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Topic Cognitive

3 Learning
By the end of this topic, you should be able to:
1. Explain the rise of cognitivism;
2. Differentiate between behaviourist and cognitive theories;
3. Discuss how Gestalt psychology explains learning;
4. Evaluate Piagets theory of human learning;
5. Discuss Banduras social learning theory; and
6. Explain the characteristics of Ausubels theory of meaningful learning.

In Topic 2, we discussed behaviourist explanations of human learning focusing
on classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In this chapter, we will focus
on the cognitive theories explaining human learning as proposed by Gestalt
psychologists, Piaget, Bandura and Ausubel. Each of these theories may be
similar but they also explain an important aspect of thinking and learning among
humans. These theories have important applications in classroom practices for all
levels of education.


Cognition is defined as the act of knowing or acquiring knowledge. The mental
processes involved in the act of knowing are called cognitive processes and
these include perceiving, attention, reasoning, judging, problem solving, self-
monitoring, remembering, understanding and so forth. For example, to know
that a triangle has three sides, you need to understand and remember the
attributes of a triangle. Cognitivists or cognitive psychologists are researchers
who scientifically study cognitive processes to explain how organisms come to
know or learn something. Wilhelm Wundt, who established the first psychology
laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, in 1879, may be described as the first cognitivist
or cognitive psychologist. The research method he used was introspection. In this
method, highly trained observers reported what they were thinking under
carefully controlled conditions. Wundt believed that the contents of the mind
could be studied if a person talked about what he or she was thinking at a
particular moment. In this chapter, we will discuss the contributions of well-
known Gestalt psychologists, Jean Piaget and Albert Bandura, who were the
earliest to describe the mental processes involved in knowing or learning
something, based on the behaviours exhibited.


While behaviourism was the rage among American psychologists in the 1900s,
there was a small group of psychologists in Germany who were interested in the
mental processes. They were called Gestalt psychologists. Gestalt means
configuration or organisation. The entire Gestalt movement started with a
discovery by Max Wertheimer (18801943) while riding a train. It occurred to
him that if two lights blinked on and off at a certain rate, they could give the
observer the impression that the lights were moving. Later, using a stroboscope
(a device that presents visual stimuli at different rates), he performed numerous
experiments and concluded that the eye saw stimuli in a certain way to give the
illusion of motion. He called this the phi phenomenon. You may have seen this
phenomenon on neon-lit signboards and advertisements. What is so important
about this simple phenomenon?

The importance of the phi phenomenon is the explanation given as to why it

occurs. The sensation of motion cannot be explained by analysing each of the two
lights flashing on and off. So, the logical explanation is that we add something to
the experience that is not contained in the sensory data and that something

is called organisation. We do not see the stimuli as isolated or separated

(such as the on and off lights) but as combined together in a meaningful
configuration or gestalt. We see people, chairs, cars, trees and flowers not as lines
or patches of colours. From this belief came the following famous statement by
Gestalt psychologists:


This statement may be difficult to understand at first.

Mathematically, it is not possible because the sum of the
parts is equal to the whole. How is it possible for the sum
of its parts to be different or not equal to the whole? It is
possible because we add something to the experience that is
not contained in what we see or perceive. When we organise
what we see, we are adding information. Perhaps an example
will help you appreciate this powerful statement. Imagine
looking at the Mona Lisa. You will not
be able to appreciate the full impact of
this famous painting if you look at, first
one arm and then another, then the nose, then the mouth
and then try to put all these experiences together. In other
words, TO DISSECT IS TO DISTORT. Similarly, a tree is
made up of its parts trunk, branches, leaves, perhaps
blossoms or fruit. But when you look at an entire tree, you
are not conscious of the parts, but aware of the overall
object the tree. The tree is different from the sum of its
parts such as the trunk, branches, leaves and flowers
because your mind has given organisation.

Based on their findings that people tend to organise what they perceive, they
proposed The Law of Pragnanz which states that, when an organism sees or
experiences something that is disorganised in the physical environment, the
organism will impose order on what it sees or experiences. Based on this basic
premise, many principles were proposed to explain how we perceive the physical
environment and these became known as the Gestalt principles of perceptual
organisation. We will discuss only three of these principles.

