Meaningful Learning Theory


Human Constructivism


Translating prominent insights on learning into principles of teaching

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … web of associations
  • Knowing is … activating relevant associations
  • Learner is … association maker (individual)
  • Learning is … making associations
  • Teaching is … formatting learning experiences




Meaningful Learning Theory (which should not be confused with Meaningful Learning) is an attempt to translate the insights of a various current theories of learning into practical advice for teaching. That advice clusters around three main foci: Relevance (content should be meaningful – or, at least, potentially meaningful); Readiness (learners must already be familiar with concepts that can be associated with the new content); Motivation (learners must choose to relate and integrate new content). While the title “Meaningful Learning Theory” has been claimed by Joseph D. Novak, others have used the phrase “meaningful learning” to label their own perspectives, including:
  • Shuell Model of Learning Functions (Thomas Shuell, 1990s) – In this model, “meaningful learning” is seen to span the cognitive, metacognitive, and affective. Mashing up several other discourses, learning is characterized as active, cumulative, goal-oriented, constructive, and self-regulated.
  • Taxonomy of Meaningful Learning (David H. Jonassen, 2000s) – Based on a review of research into “meaningful learning,” this taxonomy offers a hierarchy that comprises problem solving, analogical reasoning, causal reasoning, concepts-in-use, higher-order propositions, and lower-order propositions.


Meaningful Learning Theory has been touted as innovative, but it is really little more than a formalization of long-standing principles of Associationism. Original writings on the discourse tend to make heavy use of naïve-but-popular notions (e.g., Acquisition Metaphor, Attainment Metaphor) while claiming to invoke principles from more sophisticated discourses (e.g., various Non-Trivial Constructivisms), making for a contribution that neither original nor profound when gauged against discourses that are more strongly rooted in contemporary research into human learning. This point is amplified in the fact that the phrase “Meaningful Learning” appears on our as a principle that’s common across multiple discourses, as opposed to a singular discourse/theory.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Joseph D. Novak

Status as a Theory of Learning

Meaningful Learning Theory is not – and makes no claim to be – a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Meaningful Learning Theory is explicitly focused on informing teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Meaningful Learning Theory collects and applies several principles of learning, each of which is associated with some empirical evidence – and so, in a sense, it can be described as scientifically grounded. However, with regard to our working definition of “scientific,” Meaningful Learning Theory is inattentive to its grounding metaphors (evident in its lack of a coherent and consistent vocabulary for learning). By consequence, it occupies a space that can be perceived as aligning with cutting-edge research while, at the same time, invoking notions, images, and vocabularies that simply do not fit with emergent understandings of learning.


  • Shuell Model of Learning Functions
  • Taxonomy of Meaningful Learning

Map Location

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

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