What You Know Determines What You Learn

Chapter 6

Dr. David Wiley, Co-Founder, Chief Academic Officer

This chapter is about Ausbel’s 1960 paper on “advance organizers” (and no, it’s not “advanced organizers”). The key insight of this paper is that “the single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” Or, as Kirschner and Hendrick write, “In plain English, [Ausubel] holds that learning is a process in which new, to-be-learnt information is related by learners to what is already present in their existing cognitive structures…. learning and retention are facilitated when the learner has acquired a meaningful cognitive framework that allows new information to be organized, assimilated, and subsumed in what is already known” (p. 57). 

To oversimplify it just a bit, imagine a hat rack, where each hook represents something the learner already knows. Each time a teacher (or an instructional designer) introduces a new idea, concept, principle, or process, part of their job is to help learners identify a hook to hang this new hat on. Explicitly helping learners understand how new information relates to things they already know gives them a framework for interpreting and understanding.     

Advance organizers are a way of “activating prior knowledge,” as we say in the instructional design business. They’re brief descriptions, stories, or graphics that get students thinking about the relevant things they already know, and help them prepare to connect the new things they’re about to learn to those things they already know. 

In Lumen’s Waymaker and OHM courseware, we dedicate the first section in each module – titled “Why It Matters” – to this task of activating prior knowledge and helping students prepare to integrate new information with what they already know. (We also provide additional support for that integration in the final section of each module, which we call Putting It Together.)

What are you reading about learning? How are you using it to better support your students’ learning?


About This Series

At Lumen, everything we do is focused on improving student learning. You already know that we create awesome and affordable interactive courseware, engage in both data-driven and community-driven continuous improvement, and support faculty professional development. You might not know that we also do things like our “Not a Book Club,” in which the whole company is invited to engage with the research on learning. 

We recently finished How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice by Kirschner and Hendrick (2020). This is a terrific and really accessible book that summarizes and explains some of the most important research about how we learn. We had a great time discussing the book’s chapters (there’s one chapter for each research article) and talking about how that research shows up in our courseware and professional development designs. I thought it would be fun to share some of those insights with you in a brief series discussing several of the book’s chapters, so here we go.