Two of Aristotle’s three laws of learning—the law of similarity and the law of contrast (Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 35; Ross & Aristotle, 1906, pp. 4, 39, 111, 260)—have to do with the importance of relating what is already known with what is being learned. He also observed that ideas which “have orderly arrangement” are easily recalled, and that “things wanting in exactitude are with difficulty remembered” (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 111).

Contrast shows up in Thorndike’s writing under the topics of assimilation, attention, prepotency of elements, belongingness, and stimulus identifiability:

1. Assimilation – “To any situations, which have no special original or acquired response of their own, the response made will be that which by original or acquired nature is connected with some situation which they resemble.” (Thorndike, 1914, p. 135)

2. Attention – “Unless two differing boxes are attended to, there will be no difference in the reactions to them.” (Thorndike, 1898, p. 101)

3. Prepotency of elements – Certain features of a situation may be prepotent in determining a response than others and an animal is able to attend to critical elements and ignore less important ones. From Thorndike (1914):

“Similarly, a cat that has learned to get out of a dozen boxes—in each case by pulling some loop, turning some bar, depressing a platform, or the like—will, in a new box, be, as we say, ‘more attentive to’ small objects on the sides of the box than it was before. The connections made may then be, not absolutely with the gross situation as a total, but predominantly with some element or elements of it.” (p. 134)

4. Belongingness – “A connection between two units or ideas is more readily established if the subject perceives the two as belonging or going together” (as summarized by Bower & Hilgard, 1981, p. 35).

5. Stimulus identifiability – “A situation is easy to connect to a response to the extent that the situation is identifiable, distinctive, and distinguishable from others in a learning series” (Bower & Hilgard, 1981, p. 36).

Pavlov et al. explored the dog’s ability to recognize “elements of a stimulus” (Pavlov et al., 1928, p. 90); the initial generalization of a response to similar stimuli (p. 171); stimulus differentiation through conditioned inhibition (pp. 207-208); and the limits of discrimination, which, when exceed, resulted in neurosis ((p. 342).

Following Pavlov’s lead, the principle of contrast in behavioral learning theory in general is considered under study of the processes of discrimination and generalization. Watson—who felt that “recency and repetition, combined with the process of substitution…will finally result in the establishment of the habit” (Watson, 1914, p. 271)—noted that “the substituted stimulus can be made [so specific that no] other stimulus of its class will then call out the reflex.” (Watson & Kimble, 2002, p. xii). He also spoke of the principle of contrast when he described adjustment to new situations. He observed that when placed in a situation to which it is not yet adjusted, having no applicable habits to fall back on, the infant will display its repertoire of instinctive and reflexive movements which will become refined, connected and associated to meet the demands of the new situation. He also observed that an adult placed in a novel situation will first try movements from his past habit organization. These larger groups of movements, not suitable for the task in current form, will then be “combined into a new whole” (Watson, 1919, p. 308). From this we see two characteristics of learning relevant to the principle of contrast: (a) the primacy of turning to prior habits or behaviors to meet the demands of new situations, and (b) the emergence of new habits or behaviors when existing habits fall short of what is required.

Skinner distinguished discrimination of a stimulus (Skinner, 1938, p. 167) from differentiation between “forms of a response” (p. 308). In the first case, the subject learns to respond (e.g., to press a lever in order to obtain a food pellet) when a light is on, but not when the light is off. This is a matter of discriminating between two different states of a single element in the total stimulus condition: light on and light off. In the latter case—differentiation between forms of response—certain response are reinforced while others are not, in the presence of the same stimulus condition. It is by this method that the shaping of behavior occurs. Skinner’s distinction further expands our understanding of the principle of contrast by showing that it plays a role both the situational cues to behavior as well as systematic variations in response.

