Ausubel's Assimilation Learning Theory: Theoretical Basis for Concept Maps and E-Maps

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This page was originally authored by Robyn Young (2008).
This page has been revised by Julie Whitehead (2008).

David Ausubel - Photo retrieved March 1, 2008.

David Ausubel (1918 - ) is an American born cognitive psychologist who first introduced his Assimilation Learning Theory in 1962.

Ausubel’s theory primarily explains cognitive learning – with the central idea being that learning occurs through the assimilation of new concepts into existing concept frameworks held by the learner. Further, Ausubel defines effective learning as a process in which learners comprehend the structure of knowledge and consciously make new structures fit with the existing organization of concepts in the brain. He refers to this process where new ideas or concepts are linked with previously acquired knowledge as meaningful learning.

Meaningful vs. Rote Learning

According to Ausubel, "the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows" (Novak, 1998, p.71). Relationships between concepts are formed when two concepts overlap on some level. As learning progresses, this network of concepts and relationships becomes increasingly complex. Ausubel compares meaningful learning to rote learning, which refers to when a student simply memorizes information without relating that information to previously learned knowledge. As a result, new information is easily forgotten and not readily applied to problem-solving situations because it was not connected with concepts already learned.

However, meaningful learning requires more effort, as the learner must choose to relate new information to relevant knowledge that already exists in the learner’s cognitive structure. This requires more effort initially, however after knowledge frameworks are developed, definitions and the meanings for concepts become easier to acquire. Further, concepts learned meaningfully are retained much longer, sometimes for a lifetime.

Rote learning, common in many schools and universities today, is shown to be of little use for achieving the goals of individuals and society in a time when creative production of new knowledge is in heightened demand. Knowledge creation is viewed as a special form of meaningful learning.

Three basic requirements for meaningful learning include: a learner’s relevant prior knowledge, meaningful material (often selected by the teacher) and learner choice (to use meaningful learning instead of rote learning). An important advantage of meaningful learning is that it can be applied in a wide variety of new problems or contexts. This power of transferability is necessary for creative thinking.

Concept Maps

Teachers can encourage creative thinking by using tools such as concept maps. Concept maps are based primarily on the learning theories of cognitive psychologists, specifically Ausubel's Assimilation theory. A concept map helps represent ideas in a way that models an individual's cognitive structure.

Goals in the Use of Concept Maps

One of the primary goals in the use of concept maps is to promote meaningful learning. In order for this to occur the following points need to be considered:

  • The learner must have relevant background knowledge.
  • Material to be learned must be conceptually clear and presented with language and examples that will relate to the learner’s prior knowledge.
  • The learner must make the choice to learn meaningfully. Students must be motivated to incorporate new meanings into their prior knowledge, rather than just memorizing concept definitions. The creation of concept maps supports the incorporation of new meanings into prior knowledge.

Characteristics of Concept Maps

  • Concepts are typically enclosed in circles or boxes, and relationships between concepts are represented by connecting lines that link them together. Words on the linking line explain the relationship between the concepts.
  • Concepts are represented in a hierarchical fashion with the most general concepts at the top of the map and the more specific concepts arranged below.
  • The inclusion of cross links makes explicit relationships between concepts in different domains within the concept map. Cross-links show how a concept in one domain of knowledge shown on the map is related to a concept in another domain shown on the map.
  • Inclusion of specific examples of events or objects can help to clarify the meaning of a given concept. Typically these are not included in ovals or boxes because they are specific events or objects and do not represent actual concepts.

Learners, as they struggle to create good concept maps, are engaged in a creative process that can be challenging to many, especially to learners who have spent much of their life learning by rote. Rote learning adds very little to our knowledge structures, and therefore is not conducive to creative thinking or advanced problem solving. Consequently, concept mapping is an excellent tool to promote of creative thinking and identification of new problem-solving methods. Another very powerful use of Concept Maps is as an evaluation tool. An effective program for online concept map creation is (



Computer-generated e-maps function as a graphical interface for representing, organizing, and navigating web-based course content and files. E-maps visually represent complex information in an easily understandable format that displays the overall structure of subject content.

An e-map affords the possibility to organize and sequence content on one web page by placing the main topic in an image-centered diagram, with interrelated main and subtopic connections surrounding it in a radial format. As such, e-mapping offers a powerful e-learning and organizational technique that visually displays main topics, subtopics, concepts, images and the relationships between them. An e-map makes information more meaningful than if it were just memorized because, like concept maps, it places the concepts in the context of existing knowledge.

Further, an e-map is an effective e-learning tool for organizing and navigating web-based content and files. The structure of an e-map is consistent with the radial nature of the brain's functioning, and the colors, graphics, and nonlinear branches used stimulate the entire brain, resulting in more engaged and meaningful learning. Further, using the e-map technique gives teachers the opportunity to express ideas and to illustrate interrelationships between concepts and content in a visual and nonlinear way.



  • Canas, A. J., Ford, K. M., Novak, J. D., Hayes, P., Reichherzer, T. R., Suri, N. (2001). Online Concept Maps: Enhancing collaborative learning by using technology with concept maps. The Science Teacher, 68(2): 49-51, April.
  • Novak, Joseph D. (1998). Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations (pp. 49-78; ch 5 – Ausubel’s Assimilation Learning Theory). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ruffini, M. F. (2008). Using E-Maps to Organize and Navigate Online Content. Educase Quarterly, vol. 31, no.1 (January – March 2008), pp. 56-61.
  • Schunk, D. H. (2004). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (pp. 136-189; ch. 4 - Information Processing). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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