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The Significant Learning Theory of David Ausubel

The Significant Learning Theory of David Ausubel

July 19, 2022

The educational system is often criticized for placing a lot of emphasis on matters that are considered to be of little relevance and at the same time omitting essential content. For example, you can think that novels that are compulsory reading in the institutes fail to connect well with young students, being old and not be set in the present.

This type of criticism connects with one of the most important theories of constructivist psychology: David Ausubel's Theory of Meaningful Learning .

Who was David Ausubel?

David Paul Ausubel was a psychologist and pedagogue born in 1918 who became one of the great references of constructivist psychology. As such, He put a lot of emphasis on elaborating the teaching based on the knowledge that the student has .


That is, the first step in the task of teaching should be to find out what the student knows in order to know the logic behind their way of thinking and act accordingly.

In this way, for Ausuel, teaching was a process by which The student is helped to continue increasing and perfecting the knowledge that he already has , instead of imposing a agenda that must be memorized. Education could not be a unilateral data transmission.

Meaningful learning

The idea of ​​meaningful learning with which Ausubel worked is the following: true knowledge can only be born when the new contents have a meaning in the light of the knowledge that they already have.


That is to say, learning means that the new learnings connect with the previous ones; not because they are the same, but because they have to do with them in a way that creates a new meaning.

Because new knowledge fits into the old knowledge, but the latter, at the same time, is reconfigured by the first . That is to say, that neither the new learning is assimilated from the literal way in which it appears in the curricula, nor the old knowledge remains unaltered. In turn, the new information assimilated makes previous knowledge more stable and complete.

The Theory of Assimilation

The Theory of Assimilation allows us to understand the fundamental pillar of meaningful learning: how new knowledge is integrated into the old .

Assimilation occurs when a new information is integrated into a more general cognitive structure, so that there is a continuity between them and the one serves as an expansion of the other.


For example, if you know Lamarck's Theory, so that you already understand a model of evolution, then it is easier to understand the Theory of Biological Evolution heir of Darwinism.

The obliterating assimilation

But the process of meaningful learning does not end there. At the beginning, whenever you want to remember the new information, it can be done as if it were an entity separated from the more general cognitive framework in which it is integrated. But nevertheless, with the passage of time both contents merge into one , so that one can not evoke only one understood as an entity separate from the other.

In a way, the new knowledge that was learned at the beginning is forgotten as such, and in its place appears a set of information that is qualitatively different. This process of oblivion is called by Ausubel "obliterating assimilation" .

What is not meaningful learning?

To better understand the meaningful learning concept of David Ausubel, it may help to know what the opposite version consists of: mechanical learning, also called rote learning by this same researcher.

It is a very concept linked to passive learning , which often occurs even unintentionally because of the simple exposure to repeated concepts that leave their mark on our brain.

The rote learning

In the rote learning, the new contents are accumulated in the memory without being linked to old knowledge through meaning.

This kind of learning differs from meaningful learning not only because it does not help to expand real knowledge, but because the new information is also more volatile and easier to forget.

For example, learning the names of the Autonomous Communities of Spain by memorizing the words on a list is an example of rote learning.

But nevertheless, mechanical learning is not useless the whole , but it has some sense in certain stages of development to learn certain data. However, it is insufficient to generate complex and elaborated knowledge.

The types of meaningful learning

Meaningful learning is opposed to the previous type, fundamentally, because in order to occur it is necessary to actively seek a personal link between the contents we learn and those we have already learned. Now, in this process there is room to find different nuances. David Ausubel distinguishes between three kinds of meaningful learning:

Learning representations

It is the most basic form of learning. In her, the person gives meaning to symbols by associating them with that concrete and objective part of reality to which they refer, using easily available concepts.

Learning concepts

This type of meaningful learning is similar to the previous one and relies on it to exist, so that both complement and "fit" with each other. However, there is a difference between the two.

In learning concepts, instead of associating a symbol with a concrete and objective object, it is related to an abstract idea , something that in most cases has a very personal meaning, accessible only from our own personal experiences, something that we have lived and nobody else.

For example, to get to internalize the idea of ​​what a hyena is, it is necessary to develop an idea of ​​"hyena" that allows differentiating these animals from dogs, lions, etc. If we have previously seen a hyena in a documentary but could not differentiate it from a large dog, that concept will not exist, while a person familiar with dogs will probably be aware of those significant anatomical and behavioral differences and will be able to create that concept as a category apart from that of dogs.

Propositions learning

In this learning knowledge arises from the logical combination of concepts . Therefore, it is the most elaborate form of meaningful learning, and from it one is able to make very complex scientific, mathematical and philosophical appraisals. As it is a type of learning that requires more effort, it is done voluntarily and consciously. Of course, it uses the two previous types of meaningful learning.


Ausubel’s Learning Theory in Music Education (July 2022).


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