Applying/invoking notions of associations and association-making in discussions of learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … structure arising from associations
  • Knowing is … activating associational web
  • Learner is … association maker (individual)
  • Learning is … making associations
  • Teaching is … signaller/triggerer/maker/deliverer of associations




Associationism is more a principle than a theory or a discourse. It is articulated in many different ways, but common threads include (1) an assumption that experience is the principal shaper of one’s knowing, (2) an assertion that human learning is mainly about making associations among experiences, (3) a supposition that activating a thought will likely activate associated thoughts, and (4) an acceptance human cognition is largely non-logical. Some of the core principles of Associationism were articulated long ago:
  • Laws of Association (Aristotle, 300s BCE) – Experiencing one object/event will trigger recollections of similar objects/events, contrasting objects/events, and/or contiguous objects/events (i.e., ones that were experienced at the same time)
  • Law of Frequency (Aristotle, 300s BCE) The more frequently events happen together, the stronger the connection between them.
Common constructs that are used to name aspects of associations, but that do not tell us much about learning include:
  • Object Learning – establishing an association between two aspects of the same object
  • Relational Learning – identifying experiences or objects based on their relationships to one another, rather than according to their individual properties


Associationism is evident across a great many discourses, as disparate as Empiricism, Representationalism, Behaviorisms, Radical Constructivism, Connectionism (of Cognitive Science), and Psychoanalytic Theories – to mention just a few. This popularity of application is perhaps better interpreted as a broad recognition of the importance of experience in learning, rather than an indication of profound insight.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning/Teaching

As indicated above, Associationism is invoked within both Correspondence Discourses and Coherence Discourses – that is, it appears along the entirety of our map’s horizontal axis. It is also as prominent among discourses on influencing learning (i.e., teaching) as it is among discourses on interpreting learning – meaning that it spans our vertical axis as well. Concisely, while Associationism is most often articulated as a principle of learning, can be construed to be as much about teaching as it about learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As it is more a principle than a theory or discourse, efforts to assess the scientific status of Associationism only make sense within the discourses in which it is invoked – that is, and with some irony, in terms of the ways it is used in association with other principles.


  • Law of Frequency
  • Laws of Association
  • Object Learning
  • Relational Learning

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Associationism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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