository teaching, the flip side of reception learning, can be made to be meaningful if the teacher is conscientious about how the material is presented.

If Ausubel is an advocate of expository teaching and reception learning, the question remains, "Does he have a method to make lecture a meaningful learning experience?" It is in fact the case that Ausubel has described two very powerful methods that educators can use to help prepare the students for meaningful learning.

Signaling is the first and most basic concept that Ausubel prescribes. It is a tool familiar to most of us and can be as simple as numbering the main points of the presentation. This is known as specifying the structure of relations. Other types of signaling include (1) premature presentations, (2) summary statements, and (3) point words that "indicate the author’s perspective or emphasize important information (Good & Brophy, 1990, p. 200). I hope you appreciate the usefulness.

The most controversial and noteworthy method Ausubel has introduced is "advanced organizers." These are not merely previews of the subject material that is to be presented. Advanced organizers are more general, abstract concepts that will provide the great context to which the new information can be subsumed and anchored (Ausubel, 1963). For example, before introducing a lesson on brown bears a teacher might have her students read a history and geography of Admiralty Island. By providing this advanced organizer, students may have a better chance of organizing the information regarding the brown bear’s habitat, territorial patterns, and nutrition.

Advance organizers are believed to have different results for good versus slow learners. Because most good learners already have the ability to organize new information, the organizers have little additional effect. But for slow learners, Ausubel and Fitzgerald believe that organizers are extremely helpful as this group of students needs additional help structuring their thinking (Fitzgerald, 1962).


Ausubel, D.P. (1962). A subsumption theory of meaningful verbal learning and retention. The Journal of General Psychology, 66, 213-244.

Ausubel, D.P. and Fitzgerald, D. (1962). Organizer, general background, and antecedent learning variables in sequential verbal learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 53(6), 243-249.

Good, Thomas L. and Brophy, Jere E. (1990). Educational Psychology: A Realistic Approach. New York: Longman.

Ivie, Stanley D. (1998). Ausubel’s learning theory: An approach to teaching higher order thinking skills. High School Journal, 82(1), 35-42.

Langford, Peter (1989). Educational Psychology: An Australian Perspective. Sydney: Longman Cheshire.

Remember that as you are reading this article, you should be comparing and contrasting Ausubel's notion of "meaningful learning" with other notions of learning and the significance information learned.