Expository Method of Teaching (David Ausubel)

Ausubel’s Ideas

  • According to the expository method of teaching, the learner is an active agent, who engages with and interprets information, and incorporates it into
    existing cognitive schemata.
  • In this context, the role of the teacher is not just to present new information, but to do so in a meaningful way – taking account of the learner’s prior experience.
  • New knowledge should always be subsumed under (related to, integrated with) previously familiar concepts, hierarchical way of organizing knowledge in mind, general ideas followed by more complex ones, general ideas form advance organizer, which is a general / subsuming framework for understanding new concepts.

Expository Method of Teaching

Expository Teaching (sometimes called Reception Learning) has been particularly influential in the contemporary British classroom.

Like Piaget, Ausubel was interested in the process through which new information is incorporated into existing schemata. At the basis of his theory is the statement that, “the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows”.

This implies that existing knowledge is as important as anything new; as it is in these structures in which new learning will be incorporated
(or, using Ausubel’s terminology, subsumed).

According to Ausubel, schemata are hierarchical representations (or stores) of knowledge – with general concepts at the top, and increasingly specific sub-concepts forming a tree beneath. In primary school, for instance, we are taught general concepts of number; the notions of order, amount and difference.

Later, we add (or subsume) the ability to perform basic operations of addition and subtraction, then multiplication and division. Beyond this, we can further develop our “mathematical” hierarchy withn more complex calculations such as squares, and then elaborate procedures like quadratic equations.

According to Ausubel, subsumption (or learning) can only occur where similarities and links are found between past concepts and new ones. He adds, however, that it is equally important that students are able to discern the differences between new concepts and previous ones (disassociative subsumption) – as this makes storage and recall far more likely.

He argues that, often, forgetting occurs because these differences are not made explicit (he calls this zero dissociability), and learners are unable to properly integrate new information into their schema.

Initially, Ausubel’s theory can seem a bit jargon-heavy; however it has been extremely influential in contemporary teaching – and most students are unknowingly familiar with its practical implications. Most notably, Ausubel advocates the use of Advance Organisers; statements given before any formal taught input which signal the new learning which will occur in the session, embedding it in previous knowledge.

Ausubel argues that these advance organizers should be established formally at the beginning of the session; recapping prior learning (i.e. establishing similarities) and distinguishing how new content will move students onward (outlining differences). He also maintains that they should remain on display throughout the lesson, where they will provide a constant guide on how new material should be subsumed into existing schemata.

Ausubel therefore places a great deal of emphasis on the role of the teacher – who should carefully structure knowledge in such a way as to establish and consolidate the formation of schemata in their students.

It is important to note – however – that he is not advocating rote learning; as the student remains central to the educative process as an active agent; if expository teaching is sucessful, then reception learning will occur, and the student will more readily be able to learn new information.


Ausubel, D. P. (1964). Some psychological and educational limitations of learning by discovery. The arithmetic teacher, 11 (5), 290-302.

Ausubel, D. P. (1961). Learning by discovery: Rationale and mystique. The Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 45 (269), 18-58.

Ausubel, D. P. (1977). The facilitation of meaningful verbal learning in the classroom. Educational psychologist, 12 (2), 162-178.

Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view
(Vol. 6). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.