Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory


March 9, 2012 by k. liz

Do remember when I wrote about memory palaces? Well, I guess it will depend on where you put it if you read the post! Well, I was reading for class this week and the topic in one of my textbooks was Human Learning. We talked about the class Pavlov’s dog theory and B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theories. I believe that it is important to take these theories into consideration because they did not just come out of nowhere. I don’t think that behaviorism is the best theory to base our teaching methods on, but I think that there are some truths to take into consideration that can back up some of the activities that we do in the classroom.

That being said, I turn my attention to a theory of learning that I feel makes a lot of sense and at the same time gives some direction for teachers in the classroom. That is Ausubel’s Theory of Subsumption. This is the first time that I have heard of this theory, and I admittedly was enthralled in the concept. I’ll let the textbook explain a little:

Learning takes place in the human organism through a meaningful process of relating new events or items to already existing cognitive concepts or propositions – hanging new items on existing cognitive pegs. (Brown, 2007, p. 91)

Basically, this theory holds to the fact that students learn better when they are connecting information with previous experience. Rather than adding in random facts of information, we are constantly building a bigger structure in our mind. This leads the language teacher to contextualizing information rather than giving lists of pieces to be memorized. Those things that we memorize do not connect with other things, and are more randomly forgotten. However, if we can connect things together, then we will have a much more well built structure of information in our head.

Let me share an example that helps put this into a more meaningful context (putting it to practice already!!) The example in the book shared how you probably do not remember all of your previous phone numbers (granted you have had several.) That is because they do not intersect or interconnect with any other important information. However, you probably can remember several address that you have lived at, simply because that information intersects with your physical house number, street sign, city (in which you encounter the name all the time!) and state. The more that you can weave information with other events in your life, the better you will remember them.

Furthermore, Ausubel’s theory helps make sense of human forgetting. There are two types of forgetting that we experience. There are almost the same, but there is a slight difference. One of these types of forgetting is when we haven’t had enough connections, and therefore the information does not resonate or become a part of the structure in our mind. The other, however is termed cognitive pruning, which essentially means that as we collect information, our brain filters out that which isn’t necessary because it is redundant, or the pieces of information get filtered into another category or subset. This is demonstrated when children learn something explicitly when they are young (the book mentions learning that something that is hot will hurt you), however, as they grow older it is no longer necessary to keep that entire piece of information intact because they have examples and proof that it is true. They can reconstruct that truth without having kept the exact sentence in their memory. We do this often when we learn something and truly understand it because of the proof or experience, we later can explain the idea, but maybe not the exact theory. (As I feel I am doing now . . .) However, this is possible because of the cognitive pruning. If we did not have experience or thoughts to connect that information with, we would need to memorize the information (which is also quite likely to be forgotten) and repeat it verbatim.

So, why is this so exciting to me? Well, for one, I am just hugely interested in the topic. I am fascinated by the organizational features in our brains. However, as a language teacher, this is also really important because it points out the fact that I need to create structures in which to put the information that I am giving my students. In essence, I need to bring in some storage bins, extra drawers, and cognitive pegs when I come in to teach, and make sure that I put everything away neatly where it goes before I leave. Perhaps this is something that I should research in the future, but I think that facets of this learning theory lend towards the opportunity that teachers have to teach without students even realizing that they are learning. Don’t get me wrong, I am also an advocate for students taking ownership in their learning process and growing to love pursuing knowledge – however, I also want my students to be able to leave class and realize that there is a lot more “put away” in their mind now then there was before they came to class. I want them to feel the excitement of learning without it being dreadful work.

So, probably a bit rambly and jumbled, but exciting to me. Let me know your thoughts on this learning theory in the comments below. And, one last disclaimer, I am a mixer of methods – I am not going to sell everything and commit to only keeping house in my students’ heads – but I think there is a lot to learn from Ausubel’s claims.

Brown, Douglas. (2007) Principles of language learning and teaching. Pearson Longman: White Plains, NY.


2 thoughts on “Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory

  1. I totally subscribe to everything you said. Exciting theory. Good article ; )

  2. Jon Gibson says:

    Hey Kylie, I enjoyed this read and makes me want to read the original. Can you point me in the right direction to find this?

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