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Assimilation theory (sometimes referred to as subsumption theory or theory of advance organizers) is one of the cognitivist learning theories developed by an American educational psychologist David Ausubel during the 1960s. Ausubel was a cognitivist1)2) inspired by works of Jean Piaget (see: Stage Theory of Cognitive Development) and considered at the time still influential neo-behaviorist theories inadequate3). Ausubel is concerned with developing a theory of meaningful verbal reception learning and related methods which will facilitate classroom learning4).
Learning, according to Ausubel's theory, occurs through development of new cognitive structures that will hold newly acquired information. Cognitive structure, a central term in his theory is defined as the
As mentioned, knowledge is in assimilation theory organized hierarchically in a pyramidal shape where more general ideas and concepts appear at the top of the pyramid and get more and more specific to the bottom of it. The closer to the top of the pyramid a concept is, the more general it is and the longer is its life time. New knowledge is assimilated in this hierarchy by anchoring to already existing more general concepts (so called anchoring concept or anchoring site). The anchoring concept is characterized by its availability, clarity, stability in the cognitive structure, relevance to and discriminability from concepts that are about to be learned.7) Characteristics of existing concepts (potential anchoring sites) define the overall characteristics of one's cognitive structure: if well organized, it enables faster learning in terms of adding new ideas and structures to it and therefore is the key aspect of learning. If cognitive structure is unorganized or badly connected, the acquisition of new information will be more difficult.
Ausubel distinguishes between meaningful and rote learning.
As a result of meaningful learning, the new idea will remain anchored to a so called subsumer (anchoring site of the idea). That of course doesn't mean that the learned idea can't be forgotten: this process, referred to as obliterative subsumption, happens as more specific idea becomes less and less distinctive from its subsumer until it is finally forgotten.
Defined concept of meaningful learning leads to another key aspect of Ausubel's theory: prior knowledge. Since relating old and new knowledge is crucial for meaningful learning, prior knowledge or the existing ideas are the key enabler or restraint of what can be learned next.
Another important and rather controversial part of Ausubel's theory are the advance organizers: introductory material presented before the learning material “at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness”9) than the learning material. Purpose of advance organizers is to help replace the missing concepts and bridge new material to learner's established cognitive structure.10) They help the learner realize where the new material fits in relation to the prior knowledge about the material and should not be confused with summaries or overviews which usually present key ideas of the material.
Advance organizers should be of greater help to students with less organized cognitive structures, since organized cognitive structures already possess developed anchoring ideas. Organizers can be most productive when closely related topics or unitary topics need to be learned and when learners prior knowledge can be assessed. Advanced organizer can include various types of material like pictures, verbal descriptions, prequestioning techniques, and cultural background knowledge11). So far no significant differences in effects of this types of organizers have been reported12).
Meaningful learning suggested by Ausubel's assimilation theory presents a valuable concept for educational process, in which rote learning examples can today be found more frequently. Foreign language learning often requires learning by heart numerous exceptions or grammatical structures (like German strong verbs). This rote learning would be easier and longer lasting in case of connecting new material with already learned language concepts.
The concept of meaningful learning in context of Ausubel's theory has a few important implications for the instructional process:
Critics of Ausubel's theory often reflect the fact that he doesn't describe construction of organizers so different researches provide different results of their efficiency19). Ausubel's theory is also in most of its claims quite opposite of Jerome Bruner's discovery learning.
Ivie, Stanley D. Ausubel's Learning Theory: An Approach To Teaching Higher Order Thinking Skills.(educational psychologist David Paul Ausubel). High School Journal 82.1: 35(1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. CSU Sacramento University Library. 13 October 2006.