Learning: Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning is learning in which new material is incorporated into the learner's existing stock of knowledge.

Meaningful learning as a concept associated with the cognitive theory of learning; that is, that learning is fundamentally a form of information processing. Meaningful learning also emphasizes verbal learning— learning based on speaking, reading, and writing.

The work of Ausubel

Meaningful learning as a theory of learning and approach to education most closely associated with the work of David P. Ausubel (1918–2008), an American psychiatrist and psychologist who was influenced by the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Ausubel completed medical school in 1943 and graduate school in psychology in 1950, a period when many psychologists were moving away from behaviorism toward an emphasis on cognitive psychology.

Ausubel was a follower of Piaget in maintaining that learning is an active process in which learners try to make sense of new material by integrating it into what they have already learned. Ausubel coined the term cognitive structure to represent the sum of all the knowledge that learners have acquired, along with the concepts, facts, and theories included in that body of knowledge. Active learning consists of bringing new information into their cognitive structure and anchoring it to the material already present in that structure. To Ausubel, this process of active learning is how humans make sense or meaning out of their lives, and consequently the new connections formed in learners’ minds between the existing cognitive structure and the new information are what make learning meaningful.

An example of meaningful learning is a student who has learned French in grade school and then studies Latin in high school. Knowing that French is a language derived from Latin allows the student to associate the new language with the one learned earlier; to see the resemblance between Latin words and their French derivatives; and to anchor the new language within the learner's cognitive structure. In fact, Ausubel used anchorage as the technical term to describe the process of bringing new information into a cognitive structure.

Process of meaningful learning

Ausubel contrasted meaningful learning with rote learning, which he considered the lowest form of learning. Rote learning is defined as the memorization of material through repetition without necessarily understanding the material. Some rote learning is inevitable in education, particularly at the elementary school level; children learn the letters of the alphabet and the multiplication tables by rote. As they grow older, however, meaningful learning becomes possible. One major difference between Piaget and Ausubel, however, is that Piaget assumed that children have to reach a certain stage of development before meaningful learning can take place; for Ausubel, by contrast, the only prerequisite for meaningful learning is the presence of specific knowledge in the learner's cognitive structure.

Meaningful learning is inevitably hierarchical because it assumes the integration of new material within the learners’ present cognitive structure. The concept that Ausubel used to describe the hierarchical nature of meaningful learning is subsumption, a process in which new information is brought, or subsumed, into the cognitive structure and compared or contrasted with the information already there. In the case of the high school student learning Latin, subsumption would involve noticing the ways in which Latin is different from French as well as the ways in which the two languages are similar. It would also involve organizing the new learning within a hierarchical structure with more abstract or general concepts at the top (in this case, human language) and more specific or concrete categories underneath (non-English languages; then languages related to Latin; then Latin itself).

Implications for teaching

Ausubel published a book on educational psychology in 1969 in which he states, “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.” To assist students in subsuming the new material, however, the teacher should present them with information that will help them organize the new data. Ausubel called this type of information an advance organizer. An advance organizer is an abstraction or concept intended to link the new material to what the student already knows; it is not a summary or overview of the material to come. Advance organizers can be described as learning tools that activate the relevant conceptual patterns in learners’ minds so that the new information can be more readily subsumed. An example of an advance organizer is introducing the concept of verb conjugation in general (perhaps using the example of conjugating an English verb) before teaching the Latin student the first of the four basic Latin verb conjugations.


Advance organizer—
A tool or aid to mental learning that assists learners in integrating new information into their existing body of knowledge.
The process of bringing new information into one's cognitive structure and forming new relationships with the material already there.
Cognitive structure—
Ausubel's term for the sum of all the knowledge learners have acquired as well as the relationships among the facts, concepts, and principles comprising that knowledge.
Receptive learning—
Learning in which material is presented to learners in an organized form, in contrast to learners' discovering the material independently.
Rote learning—
Memorization of information through repetition.
The process of integrating or anchoring new information within one's cognitive structure through comparing and contrasting the new material with what is already known.

A meaningful learning approach to classroom instruction would proceed along the following guidelines:

See also Behaviorism ; Educational psychology ; Learning .



Ausubel, David P. The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning. New York: Grune and Stratton, 1963.

Ausubel, David P., and Floyd G. Robinson. School Learning: An Introduction to Educational Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

Ausubel, David P., Joseph D. Novak, and Helen Hanesian. Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.


Ausubel, David P. “A Subsumption Theory of Meaningful Verbal Learning and Retention.” Journal of General Psychology 66 (April 1962): 213–24.

Ausubel, David P. “Perception Versus Cognition in Meaningful Verbal Learning.” Journal of General Psychology 73 (second half; October 1965): 185–87.

Cutrer, W. B., et al. “Use of An Expert Concept Map as an Advance Organizer to Improve Understanding of Respiratory Failure.” Medical Teacher 33 (December 2011): 1018–26.

Endres, T., and A. Renki. “Perception Versus Cognition in Meaningful Verbal Learning.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (July 24, 2015): 1054.

Wolfson, N. E., and K. Kraiger. “Cognitive Aging and Training: The Role of Instructional Coherence and Advance Organizers.” Experimental Aging Research 40 (February 2014): 164–86.


Instructional Design. “Subsumption Theory (David Ausubel).” http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/subsumption-theory.html (accessed August 26, 2015).

Learning Theory Fundamentals. “David Ausubel's Theory.” http://theoryfundamentals.com/ausubel.htm (accessed August 26, 2015).


American Psychological Association Division 15 (Educational Psychology), c/o APA, 750 First Street NE, Washington, DC, 20002-4242, (202) 336-5500, (800) 374-2721, http://apadiv15.org .