Figure 3.1: Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Organisation

You may have seen the figures shown above. How do you think people would
respond when presented with these figures? The majority of people who see
Figure 3.1a would say that it is an E even though the figure is incomplete. The
Principle of Closure states that we have a tendency to complete incomplete
experiences. Humans have the habit of filling in the gaps perceptually and
responding to the figure as if it was the complete letter E. For Figure 3.1b, most
people tended to perceive three pairs of lines rather than six separate lines. Items
that are close together are grouped together. This is called the Principle of Proximity
which states that, we tend to organise elements close together as units or groups.

When you look at something you never see, just the thing you look at; rather, you
see it in relation to its surroundings. When you read this page, you distinguish
the words from the white background. In this case, you have distinguished
between the figure or shape of words (foreground) and the white space
surrounding it (called the background). Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin (1921)
was the first to systematically investigate this phenomenon. He found that it was
possible to see any well-marked area of the visual field as the figure, leaving the
rest as the background. In Figure 3.1c, if you consider the faces (dark part) as
the foreground and the vase (light part) as the background, you see the two
faces. If vice versa, you see the vase as the foreground and the two faces as
the background. In some instances, the figure and the background may fluctuate.


1. Define cognition.
2. What is the phi phenomenon?
3. What did Gestalt psychologists mean when they said, The whole is
different from the sum of its parts?


Identify which Gestalt Laws explain how we perceive these logos. Give


Gestalt psychologists looked upon the brain as an active and not a passive
receiver and storer of information from the environment. The brain acts on the
information coming from the environment by making it more meaningful and
organised. An enormous amount of information comes into our brain through
our senses. The major problem facing the perceptual system is that it must, with
only limited resources, process this great load of information in such a way that
the environment makes sense; which is the Law of Pragananz [we discussed it
earlier]. Based on this guiding principle, Wolfgang Kohler (18901940) studied
problem-solving ability among chimpanzees. He summarised his findings in his
classic book, The Mentality of Apes (1913). He argued that behaviour could not
be explained by the principles of association alone. There was an inner process
that enabled the apes to grasp the structure of a situation and recognise the
interconnection based on the properties of things themselves.

According to Kohler, problem solving is a cognitive phenomenon (involves

mental processes). The organism comes to see the solution after pondering on
the problem. When an organism is confronted with a problem, a state of
cognitive disequilibrium is set up and continues until the problem is solved. The
organism thinks about aspects necessary to solve the problem and tries different
ways until the problem is solved. When the solution comes, it comes suddenly. In
other words, the organism gains insight into the solution of the problem. So, a
problem can exist in only two states:

The Gestalt psychologists believed that either a solution is reached or it is not. To

test his notions about learning, Kohler worked with different chimpanzees and
observed them creating and using tools in captivity. Kohlers basic experiment

was to place a chimpanzee in an enclosed play area. Somewhere out of reach,

he placed a prize, such as a bunch of bananas. To get to the bananas, the
chimpanzee would have to use an object as a tool. The objects in the play area
included sticks of different lengths and wooden boxes.

Experiment 1:
In this experiment, a chimpanzee named Grande was placed in an enclosure
surrounded by wooden boxes. Initially, the animal jumped to reach the banana
but was unsuccessful. Later, Grande dragged the boxes under the bananas and
stacked the boxes on top of one another (see Figure 3.2). Using the boxes as a
step- ladder, the animal got to the bananas.

Figure 3.2: Grande using the boxes to reach the banana from The Mentality of
Apes, 1925. W. Kohler. London: Routledge & Kegan. p. 152

Experiment 2:
Kohlers chimpanzees were able to not only use tools but also build tools. For
example, he observed chimps breaking off branches from a tree to make a rake.
One of the smartest chimpanzees, Sultan, was given a very difficult problem.
Kohler placed a bunch of bananas outside Sultans cage and two bamboo sticks
inside the cage. However, neither of the sticks was long enough to reach the
bananas. Sultan pushed the thinner stick into the hollow of the thicker one, and
created a stick long enough to pull in the bananas (see Figure 3.3). Kohler
believed that these chimps showed insight acting as if they saw the solution
before carrying out the actions. The essence of a successful problem-solving
behaviour is being able to see the overall structure of the problem. Two
directions are involved: getting a wholly consistent picture and seeing what the
structure of the whole requires for the parts. Insightful learning usually has four

(a) The transition from pre-solution to solution is sudden and complete,

(b) Performance based on a solution gained by insight is usually smooth and

free of errors,

(c) A solution to a problem gained by insight, is retained for a considerable

length of time, and

(d) A principle gained by insight is easily applied to other problems.