Hull’s account of stimulus generalization described it’s occurrence as necessary since “the conditioned stimulus (which, as we have seen, is nearly always a very complicated compound) is almost never repeated exactly even when it is conventionally said to be so” (Hull, 1942, p. 73). He noted that experiments have shown, however, that exact replication is not necessary for a response to occur:

Thus all stimuli on any given stimulus continuum, such as that of pitch, of sound intensity, etc., which are not too remote from the point of the continuum originally conditioned, will evoke a reaction, but if a stimulus is too remote, the excitatory potential may fall below the reaction threshold and no reaction whatever will occur. (p. 73)

When there is minimal difference from one stimulus condition to another, the learned response for the first stimulus condition will suffice for the second. If the difference is large, a new response will have to be learned. Hull described two types of discrimination learning: simple and compound. Simple discrimination learning can occur when “the presentations of the stimuli to be discriminated are separated by appreciable intervals of time” (Hull, 1942, p. 85). For finer discriminations of stimulus compounds “successive presentations usually separated by only fractions of a second or so are required” (p. 85). If the presentation interval is too large, the contrast between the two will not be perceived.

Guthrie spoke of the need for “varied experience” to learn a skill such as driving, “which will cause the pedal to be depressed in many situations and left severely alone in many others” (Guthrie, 1942, p. 36) and agreed with Pavlov (cf. elements of a stimulus) and Thorndike (cf. prepotency of elements) that “in a new situation the animal will respond in terms of familiar parts of the situation” (Guthrie, 1940, p. 142). The principle of contrast was also leveraged in his explanation of forgetting—which he said was not due to the passing of time “but requires active unlearning, which consists in learning to do something else under the circumstances” (Guthrie, 1942, p. 29, cf. Skinner’s differentiation of response)—and for his third method of unlearning habit, the method of incompatible response:

The third method, the incompatible response method, establishes a condition in which the stimuli for the undesirable response are presented in conjunction with other stimuli that produce a response which is incompatible with the undesired response. To break a habit, not only must one avoid the cues which elicit the undesirable behavior, but they must become associated with other behavior.(Guthrie, 1938, p. 60)

For Estes, contrast is evident in his statistical model of the probability of a response, R, which is a function of the similarity of the current stimulus sample to other stimulus samples, in terms of the number of elements in the stimulus conditioned to R:

If a set of x elements from an S are conditioned to (i.e., have the conditional relation to) some R-class, R1 at a given time, the probability that the next response to occur will be an instance of R1 is x/S.(W. K. Estes, 1950, p. 97)

In cognitive learning theory Ebbinghaus documented a savings in learning derivative lists of syllables which he created by periodic omission of syllables (i.e., leaving out every 2nd, 3rd, 7th, etc…) from the original list (Ebbinghaus, 1913, p. 104), but increased difficulty in learning derivative lists created by reversing the original lists (pp. 112-113), presumably because prior knowledge in the first case facilitated learning whereas in the second it interfered with learning the new order. Tolman described contrast in learning as a process of “’discovering’ or ‘refining’ what all the respective alternative responses lead to” and selecting and performing the response that leads to the “more ‘demanded-for’ consequences” in a given situation, but “if there be no such difference in demands there will be no such selection and performance of the one response, even though there has been learning (Tolman, 1932, p. 364). Kohler’s apes learned that previously learned behavior was ineffective in certain situations and developed new behaviors in order to obtain the food objective (Kohler, 1951, pp. 31-32, 39).

A great deal of attention has been given to the principle of contrast in cognitive information processing theory. According to this theory in order for information to be processed into long term memory it “must be meaningful and make connections with related knowledge already in long term memory” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 79) through a process of elaborative rehearsal (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 274):

A coding process is a select alteration and/or addition to the information in the short-term store as the result of a search of the long-term store. This change may take a number of different forms, often using strong preexisting associations already in long-term store. (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 39)

