Make your own free website on

Subsumption Theory

(D. Ausubel)


Ausubel's theory is concerned with how individuals learn large amounts of meaningful material from verbal/textual presentations in a school setting (in contrast to theories developed in the context of laboratory experiments). According to Ausubel, learni ng is based upon the kinds of superordinate, representational, and combinatorial processes that occur during the reception of information. A primary process in learning is subsumption in which new material is related to relevant ideas in the existing cogn itive structure on a substantive, non-verbatim basis. Cognitive structures represent the residue of all learning experiences; forgetting occurs because certain details get integrated and lose their individual identity.

A major instructional mechanism proposed by Ausubel is the use of advance organizers:

"These organizers are introduced in advance of learning itself, and are also presented at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness; and since the substantive content of a given organizer or series of organizers is selected on the basis of its suitability for explaining, integrating, and interrelating the material they precede, this strategy simultaneously satisfies the substantive as well as the programming criteria for enhancing the organization strength of cognitive structure." (1963 , p. 81).

Ausubel emphasizes that advance organizers are different from overviews and summaries which simply emphasize key ideas and are presented at the same level of abstraction and generality as the rest of the material. Organizers act as a subsuming bridge betw een new learning material and existing related ideas.

Ausubel's theory has commonalities with Gestalt theories and those that involve schema (e.g., Bartlett) as a central principle. There are also similarities with Bruner's "spiral learning" model , although Ausubel emphasizes that subsumption involves reorganization of existing cognitive structures not the development of new structures as constructivist theories suggest.


Ausubel clearly indicates that his theory applies only to reception (expository) learning in school settings. He distinguishes reception learning from rote and discovery learning; the former because it doesn't involve subsumption (i.e., meaningful materia ls) and the latter because the learner must discover information through problem solving. A large number of studies have been conducted on the effects of advance organizers in learning (see Ausubel, 1968, 1978).


Ausubel (1963, p. 80) cites Boyd's textbook of pathology as an example of progressive differentiation because the book presents information according to general processes (e.g., inflammation, degeneration) rather than by describing organ systems in isolat ion. He also cites the Physical Science Study Committee curriculum which organizes material according to the major ideas of physics instead of piece-meal discussion of principle or phenomenon (p. 78).


1. The most general and ideas of a subject should be presented first and then progressively differentiated in terms of detail and specificity.

2. Instructional materials should attempt to integrate new material with previously presented information through comparisons and cross-referencing of new and old ideas.


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.