Figure 3.3: Sultan putting two sticks together

Source: Kohler, W. (1925). The Mentality of Apes. London: Routledge & Kegan. p. 128

The most systematic attempt to base teaching techniques on Gestalt principles

was made by Bigge (1982). Bigge argued that instructions should be so arranged
so that students participated actively in developing insight by attacking a
problem posed by the teacher, just as the apes achieved insight in the situation
arranged by Kohler. Instead of presenting students with information discovered
by others, arrange learning situations so that students will make their own
discoveries as they engage in class discussions, Bigge urged teachers. He
suggested three general techniques for producing effective discussions:

(a) Switch the subject matter

(b) Introduce disturbing data

(c) Permit students to make mistakes



Jean Piaget, a Swiss, began as a biologist and obtained his
PhD at the age of 21. His theories of learning were based on
observing and description of his three young children.
However, his approach was not well received by other
psychologists, who argued that it was not scientific. Piaget
was most interested in the way molluscs adapted themselves
with the surrounding environment. Using ideas from
biology, Piaget introduced two main processes, namely,
organisation and adaptation. Organisation is the internal
characteristic of an organism, enabling it to take action to Jean Piaget
arrange the environment, while adaptation is the ability to fit 18961980
in with the physical environment. In other words,
organisation is an internal process and adaptation is an external process. From the
biological point of view, organisation is inseparable from adaptation as these are
two complementary processes of a single mechanism. Piaget (1985) suggested that
the learning process is iterative, in which new information is shaped to fit in with
the learners existing knowledge and existing knowledge is modified to
accommodate the new information. His learning theory is based on four basic
concepts schema, assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium.

(a) Schema
Piaget believed that the mind was made up of a schema, just like the body
that has a stomach that was responsible for digestion or a kidney that was
responsible for removing waste from the blood. Schemas are mental or
cognitive structures, which enable a person to adapt and organise the
environment. They are like a cabinet with many files and each file
represents a schema. When a child is born, it has a few general schemas and
as the child grows, he or she gains more schemas and these schemas
become more refined.

For example, at birth, the schema of a baby is reflexive in nature such as

sucking and grasping. The sucking reflex is a schema and the infant will
suck whatever is put into its mouth, such as a nipple or a finger. The infant
is unable to differentiate because it has only a single sucking schema.
Slowly, the infant learns to differentiate between milk-producing objects,
which are accepted while non-milk objects are rejected. At this point, the
infant has two sucking schemas, one for milk-producing objects and one for
non-milk producing objects.

Figure 3.4 illustrates a childs encounter with an experience for which the
child does not have a schema. The child looks at the cow and says Hello
Doggy. Why do you think this happened? The child seeing the object
(cow), sifted through his collection of schemas, until he found one that
seemed appropriate. To the child, the object (cow) has all the characteristics
of a dog it fits in his dog schema so the child concludes that the object is
a dog. The child has integrated the object (cow) into his dog schema. You
would have seen this often happening among young children and parents
make a desperate attempt to correct the child.

Figure 3.4: A young childs first encounter with a cow

It would be misleading to think that schemas do not change, or that the

child is destined to call cows as dogs for the rest of his life. Obviously, this
does not happen. As the child becomes better able to differentiate between
objects, schemas become more numerous (differentiated) and as he becomes
better able to generalise across objects, schemas become more refined.

(b) Assimilation
Assimilation is the cognitive process by which a person integrates new
information or experience into existing or readily available schema. This is
the process of fitting new information into existing cognitive structures.
Assimilation occurs all the time because humans are always processing
various kinds of information and experiences. The existing or readily
available schema is like a balloon that gets bigger and bigger with the

addition or assimilation of new information and experiences. There is a

quantitative change but no qualitative change. No new schemas are
produced as old schemas are being used.