Simply attending to information is not enough. It must be analyzed and familiar patterns identified to provide a basis for further processing (Driscoll, 2000, p. 84). Three models proposed for pattern recognition are (a) template matching, which assumes that “mental copies of environmental stimuli, or templates, are stored in memory” (p. 84) and that pattern recognition is a matter of matching incoming information with templates; (b) the prototype model, which assumes that “what is stored in memory is not an exact copy of a stimulus, but rather an abstracted, general prototype” (p. 85); and (c) feature analysis, which presumes that only specific, distinctive features are stored in memory and that incoming information is analyzes for the presence of these features (p. 85). Another view is that what is stored in memory are highly typical instances of a concept, or exemplars (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 316). Sternberg and Williams noted that, “When teaching new concepts expert teachers start with highly typical exemplars. Then they move on to ones that are less typical. At the same time, they help students see the more and less typical features” (p. 316). Similarly, Tennyson and Cocchiarella (1986, as cited in Driscoll, 2000) proposed a model for teaching concepts that begins with first presenting a prototypic concept example followed by a variety of examples that differ from the prototype in systematic ways to help learners “abstract the meaningful dimensions of the concept and determine which features are critical and invariant and which are nonessential and variable across examples” (p. 85). Tennyson and Park (1980, p. 59) (1980, p. 59, cited in Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 316) suggested three rules to help clarify the boundaries of a concept through the presentation of contrasting examples: (a) present examples in order from easiest to most difficult, (b) select examples that are different from one another, and (c) compare and contrast examples and nonexamples. Through this process students come to recognize both defining features of a concept—i.e., features that are both necessary and sufficient to define a concept (Katz, 1972; Katz & Fodor, 1963; Medin, Proffitt, & Schwartz, 2000 (Katz, 1972  Katz & Fodor, 1963  Medin, Proffitt, & Schwartz, 2000, as cited in Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 314)—and characteristic feature of a concept, which are properties that are typical of something represented in a concept, but not always associated with it (e.g., the ability to fly in birds) (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 314).

Richard Spiro and his colleagues (cited in Woolfolk, 1998, p. 348) suggested that “revisiting the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives is essential for attaining the goals of advanced knowledge acquisition.” Similarly, King (1994, p. 30) found that questions which prompted “comparing and contrasting, inferring cause and effect, noting strengths and weaknesses, evaluating ideas, explaining, and justifying” were especially effective.

According to Ausubel et al. (1978, p. 58) “cognitive structure itself tends to be hierarchically organized with respect to level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness of ideas.” His theory of meaningful learning describes various ways in which new information is related to, and contrasted with, existing cognitive structure through subordination, superordination, combination, and assimilation learning (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 68). “As new material enters the cognitive field, it interacts with and is appropriately subsumed under a relevant and more inclusive conceptual system” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 217). Ausubel described the availability of appropriate subsumers as one of three principle variables influencing meaningful verbal learning, the other two being (a) discriminability, and (b) the clarity and stability of subsumers (pp. 219-220):

The most important cognitive structure variables…are (1) the availability in the learner’s cognitive structure of specifically relevant anchoring ideas at an optimal level of inclusiveness, generality, and abstraction; (2) the extent to which such ideas are discriminable from both similar and different (but potentially confusable) concepts and principles in the learning material; and (3) the stability and clarity of the anchoring ideas. (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 164)

Ausubel (1962) identified the “major organizational principle” of cognitive structure as one of “progressive differentiation of trace systems of a given sphere of knowledge from regions of greater to lesser inclusiveness, each linked to the next higher step in the hierarchy through a process of subsumption” (p. 216). The interaction between new material to be learned and existing cognitive structure is “an assimilation of old and new meanings to form a more highly differentiated cognitive structure” (Ausubel et al., 1978, pp. 67-68). “As new information is subsumed under a given concept or proposition, new information is learned and the subsuming concept or proposition is modified” (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 124).

