Ausubel's Assimilation Theory
Assimilation theory, a cognitive learning theory developed by psychologist David Ausubel, holds that people learn best when they can link, or assimilate, new information with previous knowledge. In this way, learning becomes meaningful as learners construct their own understandings of new information, making it more likely that it will be retained. The six basic principles of assimilation theory are subsumption, superordinate learning, progressive differentiation, integrative reconciliation, obliterative subsumption, and advance organizers.
Keywords Advance Organizers; Assimilation Theory; Behaviorism; Cognitive Learning; Epistemology; Meaningful Learning; Reception Learning; Rote Learning; Social Learning Theory; Subsumption
Origins in Behaviorism
The first theories on epistemology were classified as theories of behaviorism. Behaviorists, such as B. F. Skinner, believed that learning processes were researched most objectively when attention was given to stimuli and responses. Theories of behaviorism included claims that organisms are born as blank slates, that learning involves a change in behavior and is largely the result of environmental events (Barrett, 2003).
Cognitivism emerged in opposition to behaviorist ideas (Barrett, 2003). Early behaviorists would rather not include mental events in their learning theories due to the trouble of measuring them, but by the 1950s and 1960s, some psychologists began to turn away from this human learning approach (McGriff, 2001). The behaviorist perspective could not answer important questions such as why people attempt to organize what they learn or change the way the information is received. As a result, more cognitive research began to take place, and psychologists such as Edward Tolman and Jean Piaget laid the foundation for cognitive learning theories (McGriff, 2001).
Edward Tolman further advanced the idea of cognitive learning, which referred to the development of learning from interacting with the environment and evaluating how the learner relates to it (McGriff, 2001). He came to his conclusions after performing an experiment on rats in a maze. Tolman periodically closed off portions of the maze, and the rats chose not to take the route that led to the closed path even though the other route was longer (McGriff, 2001). Cognitivism focuses on alterations in thought that are not directly observable (Barrett, 2003).
A Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, founded a research program that paved future viewpoints and theories of cognitive development. His cognitive theory sprang from his many years of keen observation. He determined that intellectual development appears in response to the child’s relationship with the world around him or her. Throughout the child's development, according to Piaget, knowledge is invented and reinvented (McGriff, 2001). Piaget's theory “addressed children growing through a specific set of cognitive stages in which they develop increasingly sophisticated ways [of] handling the world of knowledge” (McInerney, 2005, p. 590).
In Piaget's theory of development, assimilation and accommodation prove to be the most important cognitive processes responsible for progression through multiple stages (McGriff, 2001). Piaget often asserted that students of all kinds created the vast majority of their knowledge by way of their personal experiences and relationship to their surroundings. Piaget referred to this self-teaching as cognitive constructivism (McInerney, 2005). Cognitive constructivism acts as the foundation for which all other educational psychology research and theorizing builds upon, including the assimilation theory work of David Ausubel (McInerney, 2005). Ausubel’s work in the context of instructional design is further explored in the 2011 book The Instructional Design Knowledge Base: Theory, Research, and Practice (Richey, Klein & Tracey; reviewed by Para, 2013).
Cognitive theories of learning deal directly with the mind as it relates to the reception, assimilation, storage, and recall of information. By understanding the mechanics of the learning process, cognitive theorists believe that they can recommend better teaching methods (McGriff, 2001). Most cognitive theorists agree on some basic principles of learning. General assumptions are that knowledge is organized and that each person is an active participant in their own learning. Learning also includes behavior differences in addition to the more subtle changes of mental association (Barrett, 2003). Cognitive theorists also believe that observations of behavior are necessary, and inferences can be made about mental processes based on observed behavior (Barrett, 2003). The implication is that people organize information as they receive it because new knowledge is easy to associate with already stored information (McInerney, 2005). As they grow or learn more, they are capable of more sophisticated thought (Barrett, 2003)
Since the mid-1970s, cognitive psychology has become one of the most dominant topics in educational research (McInerney, 2005). There have been amazing advances in the study of human learning and the nature of knowledge, many of which have sprung from the work of Tolman, Piaget, and Ausubel (Novak, 2003).
What Is Assimilation Theory?
Ausubel developed his assimilation theory of learning in the 1960s. Influenced by Piaget, Ausubel's theory mainly concentrates on the acquisition and use of knowledge (McGriff, 2001). The theory focuses on the idea that learning, to be effective, must be meaningful (Novak, 2003). The belief is that each student needs to develop his or her own form of learning as it relates to key concepts and the relationship between different pieces of information (Novak, 2003).
Assimilation theory is applicable to reception learning, also known as expository learning. Reception learning is learning in which the concepts to be learned are presented explicitly to the learner (Novak, 1979). Concept introduction is the first step, and then an overview of information is presented (Andrews, 1984). Teachers who encourage reception learning execute carefully planned, methodical explication of meaningful information. Information is organized, explained, and connected to a bigger picture (McGriff, 2001). Students are then expected to process information and apply concepts (Andrews, 1984).
Under assimilation theory, it is believed that input, processing, storage, and \retrieval of all learned knowledge are at the core of every learning process and are universal for everyone (McGriff, 2001). Instructors remain the managers of the information but the learner is the one who carries out his or her own learning (McGriff, 2001). Teachers can only assist in learning by offering strategies and encouragement, but learning is a highly individualistic process that varies from person to person (Novak, 2003).
Meaningful learning is controlled by the learner and only takes place when new information is attributed to existing knowledge that the learner already possessed (McGriff, 2001). Reception learning provides the learner with the structure and motivation necessary to learn. Meaningful learning requires the learner to seek out relationships and incorporate the new learning into the knowledge base he or...
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