See Figure 3.5 which shows a child confronting three different round
shapes. Because the person has an existing schema of round shapes, the
three round shapes, even though different, are assimilated or fitted into the
round shape schema, which already exists. There is a quantitative change
as the single schema gets bigger and bigger to absorb or assimilate the new

Figure 3.5: Assimilation into the round shape schema

(c) Accommodation
When confronted with new information or experience, the individual tries to
assimilate it into an existing schema as mentioned earlier. Sometimes it is not
possible because there is no ready-made schema. In such a situation, the
person has two options. The person could create a new schema into which
new information or experience can be placed. Alternatively, the person could
modify an existing schema so that the new information or experience can fit
into it. Both of these are forms of accommodation. Thus, accommodation is
the creation of new schema or the modification of old schema. Both of these
actions result in a change in or development or creation of schema.

See Figure 3.6 which shows a child confronting three different round
shapes. Because the child does not have an existing schema of round
shapes, three new schemas are created. There is a qualitative change as
more schemas are created.

Figure 3.6: Accommodation by the creation of new schema

(d) Equilibrium
Imagine what would happen if a person only assimilates and never
accommodates or only accommodates and never assimilates? The result
would be disastrous. Hence, there needs to be a balance between the two
processes. Equilibrium is a balance between assimilation and accommodation.
Disequilibrium is an imbalance between assimilation and accommodation.
When disequilibrium occurs, the learner seeks equilibrium, that is, to further
assimilate or accommodate. For example, a learner who encounters new
information tries to assimilate the information into an existing schema. If he or
she is successful, equilibrium is achieved. However if the learner cannot
assimilate the new information, he or she attempts to accommodate by
modifying a schema or creating a new one. If the new information can be
accommodated, equilibrium is reached. According to Piaget, learning
proceeds in this way from birth through adulthood.


1. What is a schema?
2. State the difference between assimilation and accommodation.
3. What is equilibrium?


1. What do you think will happen if a person only assimilates or only

2. Explain why a child who sees a baby, calls it a doll.


Intelligence was viewed by Piaget as having three components content,
function and structure. Content refers to observable behaviours that reflect
intellectual activity (e.g. solving physics problems, writing an essay). The content
of intelligence, because of its nature, varies considerably from age to age and
from child to child. Function refers to characteristics of intellectual activity,
namely, assimilation and accommodation. Structure refers to the organisational
properties of the brain or schema. In other words, intelligence can be defined in
terms of assimilation and accommodation.

Piaget did not direct his research towards education and teaching, but his theory
of how children acquired knowledge and developed intellectually, clearly
provided much that was relevant to teaching and learning. The learning
environment (especially in kindergarten and primary school) should help
children acquire knowledge by performing actions. In other words, the learning
environment should be action-based. For example, children should have physical
contact with concepts such as trees, grass, cats, chickens and so forth. Just
showing children pictures of trees and reading about trees is inadequate.

(a) The learning environment should be discovery-oriented, where children are

encouraged to initiate and complete their own activities.

(b) Use teaching strategies that make children aware of conflicts and
inconsistencies in their thinking: i.e. children must experience
disequilibrium or an imbalance between their current schemas and new
information to be assimilated, in order for them to move towards
equilibrium and new levels of intellectual growth.

(i) Use problems to confront or challenge students prior knowledge or

schemas. Sometimes children do not realise that they have the
relevant schema and are quick to reply that they do not know.

(ii) Use appropriate questioning techniques to help learners to bring out

their misconceptions and faulty reasoning.

(iii) Diagnose what children already know and how they think. Content is
not introduced until the child is cognitively ready to understand it, or
has the relevant schema to assimilate or accommodate the new

(c) Childrens interactions with their peers are an important source of

intellectual development: peer interactions are essential in helping children
develop intellectually.

(d) The learning environment should encourage active self-discovery: play

effectively represents all of the requisite characteristics of Piagetian-
inspired instruction.


1. How would you apply Piagets theory of learning in the classroom?

2. Give examples of how you have used Piagets ideas in the classroom


Albert Bandura was born in Mundare, Canada, in 1925. He
received his B.A. from the University of British Columbia in
1949 and his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1952. The
following year, he accepted a position as a psychology
professor at the University of Stanford until today. Bandura has
achieved many honours and awards from fellow psychologists.
In 1972, he received a distinguished achievement award from
the American Psychological Association and a Scientist Award
from the California State Psychological Association. In 1974, Albert Bandura
1925 present
Bandura was elected president of the American Psychological

He was most interested in the theories proposed by Dollard and Miller in their
book Social Learning and Imitation, published in 1941. They suggested that
children could learn when they were reinforced at a time when their behaviour
matched that of another person. For example, a boy might be praised by his
mother when imitating some form of desirable behaviour he had seen displayed
by his older sister. Bandura and Richard Walters agreed with Miller and Dollard
that learning was much more than trial and error and on the significance of
imitation. In their book Social Learning Theory and Personality Development
(1963), Bandura and Walters argued that merely observing another person might
be sufficient to lead to a learned response. They pointed out that reinforcement
was not always necessary.