In the first stage of subsumption new information is anchored[1] to the existing ideational system through “orienting, relational, and cataloguing operations” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 217). For a period of time “the recently catalogued sub-concepts and informational data can be dissociated from their subsuming concepts and are reproducible as the individually identifiable entities” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 217). This initial dissociability is the result of a “clear, stable and suitably organized” cognitive structure (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 164). However, over time this dissociability fades:

Barring repetition or some other special reason [e.g., primacy, uniqueness, enhanced discriminability, or the availability of a specially relevant and stable subsumer] for the perpetuation of dissociability, specific items of meaningful experience that are supportive of or correlative to an established conceptual entity tend gradually to undergo obliterative subsumption. (Ausubel, 1962, p. 218)

Ausubel (1962) referred to this second stage as one of obliteration subsumption and memorial reduction:

Although the stability of meaningful material is initially enhanced by anchorage to relevant conceptual foci in the learner’s cognitive structure, such material is gradually subjected to the erosive influence of the conceptualizing trend in cognitive organization. Because it is more economical and less burdensome to retain a single inclusive concept than to remember a large number of more specific items, the import of the latter tends to be incorporated by the generalized meaning of the former. When this second or obliterative stage of subsumption begins, the specific items become progressively less dissociable as entities in their own right until they are no longer available and are said to be forgotten…. Memorial reduction is “the reduction to the least common denominator capable of representing cumulative prior experience.” (p.217)

For rote learning, forgetting is due to “exposure to materials similar to but not identical with the learning task, shortly before (proactive inhibition) or after (retroactive inhibition) the learning session” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 220). In contrast, the forgetting of meaningfully learned information and material is “regarded as a continuation of the same interactional process established at the moment of learning” (p. 222). This loss is not due to the inherent similarity between new and old ideas, but rather to insufficient discriminability between the two. Thus, “small, barely discriminable differences among instances…increase the difficulty of concept attainment” (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 113). Although similarity can help facilitate initial anchorage to existing ideas, unless the differences are “clearly and explicitly perceptible” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 222) new information may be interpreted as identical to existing information (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 182) and no new learning will occur. Effective concept acquisition depends on “(1) heterogeneity of instances after consolidation in a more homogeneous setting; (2) appropriate blending and sequencing of positive and negative instances; and (3) the relevance of the presented or available information to the concept in question” (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 87). The critical role of contrast in concept acquisition is evident in the summary by Ausubel et al. of the sequential stages in concept acquisition:

Sequential stages in concept acquisition:  1. Discriminative analysis of different stimulus patterns; 2. The formulation of hypotheses regarding abstracted common elements; 3. Subsequent testing of these hypotheses in specific situations; 4. Selective designation from among them of one general category or set of common attributes under which all of the variants can be successfully subsumed; 5. Relation of this set of attributes to relevant anchoring ideas in cognitive structure; 6. Differentiation of the new concept from related, previously learned concepts; 7. Generalization of the criterial attributes of the new concept to all members of the class; 8. Representation of the new categorical content by a language symbol that is congruent with conventional usage.  (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 99)

Ausubel et al. (1978) noted that “the defining attributes of a concept are learned most readily when the concept is encountered in a large number of different contexts” (p. 113), and that, in general, “positive instances lead more effectively than negative instances to concept acquisition” (p. 113).

Irrelevant information complicates the task of learning by making it harder to identify critical attributes of a concept (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 114) and lack of discriminability between new and old information likely accounts for negative transfer, in the form of proactive interference, in school learning (p. 182). Comparative organizers can increase discriminability and facilitate learning and retention and the presentation of sequences of stimuli to provide successive contrasts between relevant and irrelevant criterial attributes can aid in concept formation (p. 183).

When learners encounter an apparent contradiction between new information and existing ideas they may choose to ignore the new information, try to retain it on a rote basis, or reconcile and integrate the two sets of ideas in relation to a more inclusive subsumer:

Sometimes in meaningful learning and retention, new learning material may be adequately discriminable from existing ideas in cognitive structure but may be in real or seeming contradiction to these ideas. When this happens, the learner may peremptorily dismiss the new propositions as invalid, may try to set them apart from previously learned knowledge (retain them on a rote basis), or, hopefully, may try to reconcile and integrate the two sets of ideas in relation to a more inclusive subsumer. (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 184)

This type of reconciliation is comparable to the schema theory notion of achieving congruence of ideas through tuning:

Learning through tuning is a substantially more significant kind of learning. This involves actual changes to the very categories we use for interpreting new information. Thus tuning involves more than merely an addition to our data base. Upon having developed a set of categories of interpretation (as you will see below, we call these schemata) these categories presumably undergo continual tuning or minor modification to bring them more in congruence with the functional demands placed on these categories. (Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 4)

Major changes, or restructuring, generally occur with considerable time and effort after a “critical mass of information” has been accumulated (Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 4). The need for change is largely based on the degree of discrepancy between new and old information, but there must be recognition of the discrepancy in order for change to occur:

The more discrepant the arriving information from that described by the available schemata, the greater the necessity for change. If the information is only mildly discrepant, tuning of the schemata may be sufficient. If the material is more discrepant, schema creation is probably required. (Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 21)


In order for restructuring to occur, there must be recognition of the discrepancy. But when mismatched by the available schemata the learner may so misinterpret (misunderstand) the material, that the discrepancies might not even be noted. The need for restructuring might only be noted with mild discrepancies, when the misfit is glaring. (pp. 21-22)

Brooks and Brooks (1993) describe this as a process of “synthesizing new experiences into what we have previously come to understand” (p. 4). “Deep understanding occurs when the presence of new information prompts the emergence or enhancement of cognitive structures that enable us to rethink our prior ideas” (p. 15). Accordingly, they recommend that teachers “engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypotheses and then encourage discussion” (p. 112).In the earliest stage of Piaget’s theory of development there is no need for reconciling the old with the new since all things are new to the newborn infant.[2] However, even in the first attainments of knowledge, contrast is manifest in the process of recognitive assimilation, by which the child comes to “distinguishing the nipple from other objects” (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969, p. 7). It is also manifest in the differentiation of regulated rhythmic movements (pp. 19-20) through selected self-reinforcing circular reactions that finally result in established sensori-motor schemes. These differentiated schemes (p. 11) then become the means of intentional interaction with one’s surroundings and the foundation of future intellectual thought (pp. 3, 13).

Rhythmic movements develop into action schemes through accommodation, which takes place when established sensori-motor schemes are insufficient to meet the demands of the situation. Through continued accommodation, sensori-motor schemes become further differentiated and elaborated, with new means being coordinated by combination of those which have already been established. Eventually new schemes are created not only through sensori-motor groping, or by combination of existing schemes (p. 11), but through semiotic representation (p. 51) and intellectual manipulation. Differentiation at each stage bears evidence of the principle of contrast—e.g., certain means being selected for specific cases of action (Piaget, 1963, p. 4) but not for others, and invented for cases in which no existing scheme will suffice. “It is by adapting to things that thought organizes itself and it is by organizing itself that it structures things”(p. 8).

As a framework of sensori-motor schemes becomes established, new experiences are able to be assimilated in terms of existing schemata or accommodated by intellectual adaptation:

Intelligence is assimilation to the extent that it incorporates all the given data of experience within its framework. Whether it is a question of thought which, due to judgment, brings the new into the known and thus reduces the universe to its own terms or whether it is a question of sensorimotor intelligence which also structures things perceived by bringing them into its schemata, in every case intellectual adaptation involves an element of assimilation, that is to say, of structuring through incorporation of external reality into forms due to the subject’s activity. (Piaget, 1963, p. 6)

Whenever possible “reality data are treated or modified in such a way as to become incorporated into the structure of the subject” (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969, p. 5). In many cases however, this assimilation actually results in significant changes to the existing structure, and is therefore an accommodation by the organism to the environment (pp. 6-7). Both assimilation and accommodation are examples of the principle of contrast in action—relating what is known to what is new and adapting as necessary when what is new cannot be accounted for or understood in terms of what is already known.

Bruner (1964) described the acquisition of “ways of representing recurrent regularities in their environment” as children grow and their transcendence of the momentary by “developing ways of linking past to present to future—representation and integration” (p. 13). He specifically noted the importance of detail in the representation of structured patterns. When detail is lacking the pattern is “rapidly forgotten”  (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 24).

