Applying Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory In eLearning
Instructional Design

Applying Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory In eLearning

, Founder of eLearning Industry Inc

David Ausubel, a noted American psychologist who specialized in education and learning behaviors, introduced the Subsumption Theory back in 1963. It centers on the idea that learners can more effectively acquire new knowledge if it is tied to their existing knowledge base, and that only unique information that stands out within the lesson is committed to memory. In this article, I’ll delve into the basics of the Subsumption Theory, and I’ll share 4 tips on how you can use it in your eLearning course design.

According to Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory, a learner absorbs new information by tying it to existing concepts and ideas that they have already acquired. Rather than building an entirely new cognitive structure, they are able to relate it to information that is already present within their minds.

When an idea is forgotten, it is simply because the specific details and associated thoughts get lost in the crowd and can no longer be differentiated from other pieces of information. Based upon this theory, meaningful learning can only occur once the subsumed cognitive structures have been fully developed.

The Subsumption Theory: Basic Principles

To utilize the Subsumption Theory in eLearning, it is important to identify the two types of subsumption that exist: correlative and derivative.

Both of these are forms of rote learning, which has the ability to gradually construct new cognitive behaviors and structures within the minds of your learners. After these cognitive structures are built, the learner then has the power to use them during meaningful learning activities and exercises.

Here are the differences between the two types of subsumption, as suggested by Ausubel.

  • Correlative
    A learner collects new information that extends from their existing knowledge base or elaborates upon previously acquired information.
  • Derivative
    A learner derives new information directly from their cognitive structures, or identifies relationships between concepts within their existing knowledge base. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, from shifting information around in the hierarchal structure to linking ideas together to create new meanings.

4 Tips To Apply Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory In eLearning

Implementing Ausubel’s subsumption theory in your training programs isn’t as complex as it may sound. With these four tips, you’ll be able to watch your learners’ performance soar!

1) Lead off with the key takeaways

Begin your eLearning course with a general overview that highlights everything the learners need to know by the end, and then, sequence online material from general to specific, a process that Ausubel calls “progressing differentiation”. This will help the learner to automatically categorize the eLearning content and figure out where it belongs in their cognitive structure.

For example, if you let them know that the eLearning course covers animal genus concepts, they can immediately access their animal classification knowledge in order to build upon it, and apply it when participating in the eLearning course.

Offer greater detail as you progress through the eLearning module, so that your learners can begin to differentiate it from the other pieces of information they have already collected. Remember, the key to knowledge retention is connecting the concepts then making them stand out from the crowd so that they are not easily forgotten.

2) Encourage learners to apply previously acquired knowledge

Speaking of connecting, the Subsumption Theory relies heavily on the idea that learners gather information most effectively when they tie new concepts to existing cognitive structures. This works both ways, however. They can also apply information they have already learned in order to improve comprehension and knowledge retention.

In many respects, it’s a two-way street that gives learners the opportunity to acquire new knowledge while they are committing “old” knowledge to their long-term memory banks. Whenever possible, integrate eLearning scenarios and simulations that allow them to apply existing knowledge while discovering new concepts and ideas.

Also, highlight how new and familiar ideas compare and contrast so that they can create that all-important cognitive connection.

3) Include both receptive and discovery-based activities

Although Ausubel found no special advantages of discovery-learning, as he believed that it has the same effect on learning being more time-consuming, it is not a bad idea to include both receptive and discovery-based online activities into your eLearning course design, as each serves its own unique eLearning purpose.

While receptive online activities help learners acquire and retain new information, discovery-based activities allow them to understand how information can be applied in different situations and contexts.

In the real world, they won’t be taking written assessments to test their knowledge. Instead, they will have to apply it in a wide range of settings to overcome challenges and solve real-life problems. Thus, you need to ensure that they are not only learning the information, but that they can also apply it outside of the virtual classroom.

4) Make it meaningful

Despite the fact that The Subsumption Theory deals primarily with rote learning principles, its primary goal is to create meaningful learning experiences. Meaningful learning occurs when an individual is able to create connections between what they learned and what they already know within their cognitive structures of their minds.

Essentially, they tie it into existing knowledge and commit it to memory, so that they can draw upon it at a later time. One of the most effective ways to make your eLearning course meaningful is to make it personal.

Integrate problem-solving online activities that focus on past experiences, and integrate stories that trigger their emotions. Use real-world examples that stress the benefits of learning the subject matter and help them relate to ideas or concepts.

Using Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory In Your eLearning Courses

Knowing as much as possible about how your learners acquire and retain subject matter is an integral part of instructional design for any eLearning course. Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory gives you the ability to create a meaningful connection between new ideas and pre-existing knowledge, so that your learners gain the opportunity to remember the key takeaways and get the most benefit out of your eLearning course.

Committing information to long-term memory is the goal of any eLearning experience. But how do you make the information stick in your learner’s mind? Read the article How To Create Memorable Online Training Courses: 6 Tips For eLearning Professionals to discover 6 tips to create memorable online training courses.


  • Ausubel, D.P. (2000). The Acquisition and Retention of Knowledge: A Cognitive View: Springer

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Christopher Pappas - Founder of eLearning Industry Inc

Christopher Pappas is the Founder of eLearning Industry Inc, which is the leading publishing platform that delivers inspiring, industry-specific content to eLearning professionals.

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