Subsumption Theory


Assimilation Theory


Expository instructional strategies to support meaningful learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … established, external material
  • Knowing is … integrated cognitive structure
  • Learner is … an assembler (individual)
  • Learning is … subsuming (incorporating what is new with what is already known)
  • Teaching is … bridging (what is new to what is already known)




Subsumption Theory is a perspective on expository instruction. It’s based on the assumption that meaningful learning – which, in this case, refers to learning that can be readily applied and reliably retained – can only happen if new content is related to what one already knows. Teaching advice includes that the most general concepts should be presented first and that presentations should blend new and familiar content. A major emphasis is placed on “advance organizers” – that is opening overviews, graphics, and other devices to prepare learners to subsume new material into existing cognitive structures. Prominent subdiscourses include:
  • Advance Organizer (David Ausubel, 1960s) – a brief overview of a significant body of information, presented at the start of a teaching episode with the intention of helping students relate new content to established understandings


Subsumption Theory was developed in the mid-20th century, when Behaviorisms were starting to lose their dominance as theories of learning among educational researchers, but while teaching was still assumed to be principally about delivery of material to passive learners. Subsumption Theory is founded on and infused with the Acquisition Metaphor, although a link was made to the Meaning-Making Metaphor.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

David Ausubel

Status as a Theory of Learning

Subsumption Theory is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Subsumption Theory is explicitly a theory of instruction.

Status as a Scientific Theory

There was a good deal of research on Subsumption Theory in the first few decades after it was proposed. Unsurprisingly, considerable evidence was assembled to support its premise that retention and application can be improved when teachers incorporate advance organizers and regular links to established knowledge. However, the failure to interrogate commonsense assumptions of learning (and, correspondingly, prevailing models of teaching) means that Subsumption Theory does not meet all our criteria of a scientific theory.


  • Advance Organizer

Map Location

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

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