Those who are most effective in learning employ a method of inquiry that Bruner referred to as constructionism. This compared to the less efficient method of episodic empiricism. The method of constructionism is characterized by linking new knowledge with existing knowledge and letting the constraints of what has been learned drive the discovery of new learning. Episodic empiricism, on the other hand, is “unbound by prior constraints,” “lacks connectivity,” and “is deficient in organizational persistence” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 25).

Bruner’s description of the act of learning highlights the centrality of the principle of contrast by describing new information as often running counter to what a person has previously known. This discrepancy gives cause for refactoring or refinement. Furthermore, by perceiving the contrast between situations or tasks a person is able to extrapolate or interpolate or convert information into a new form, manipulating existing knowledge to fit new tasks.

Learning a subject seems to involve three almost simultaneous tasks. First there is acquisition of new information—often information that runs counter to or is a replacement for what the person has previously known implicitly or explicitly. At the very least it is a refinement of previous knowledge. A second aspect of learning may be called transformation—the process of manipulating knowledge to make it fit new tasks. We learn to “unmask” or analyze information, to order it in a way that permits extrapolation or interpolation or conversion into another form. Transformation comprises the ways we deal with information in order to go beyond it. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 48)

Vygotsky’s organizing function of symbolic activity (1978, p. 24) is only possible when symbols are clearly differentiated from one another. As external operations, functions and processes are internalized they must be “incorporated into a new system with its own laws” (p. 57).

In observational learning if an observed behavior is interpreted to be the same as a known behavior, nothing new will be learned. This is because in order to represent a behavior in memory in symbolic form, it must be distinct (Bandura, 1977b, p. 25). Similarly, the spatial and temporal organization for a new behavior must be established in contrast to other, similar, forms of motion (p. 27). Otherwise, the new behavior will simply be subsumed by the existing, similar behavior.

Contrast in activity theory is the impetus for all learning, and is described by Engestrom as contradictions (1987, ch. 3, p. 27), disturbances (2000a, p. 964), and “conflictual questioning of the existing standard practice” (2000a, p. 968). Learning occurs when the existing patterns do not meet a need, or when elements of the activity system are found to be in contradiction with one another. In resolution of the contradiction a new pattern emerges, that is in contrast to the former pattern, critically different and suitable to meet a need that could not be met by the old pattern.

This type of reformation was also argued for in cognitive apprenticeship theory by  Brown and Duguid (1994), who said that “learning…does not consist in getting rid of pure ignorance, but in reforming knowledge that is already there” (p. 9). Another aspect of contrast involves learning the contexts in which “the skill is or is not applicable” (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 3). This can be learned when the teacher varies the diversity of situations and articulates the common aspects between them. Collins et al. (1991) suggest that this be accomplished through a technique of increasing diversity, that is, “the construction of a sequence of tasks in which a wider and wider variety of strategies or skills are required….[so] that the student learns to distinguish the conditions under which they do (and do not) apply” (pp. 15-16).Table 6 summarizes the local principles from the theories reviewed that are subsumed by the universal principle of contrast.


Table 6

Principles of Learning Subsumed by the Universal Principle of Contrast

Theory Group   Local principles




Law of similarity

Law of contrast

Organization of ideas




Attention: unless two differing boxes are attended to, there will be no difference in the reactions to them

Partial activity or prepotency of elements


Stimulus identifiability



The elements of a stimulus

Differentiation of stimulations

The limits of discrimination



Discrimination: the substituted stimulus can be made [so specific that no] other stimulus of its class will then call out the reflex




Discrimination and differentiation



Relation of time and discrimination

Simple discrimination learning

Patterning of conditioned stimulus compounds

Compound discrimination learning

Generalization and stimulus equivalence



Generalization: requires varied experience

Forgetting: learning to do something else in the circumstances

Incompatible response method for breaking a habit



Similarity and discrimination of stimulus sample



Cognitive   Ebbinghaus:

Savings in learning derivative lists by omission of syllables: positive effect of previous associations

Increased number of repetitions required when learning a list created by permutation of previous list: interference of previous associations

It is more difficult to remember things that lack clarity



Learning what each response path leads to



When previous behavior was ineffective, new behaviors were developed


Cognitive Information Processing:

