What is ‘meaningful learning’?

Hello again!

Many years ago I took a class in educational psychology and came across this quote from the cognitive psychologist, David Ausubel:

“If I had to reduce all of cognitive psychology to one principle it would be this:  the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.  Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”  (1978:  flyleaf).

I was very struck by this and was therefore even more interested to find out what cognitive psychology had to say about ‘meaningful learning’, something that we talk about vaguely in ELT, but that we perhaps don’t clearly define.

Cognitive psychology says that meaningful learning is about making connections between what learners already know and new information that we’d like learners to know.  In other words, we need to help learners to activate what they already know about what we are going to be teaching as new information.  In this way we can help them to add the new information to their already existing knowledge schemes rather than ask them to create whole new knowledge schemes.  Another part of our work is to help to show learners what they don’t know and thereby create a cognitive disequilibrium, which will lead to intrinsic motivation or the drive to learn.


I think a lot of teachers do this without thinking about it, but there are clearly strategies that we can use to help to make learning ‘meaningful’.  Here’s a simple example:  we are going to read a text about Nelson Mandela and before we read the text we show a picture of Mandela and we ask learners what they know about him.  We also ask them what they’d like to know about him.  That’s basic pre-reading, isn’t it, but it’s also the basis of ‘meaningful learning’.  We show the picture to help activate what learners already know about the topic (so they can attach the new knowledge to their already existing knowledge scheme).  We ask students to say what they know already to make this explicit and we ask them to think about what they don’t know about him to create the cognitive disequilibrium and therefore give the learners a drive to learn.

I’m interested to hear what you do to make learning meaningful in the classroom.  More of this next month …

“Nelson Mandela 1998” by Arquivo/ABr – Agência Brasil [1].


Ausubel, D.  (1978)  Educational Psychology:  a Cognitive View  Holt, Rhinehart and Winston

[1] Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0-br via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nelson_Mandela_1998.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nelson_Mandela_1998.JPG

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences. http://clethaby.com

2 thoughts on “What is ‘meaningful learning’?

  1. Hi!

    I guess this can be related to the Scaffolding theory, right? Activate student’s schema and teach them new topics relating to what they already know.

    • Hi Danubia,
      Yes, this is definitely the idea. There are several educational and language theories based on the idea of using what learners know already (for example, Piaget’s schemes, Vygotzgy’s ZPD, Discovery Learning, in discourse analysis the given-new principle, even Krashen’s Input Hypothesis). How do you use Scaffolding? Interested to hear your experiences here – thanks for your comment.
      – Carol

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