In his book, Social Learning Theory (1977), Bandura laid out the essential
principles of social learning which originated from a series of classic experiments
carried out in the 1960s. Bandura argued that children learned to act aggressively
when they modelled their behaviour after violent acts of adults. He believed that
aggression must be explained from three aspects: first, how aggressive patterns
of behaviour are developed; second, what provokes people to behave aggressively;
and third, what determines whether they are going to continue to resort to an
aggressive behaviour pattern on future occasions.

In a classic experiment, he had four groups of children watch a video showing a

model who reacted with a plastic clown called the Bobo doll. Two groups of
children watched the model aggressively hit the doll with a mallet and punch it
(see Figure 3.7a). One group watched the model being rewarded while the other
group watched the aggressive model being punished. A third group of children
watched the model not doing anything to the Bobo doll while a fourth group
watched the doll without a model. Then, the four groups of children were led to
another room with various attractive toys, including the Bobo doll. The results of
the experiments are shown in Figure 3.8.

(a) The child observes an adult beating a Bobo doll with a mallet.

(b) When presented with an identical Bobo doll, the child picks up the mallet and
proceeds to beat the doll.

Figure 3.7: The Bobo doll experiment


Figure 3.8: Results of Bobo doll experiment

Children who observed the aggressive model engaged in considerably more

aggressive behaviour towards the Bobo doll (see Figure 3.7b). Children who saw
the model rewarded were more aggressive than children who observed the
model punished (see Figure 3.8). Children who observed the non-aggressive
model and those who did not observe a model displayed little imitative
aggression. Eight months later, 40% of the children who observed the aggressive
model reproduced the violent behaviour as observed in the Bobo doll experiment.
Bandura conducted similar experiments and the results showed that, children
exposed to the aggressive model exhibited aggressive behaviour. Based on these
studies, Bandura proposed several principles of social learning (or observational
learning as it also came to be called). He suggested that the degree to which
individuals observed and imitated a models behaviour could be explained
in terms of four component processes: attention, retention, reproduction and
reinforcement (Bandura, 1977).

Processes of Social Learning

(a) Attention
Attention is the first component of observational learning. Individuals
cannot learn much by observation unless they perceive and attend to the
significant features of the modelled behaviour. For example, children must
attend to what the aggressor model is doing and saying in order to
reproduce the models behaviour. In the Bobo doll experiment, the children
witnessed the Bobo doll being verbally and/or physically abused by live
and filmed models.

(b) Retention
Retention is the next component. In order to reproduce the modelled
behaviour, individuals must encode the information into long-term memory.
Therefore, the information will be retrieved. For example, the actions and
words of the model performed would have to be retained and later retrieved.
In the Bobo doll experiment, the children imitated the aggression they
witnessed. They aggressively hit the Bobo doll because it was encoded and
stored in their memory. The process of retention had occurred.

(c) Reproduction
Motor reproduction is another process in observational learning. The
observer must be able to reproduce the models behaviour. The observer
must learn and possess the physical capabilities of the modelled behaviour.
For example, a person who observes a monkey swinging from tree to tree
may wish to do the same but does not have the motor capabilities to do so.
Once a behaviour is learned through attention and retention, the observer
must possess the physical capabilities to produce the act. The children had
the physical capability to hit and smack the doll.

(d) Motivation or Reinforcement

The final process in observational learning is motivation or reinforcement.
In this process, the observer expects to receive positive reinforcements
for the modelled behaviour. In the Bobo doll experiment, the children
witnessed the adults being rewarded for their aggression. Therefore,
they performed the same act expecting the same rewards. What would be
the consequences if young children witnessing violence on television are


Violence on TV
There have been many debates over whether or not violence on
television causes aggressive behaviour in children. Some studies have
indicated that television leads to aggressive behaviour while others
suggest that it does not. For instance, psychologists have found that
some cartoons are very violent and cause children to imitate aggressive
behaviour. However, the general public believes that children view
cartoons as funny and humorous. It is the parents responsibility to
inform their children that the cartoons are not real.

What do you think?

Prevalence of Imitation in Early Cultures

In early cultures such as that of the Cantalense, a young girl is given miniature
working replicas of all the tools her mother uses: broom, corn-grinding stone,
cooking utensils and so on. From the moment she can walk, she follows her
mother and imitates her actions. There is little or no direct teaching. Most of the
significant social learning accomplished by girls in that culture results from
direct imitation.

In Ojibwa tribes, young boys follow their fathers hunting as soon as they are
physically able. For the first few years; they simply observe again there is no
direct teaching. When a boy is old enough, he would fashion his own weapons
and set traps as he had seen his father do. If he has a sister, she would learn how
to prepare hides and meat, how to make clothing and how to do the many other
things she had seen her mother do.


1. How did Bandura prove that children learn by imitating?

2. Explain the four cognitive processes involved in social learning.
3. Give examples of children imitating their parents in modern society.


The term model may refer to an actual person whose behaviour serves as a
stimulus for an observers response. It may also, as is more often the case in our
society, refer to a symbolic model. Symbolic models include such things as books,
verbal or written instructions, pictures, mental images, cartoon or movie
characters, religious figures and, not the least important, television. These are
probably more prevalent than real-life models for children in modern society.
This is not to deny that peers, siblings and parents serve as models, or that
teachers and other well-behaved people are held as exemplary models. For
example, Why dont you behave like your brother? See how quietly he sits at the
dining table.

Why do people imitate? People imitate because it is reinforcing and to do so, is

pleasurable. What are the sources of reinforcement in imitation? It may be
reinforced in two ways:

(a) Direct Reinforcement

It involves the direct reinforcement of the learner by the model. The person
imitates or models the behaviour he observes and is directly reinforced. For
example, a child is praised for imitating the behaviour of his sister.

(b) Vicarious Reinforcement

It involves deriving a second-hand type of satisfaction from imitation. It is
as though the individual observing a model assumes that if the model does
something, she must do it because she derives some reinforcement or
pleasure from her behaviour. For example, in the Bobo doll experiment, the
child who saw the adult being rewarded by being aggressive, imitated the
behaviour, even though she did not experience reinforcement directly.
Therefore, in the observers logic, anyone else who engages in the same
behaviour, would receive the same reinforcement.


The Bobo doll experiment helped Bandura theorise on the effects of violence on
TV. He believed that television was a source of behaviour modelling. Films and
television show violence graphically. Violence is often expressed as an acceptable
behaviour, especially when violent heroes are never punished. Since aggression
is a prominent feature of many shows, children, who have a high degree of

exposure to the media, may exhibit a relatively high incidence of hostility

themselves in imitating the aggression they have witnessed (Berkowitz, 1962).
There have been a number of deaths linked to violence on television. For
example, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan after
he watched the movie Taxi Driver 15 times. Ronald Zamora brutally killed an
elderly woman and pleaded insanity. His attorney argued that Zamora was
addicted to violence on television. As a result, he could not differentiate between
reality and fantasy. However, Zamora was found guilty because the jury did not
believe his defence (Siegel, 1992: p. 172).

When a student is punished for breaking a school rule, other children are
watching the event and because of the principle of modelling, every child is
influenced. Each of them has learned about breaking school rules, simply
through observation. They have learned that if they break school rules, they will
get into trouble.

Modelling theory is designed primarily to explain behavioural influence. It is less

useful in creating or understanding changes in thinking or feeling. Therefore,
whenever you want to influence behaviours, consider modelling. For other types
of changes, use other persuasion tools.


You can approach a task in two different ways. For example, if you attempt to
memorise a series of numbers without relating the numbers to anything more
than a random series, that is rote learning. On the other hand, if you attempt to
create some connection to something that you already know, that is meaningful
learning. Material learned that is related to experiences or memories that are
firmly stored in the persons memory, is more likely to be retained. Rote-learned
materials are discrete and isolated entities which have not been related to
established concepts and may soon be forgotten (Ausubel, 1962).

These structured experiences or memories that are firmly stored are termed as
cognitive structure consists of more or less, organised and stable concepts (or
ideas) in a learners brain or cortex. The nature of the organisation is assumed to
be hierarchical, with the most inclusive (general) concept at the apex and the
increasingly specific concepts towards the base.

David Ausubel, a medical practitioner, introduced the notion of subsumption in

1962. Subsumption is the process by which new information enters the
consciousness and is directed or organised to fit within an existing cognitive
structure. In other words, for information to become meaningful knowledge to
a learner, it is usually subsumed under a broader, more inclusive piece of
meaningful knowledge closely related to it. For example, understanding of
the concept pantun is enhanced when we learn that it is a kind of poem
(assuming we understand what a poem is). The more distinct or different the
new knowledge is from the relevant subsumer, the harder it is to understand.
The key to understanding, it appears, is relating it to appropriate prior
knowledge. Subsumption may take one of two forms:

(a) Derivative Subsumption

This is a situation in which a new concept (new information) that is learned,
is an instance or example of a concept that has already been learned. For
example, a student has acquired the broad or general concept of fish it
has scales, fins, gills and lives in the water. Next, she learns about the
barracuda, a big fish she has never seen before. However, she is able to
attach her knowledge about the barracuda within the broad concept of
fish without substantially altering the concept. So, the learner has learned
about barracuda through the process of derivative subsumption.

(b) Correlative Subsumption

Now, what if the learner encounters a new kind of fish that does not have
fins, like an eel? In order to attach this new information, the learner has to
alter or extend her broad concept of fish to include the possibility of fish
having no fins. The learner has learned about the new kind of fish through
the process of correlative subsumption.


Applications of Ausubels learning theory are as follows:

(a) The ability to remember is a function of whether new material can be

associated with an existing structure. After learning (subsumption), the
newly subsumed material becomes increasingly like the structure to which
it was incorporated.

(b) Instruction should proceed from the most general and inclusive towards
details of specific instances. The most general ideas of a subject should be
presented first and then, progressively differentiated in terms of detail and

(c) Instructional materials should attempt to integrate new material with

previously presented information through comparisons and cross-
referencing of new and old ideas.

(d) Teachers should not fall into the trap of asking students to learn material
that is inherently meaningless for them because they do not have the
required background information.

(e) Advance organisers are concepts and ideas that are given to the learner
prior to material actually to be learned.

(i) They should be introduced in advance of learning and presented at a

higher level of abstraction, generality and inclusiveness.

(ii) They should be selected on the basis of their suitability for explaining,
integrating and interrelating the new material.

(iii) They aim to enhance the cognitive structure of the learner.

(f) Advance organisers can take various forms:

(i) Chapter titles and section headings in a text to indicate to the reader
what the succeeding content is.

(ii) Introductory paragraphs to remind the learner of certain ideas that are
important in terms of their relationship to the new material.

(iii) Cognitive maps and graphic organisers.

(iv) Diagrams, pictures and cartoons.


1. What did Ausubel mean by meaningful learning?

2. Identify how you have used the notion of subsumption in your

Cognition is defined as the act of knowing or acquiring knowledge.

The mental processes involved in the act of knowing are called cognitive
processes and these include perceiving, attention, reasoning, judging, problem
solving, self-monitoring, remembering, understanding and so forth.

Gestalt means configuration or organisation. THE WHOLE IS DIFFERENT


Problem solving is a cognitive phenomenon and when the solution comes, it

comes suddenly. The organism gains insight into the solution of the problem.

Schemas are mental or cognitive structures, which enable a person to adapt

and organise the environment.

Assimilation is the cognitive process by which a person integrates new

information or experience into existing or readily available schema.

Accommodation is when a person creates a new schema or modifies an

existing schema into which new information or experience can be placed.

Equilibrium is a balance between assimilation and accommodation.

The degree to which individuals observe and imitate a models behaviour can
be explained in terms of four component processes: attention, retention
reproduction and reinforcement.

Subsumption is the process by which new information enters the

consciousness and is directed or organised to fit within an existing cognitive

Derivative subsumption: This is a situation in which a new concept (new

information) that is learned is an instance or example of a concept that has
already been learned.

Correlative subsumption: In order to attach new information, the learner has

to alter or extend an existing broad concept to include the new concept.

Accommodation Meaningful learning

Assimilation Reproduction
Attention Retention
Correlative subsumption Rote learning
Derivative subsumption Schema
Equilibrium Social learning
Gestalt Subsumption

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