New knowledge must be related to old

Analysis and pattern identification

Pattern recognition

Template matching

Prototype model


Feature analysis

Critical and invariant features

Elaborative rehearsal: associating new knowledge with old

Defining features

Characteristic features

Use of examples to clarify the boundaries of a concept

Revisit the same material in different contexts and for different purposes

Coding and organization using pre-existing associations already in long-term store

Clustering related items into categories or patterns

Guided questioning: comparing and contrasting

Familiarity facilitates verification of statements



Hierarchical organization of cognitive structure

Forms of meaningful learning: subordinate, superordinate, combinatorial, assimilation




Stability and clarity of subsumers

Progressive differentiation


Rotely learned materials subject to interference of similar material


Obliterative stage of subsumption and memorial reduction

Forgetting due to contrast

Insufficient discriminability



Concept formation and assimilation

Varied context

Positive and negative instances

Irrelevant Information

Integrative reconciliation

Negative transfer

Comparative organizers

Successive contrast

Apparent or actual contradiction

Early review: promotes consolidation and relation of new material to existing to acquire more subtle potential meanings

Transferability: balance between overlearning of intratask instances and exposure to intertask diversity on the other


Schema Theory:

Matching new information to schemata

Organization of structures and accumulation of facts

Congruence through tuning and restructuring

Improving the accuracy

Generalizing the applicability

Specializing the applicability

Determining default values

Adjustment of variable constraints

Degree of discrepancy

Encoding: constants substituted for variables

Analogies, metaphors, and models



Constructive   General:

Synthesizing new experiences into what we have previously come to understand

Interpret to conform versus generate new rules

Deep understanding through contrast

Teaching method: challenge original hypotheses

Linking new information to existing knowledge



Establishing the base substructure for future operations of thought

Adaptation to the universe




Contrast through contact with the environment



Importance of detail

Linking past to present to future – representation and integration

Episodic empiricism vs. constructionism – learning is effective when past information is connected and related to new information

The act of learning: information that is counter to or is a replacement for what a person has previously known



Human   n/a






Organization through symbolic activity




Attention: perceptual sets determine features extracted from observations

Retention: representation in memory in symbolic form must be distinct

Motor Reproduction: spatial and temporal organization must be distinct


Situated learning:

No specific correlating local principles identified


Activity theory:

Disturbances and contradictions

Questioning of standard practice


Cognitive apprenticeship:

Understanding what needs to be learned in terms of what is already known

Generalization and transferability through varied context

Sequence of increasing diversity

Learning different conditions of knowledge application

Abstraction of knowledge through multiple contexts



[1] Herein lies the primary difference between meaningful and rote learning:

Meaningfully and rotely learned materials are learned and retained in qualitatively different ways because meaningful learning tasks are, by definition, relatable and anchorable to relevant and more inclusive concepts in cognitive structure….Rotely learned materials, on the other hand, are isolated from cognitive structure and are primarily influenced by the interfering effects of similar rote materials. (Ausubel, 1962, p. 223)


[2] The only a priori or innate knowledge that Piaget is willing to consider is a biologically inherited functional nucleus that drives intellectual organization:


If there truly in fact exists a functional nucleus of the intellectual organization which comes from the biological organization in its most general aspect, it is apparent that this invariant will orient the whole of the successive structures which the mind will then work out in its contact with reality. It will thus play the role that philosophers assigned to the a priori; that is to say, it will impose on the structures certain necessary and irreducible conditions. Only the mistake has sometimes been made of regarding the a priori as consisting in structures existing ready-made from the beginning of development, whereas if the functional invariant of thought is at work in the most primitive stages, it is only little by little that it impresses itself on consciousness due to the elaboration of structures which are increasingly adapted to the function itself. This a priori only appears in the form of essential structures at the end of the evolution of concepts and not at their beginning. Although it is hereditary, this a priori is thus the very opposite of what were formerly called “innate ideas.” (Piaget, 1963, pp. 2-3)

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