Ausubel’s Learning Theory

David Paul Ausubel was an American psychologist whose most significant contribution to the fields of educational psychology, cognitive science, and science education learning, was on the development and research on meaningful learning and advance organizers. Influenced by Jean Piaget, Ausubel believed that understanding concepts, principles, and ideas are achieved through deductive reasoning. Similarly, he believed in the idea of meaningful learning as opposed to rote memorization. In the preface to his book Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, he says:

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” (Ausubel, 1968, p. vi)

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

Learning Theory

Ausube believes that learning of new knowledge relies on what is already known. That is, construction of knowledge begins with our observation and recognition of events and objects through concepts we already have. We learn by constructing a network of concepts and adding to them. Concept map , developed by Ausubel and Novac, is an instructional device that uses this aspect of the theory to allow instruction of material to learners; it is a way of representing relationships between ideas, images, or words.

Ausubel also stresses the importance of reception rather than discovery learning, and meaningful rather than rote learning. He declares that his theory applies only to reception learning in school settings. He didn’t say, however,  that discovery learning doesn’t work; but rather that it was not efficient.

Meaningful learning

Ausebel’s theory also focuses on meaningful learning. According to his theory, to learn meaningfully, individuals must relate new knowledge to relevant concepts they already know. New knowledge must interact with the learner’s knowledge structure.

Meaningful learning can be contrasted with rote learning.  The latter can also incorporate new information into the pre-existing knowledge structure but without interaction. Rote memory is used to recall sequences of objects, such as phone numbers.  However, it is of no use to the learner in understanding the relationships between the objects.

Because meaningful learning involves a recognition of the links between concepts, it has the privilege of being transferred to long-term memory. The most crucial element in meaningful learning is how the new information is integrated into the old knowledge structure.

Accordingly, Ausubel believes that knowledge is hierarchically organized; that new information is meaningful to the extent that it can be related (attached, anchored) to what is already known.

Advance Organizers

Ausubel advocates the use of advance organizers as a mechanism to help to link new learning material with existing related ideas. Ausubel’s theory of advance organizers fall into two categories: comparative and expository.

Comparative Organizers

Comparative organizers activate existing schemas and is used as reminders to bring into the working memory of what you may not realize is relevant. A comparative organizer is also used both to integrate as well as to discriminate. It

“integrate[s] new ideas with basically similar concepts in cognitive structure, as well as increase[s] discriminability between new and existing ideas which are essentially different but confusably similar” (Ausubel, 1968, p. 149).[3]

Expository Organizers

Expository organizers are often used when the new learning material is unfamiliar to the learner. They often relate what the learner already knows with the new and unfamiliar material—this in turn is aimed to make the unfamiliar material more plausible to the learner.

More on Ausubel see Wikipedia


  • Ausubel, D.P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.
  • Ausubel, D. (1963). The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning. New York: Grune & Stratton.
  • Ausubel, D. (1978). In defense of advance organizers: A reply to the critics. Review of Educational Research, 48, 251-257.
  • Ausubel, D., Novak, J., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd Ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

2 thoughts on “Ausubel’s Learning Theory”

  1. Salam si Mohamad,
    Thanks a lot for the neatly and succintly written article on Ausubel’s learning theory.I was reading the article with the eye of an EFL teacher and had wondered and even expressed some doubts about the limitations of this theory in an EFL learning context. What I have in mind in particular is the learner’s first encouter with a foreign language. Let’s take the example of an Amazigh or an Arab whose language systems are completely different from that of the English language. I don’t think that “ascertaining what these ‘two’ learners already know and teaching them accordingly” would be of much help in the learning journey. Perhaps, unlearning or at least neutralizing some governing rules of their native languages would be much welcomed in order to pave the way to a smooth and clash-free foreign language experience. I might be dead wrong on this, but on what follows I’m “dead” certain Ausubel’ theory is an echo of theory Don’t you think that if not I would like
    Plato’s famous and long-established theory on learning :”knowledge is reminescence”

    Kindest reagards,
    Arbi Mchiche ( )

  2. Hi Si Arbi
    Glad to hear from you!

    As you rightly mentioned languages may differ and interference of L1 may hamper the foreign language learning proccess. Nevertheless, languages do have universals that can be of great help to efl learners. Here are some examples

    1. A lot of languages have VERBs, NOUNS, ADJECTIVES, ….
    2. Agreement is another syntactic feature that exists in many languages.

    What is more, some shared beliefs and concepts can be used by teachers to build new knowledge. For instance, teachers can build on knowledge about the world to help students see the whole picture. Teachers can use the news, everyday life, personal experience… And I think these things constitute one essential componenent of what Ausubel refer to when he says:

    “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly”

    Rhalmi Mohammed

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