Significant Learning

We explain what meaningful learning is, what its principles and its advantages are. In addition, we explain what the role of the teacher is.

Students in the classroom raise their hands because they have achieved significant learning.
In significant learning, the student learns new information associated with what they already have.

What is meaningful learning?

Learning is the process by which individuals acquire new knowledge, skills, beliefs, and values., as a result of dynamics of observation, practice and reasoning. It is a complex process that can be understood from various perspectives, which gives rise to different theories of learning, that is, to different explanations and descriptions of its nature.

Learning theories, at the same time, are key to the creation of teaching and learning methods, that is, protocols and methodologies to promote learning in people (especially children). One of these methods and theories is the so-called meaningful learning.

Meaningful learning is a constructivist view of learningthat is to say, that it considers necessary an active and leading role on the part of the students in their educational process, and according to which all new knowledge acquired is conditioned by the knowledge and experiences that are already had. This means that when a student learns information, it is associated with what he already has and, as a result, both change: new information is added and old information is restructured.

A significant learning process is designed in such a way that the new ideas get anchored in the ones that were already had, in order to establish a connection between both things that makes the cognitive structure of the individual grow. In other words, learning not only involves adding information to memory, but modifying the existing one and the way of thinkingbased on these new data and experiences incorporated.

The theory of meaningful learning was proposed by the American psychologist and educator David Ausubel (1918-2008), whose work was extremely important in the development of pedagogical constructivism. His theories were opposed from the beginning to the traditional model of education by repetition and memorization, which assigns the student a passive role in the face of educational events.

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Principles of meaningful learning

According to Ausubel’s theories, meaningful learning is permanent, produces a change in cognition patterns, and is based on previous experience. For this reason, it can occur both with the participation of the teacher, as a guide and counselor of the learning experience, and in a self-taught way, by the student’s own discovery.

The relationship between the previous knowledge of the individual and the new knowledge acquired can be one of comparison, assimilation and intercalation., but its result is always the construction of a larger body of knowledge. It is a process of articulation and assimilation of meanings, which can occur according to four different processes:

  • The derivative subsumption. This process takes place when a new concept is assimilated to an existing one, adding information but without significantly modifying the existing cognitive pattern. This is the case of discovering new examples of already known categories, such as discovering a new type of tomato, which adds information to the category “tomatoes”, but does not radically modify it.
  • The correlative subsumption. This process occurs when a new concept is assimilated to an existing one, but in the process what was understood is significantly modified, and new knowledge is formed. This is the case of knowing new examples of known categories, which challenge or break the mold and force the construction of a new one. For example, discovering a new species of spider that questions what was previously known about spiders, and therefore enlarges or expands the concept of “spider”.
  • superordinate learning. This process occurs in the opposite way of subsumption, since the new knowledge acquired contributes a general category of which examples were already known, but the existing relationship between them was not known. For example, when it is understood that known arachnids, insects and crustaceans are part of the same phylogenetic family: arthropods.
  • combinatorial learning. This process occurs when learning by analogy occurs, that is, between two concepts, principles or categories that are not related to each other, but that allow the construction of a relationship and therefore new ideas. For example, to understand how human fertilization occurs, one can go to the well-known process of germination and planting of a vegetable seed.
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Advantages of meaningful learning

The advantages of meaningful learning over traditional learning by rote are:

  • Gives an active role to the individual in their own education, which motivates, stimulates and encourages interest in learning.
  • The acquisition of knowledge occurs in relation to real experience and concepts already handledwhich allows a greater and easier accumulation of new knowledge.
  • The knowledge acquired with this method tends to be more permanent. and to have a greater rapport with the individual than those simply memorized.
  • Allows for an educational model of greater autonomywhich reinforces self-esteem and allows the individual to learn in a more personal way, according to their cognitive schemes and previous experiences.

The role of the teacher in meaningful learning

Unlike the traditional role of the teacher in the rote learning model, which sees him as a vehicle for transmitting information from his mind to that of his students, the teacher’s place in meaningful learning is more like that of a facilitator or process companion. According to Ausubel’s vision, the role of the teacher must be determined by six fundamental tasks:

  • Identify the most relevant concepts, propositions and ideas of the content to be learned, in order to build a concept map that organizes the classroom experience and delve into the quality of the content, rather than the content.
  • Identify which concepts, propositions and ideas (subsumers) the student must already handle in order to address the content to be learned.
  • run a diagnostic to know if the students handle the necessary contents to assimilate the new topic.
  • Help the student to assimilate the content according to their cognitive structurewithout imposing certain structures, but undertaking an educational transaction: an exchange of meanings that allows the student to reformulate his conceptual structure.
  • Promote direct contact between the student and knowledgethat is, between subject and object, and provide the necessary orientation or guidance to solve problems arising from immediate experience.
  • Lead the student towards implementation of the knowledge acquired, so that it can be assimilated and endure.
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How to implement meaningful learning in the classroom?

To apply the principles of meaningful learning in the academic environment, it is recommended to understand the classroom experience as a succession of phases or stages that imply a continuous evaluation of learning. These stages are three:

  • Initial phase. It covers an initial challenge, that is, an obstacle or difficulty that contains favorable situations to learn and experience the desired competencies. Then, the previous knowledge already acquired that is most convenient to solve the problem should be explored. In this, students must play an active role, investigating their memory and their knowledge in a pragmatic and autonomous way.
  • intermediate phase. Previous organizers or cognitive bridges must be used, which are resources extracted from different media, such as the Internet, magazines, books, multimedia, among others, whose role is to trigger in the student the links or connections with the knowledge already possessed that he needs to meet the present challenge. From them, the identification and organization of the new information will begin, from which the challenge can be solved, thus incorporating new concepts to those already handled.
  • Final phase. The reinforcement and integration of new concepts must be put into practice through exercise and practical, experiential application, through tasks undertaken by the student. Finally, the acquired competences must be evaluated through the approach of new unknown situations for the student, which offer him the opportunity to demonstrate how he internalized the new knowledge.

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  • “Meaningful Learning” on Wikipedia.
  • “David Ausubel” on Wikipedia.
  • “Importance of significant learning in education” at the Lakeside College (Mexico).
  • “Meaningful Learning” at Purdue University (USA).
  • “Ausubel’s Meaningful Learning Theory” (video) in The Visual Brain.
  • “Ausubel’s Learning Theory” at Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia.