Meaningful learning is learning that is both relevant to a student’s life and aims to achieve deep understanding through the contextualization of the knowledge with prior knowledge and experience.
We tend to contrast meaningful learning to rote learning. Rote learning involves decontextualized repetition and memorization of facts. By contrast, meaningful learning requires students to examine ideas and critique them, compare them to prior knowledge, and apply them to new contexts.
Most educational researchers today believe that meaningful learning leads to deep understanding and insights, long-term knowledge, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-life.
Examples of meaningful learning strategies include: active learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, experimental learning, and peer collaboration.
Meaningful Learning Definition and Characteristics
Most scholarly definitions of meaningful learning include two key features. First, the content being learned needs to be relatable to students’ lives. Second, students need to be able to connect and compare the new information to prior knowledge.
Here are a few scholarly definitions that demonstrate these key features:
“Meaningful learning as a process presupposes, in turn, both that learners employ a meaningful learning set and that the material they learn is potentially meaningful to them, that is, relatable to relevant anchoring ideas in their cognitive structures.”(Ausubel, 2012)
“Meaningful learning refers to a process in which students link new information to relevant concepts that they already possess. To learn meaningfully, individuals must consciously choose to relate new information to knowledge that they already know, rather than simply memorizing isolated facts or concept definitions.”(Champe, Harvey & Ferrier, 2005)
“Learners must see that what is being learned is meaningful and relevant to their personal and life interests, which results in a natural motivation to learn.”(McCombs & Miller, 2007)
Furthermore, meaningful learning tends to be compared to rote learning. Rote learning does not tend to relate to students’ lives, and it does not tend to be connected to prior knowledge.
Rather, rote learning is about being given information by the teacher that should be repeated and memorized. The new information tends not to be explained sufficiently, critiqued, or related to prior knowledge.
(For example, learning the times tables is a rote learning example: it involves memorizing sums through practice and repetition.)
One definition that compares meaningful to rote learning is presented below:
“Meaningful learning occurs when learning can be related to previous knowledge and related to a preexisting cognitive framework. Rote learning, on the other hand, is not linked to a cognitive framework and often remains unretained and isolated.”(Walsh, 2013)
Characteristics of Meaningful Learning
Characteristics of meaningful learning include: active engagement, relevance to prior knowledge, integration with existing knowledge, elaboration and reflection, and personal significance.
One of the more interesting definitions of meaningful learning is that of Jonassen, Peck, and Wilson (1999), because it presents a framework of five characteristics. These are:
- Active engagement: Student shouldn’t learn passively (by being told information). Rather, they should use active learning strategies like experimenting, testing hypotheses, and inquiring.
- Relevance to prior knowledge: Students must build upon what they already know. Teachers should start a learning experience by identifying what the learners already know, and finding out how the new information relates to that.
- Integration with existing knowledge: Learning occurs when new knowledge is compared to existing knowledge. Students may assimilate the new information, meaning they realize that the new information fits very well with the existing information. Or, they may accommodate their existing knowledge to accept the new information. This means they have to fix misunderstandings they previously had in order to make the old and new information make sense. In practical terms, teachers will ask students: “Based on what you know, does this make sense?” and “Does this change your mind about what you previously knew about the topic?”
- Elaboration and reflection: Elaboration means taking the new knowledge and seeing how they can use it in multiple different contexts. For example, a student might apply their new knowledge of gravity based on an apple falling and see if they can use it to measure how far a trebuchet can fling a rock.
- Personal significance: The information needs to have some point that makes sense to the student. For example, instead of learning compound interest in a pure mathematical context, students might use the concept to see how much money they can have if they saved $10 per week every week until they’re 65. This makes sure the students know what value the new knowledge has for their lives.
Benefits of Meaningful Learning
Meaningful learning has a range of key benefits, including:
1. Long-term retention
Most scholars believe meaningful learning to achieve greater long-term memorization than rote learning.
This is because students have experiences and stories connected to what they learned (rather than just looking at note cards repeatedly for weeks leading up to a test).
If we have experience and memory, and our knowledge is linked like a cognitive web to other prior knowledge in our minds, then it’s easier to dig up and actively recall the information well into the future.
As Karpicke and Grimaldi (2012, p. 408) argue, “meaningful learning is thought to be robust and enduring.”
2. Transfer of knowledge to new situations
One of the downsides of rote learning is that it tends to be hard to recall and apply outside of the context in which it was learned.
For example, a language student might be good at remembering a word on a memory cards game, but when it comes to using it at the shops, they often find they can’t bring up the word they need.
By contrast, under meaningful learning, because students learned the word in meaningful contexts (in this example, potentially through role play), the word often becomes easier to recall the word in contextualized situations.
3. Motivation and interest in learning
A key feature of meaningful learning is that it has to be meaningful to a student’s life, which enhances intrinsic motivation.
When students see that what they are learning is valuable to them or relates to things they’re interested in outside of the educational context, the students develop intrinsic motivation to learn (McCombs & Miller, 2007).
By contrast, rote learning often relies on rewards and punishments – or in other words, extrinsic motivation.
4. Critical thinking skills
In meaningful learning environments, students need to compare and contrast their existing knowledge to the new information.
Through this process, they often start to notice contradictions between the new and old information that needs to be overcome in order to achieve cognitive equilibrium.
During this process, students are actively exercising their critical thinking skills.
Strategies for Promoting Meaningful Learning
- Active learning: Encourage students to be active participants in the development of knowledge. Instead of giving them the answers, get them to engage in tasks that will result in them coming to the conclusions on their own. This may take the form of problem-based learning where you provide students with problems to solve rather than answers to questions.
- Project-based learning: In project-based learning, students are given something to construct. It might be applying math problems to the construction of an object, applying new literacy concepts in the creation of a play, or using a particular music concept in the construction of a musical piece.
- Inquiry-based learning: Give students a problem that they need to research in order to solve. This often requires students to do internet research or test hypotheses until they come up with a coherent answer. Through this process, students don’t just get an answer to questions, but also understand why the answer they have is the correct answer. This knowing why helps them to remember and recall the information in the long-term.
- Making connections to prior knowledge: Start all learning scenarios with something the students already know. This gives an entry-way into the topic that students can understand and relate to. You can consistently return to the prior knowledge and ask students to continually compare the new knowledge to the old knowledge.
- Incorporating student interests and relevance: If students find the content meaningful to their own lives, they will be more motivated to learn. So, teachers can look at the curriculum content they need to teach and find ways to creatively present the information in ways that demonstrate why students should be interested in learning about the topic.
- Encouraging collaborative learning: Get students together to discuss the concepts and compare notes. By talking to one another, students can make cognitive connections and see ideas from multiple perspectives. This can be far more effective than having students simply work in isolation trying to hammer the ideas into their minds through repetition.
Meaningful Learning Examples
1. STEM education
STEM is a great area for meaningful learning scenarios. The scenario would involve engaging students in project-based learning.
The projects will require students to apply new information to real-world problems (preferably relatable and tangible problems that they may come across in their own lives).
For example, students could be tasked with figuring out how to engineer a new door handle for their classroom door.
To do this, they would need to figure out the physics behind ensuring the handle can hold up the whole door and how the handle can operate smoothly.
2. Language learning
In language learning, meaningful learning means learning new words and concepts through scenarios they may come across when using the language.
Instead of trying to repeat the first 1000 verbs in the language they’re learning, you might try to teach them some travel terms and phrases that they would want to know, then reverse engineer those phrases to figure out how to adjust them for different contexts.
Meaningful learning is based upon constructivism. This is a perspective that believes learning occurs through constructing information in our minds by comparing and contrasting new information to old information.
It is contrasted to rote learning’s basis in behaviorism:
- Constructivism’s Argument: We tend to remember things more effectively when making connections to prior knowledge, contextualizing knowledge, and exploring concepts through storytelling and experience. For example: you will be able to recount events better if you actually were there rather than if you’re just retelling someone else’s story. (This approach tends to be associated with active learning).
- Behaviorism’s Argument: We learn through repetition. Give the student the information they need to know, then get them to repeat it over and over again, often over a spaced period of time (see: spaced repetition), accompanied by rewards and punishments. (This approach tends to be associated with passive learning).
Generally, contemporary education theorists believe that the constructivist classroom teaching perspective is far more effective than behaviorism.
Challenges and Potential Solutions
- Lack of time and resources: To create a meaningful learning scenario, teachers need time. They may also need resources to help students create physical scenarios and projects. Then, when it comes to doing the task, it’s more time-consuming asking students to ‘construct’ the knowledge for themselves than just giving them the answer. In an era of an overcrowded curriculum, this is a tall ask.
- Testing: Passing standardized tests often requires simply remembering and regurgitating facts and figures. This sort of testing lends itself to rote learning. But we know that meaningful learning is more useful long-term. As a result, state testing regimes need to change and evolve so meaningful learning is incentivized and rewarded.
Meaningful learning underpins good pedagogy. It leads to ideal higher-order thinking skills such as critical and analytical thinking. By ensuring your lessons are meaningful to students, you will be helping them to develop skills for the future and supporting their long-term cognitive development.
Ausubel, D. P. (2012). The acquisition and retention of knowledge: A cognitive view. Los Angeles: Springer Science & Business Media.
Champe, P. C., Harvey, R. A., & Ferrier, D. R. (2005). Biochemistry. New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Jonassen, D. H., Peck, K. L., & Wilson, B. G. (1999). Learning with technology: A constructivist perspective. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Karpicke, J. D., & Grimaldi, P. J. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 401-418. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-012-9202-2
McCombs, B. L., & Miller, L. (2007). Learner-centered classroom practices and assessments: Maximizing student motivation, learning, and achievement. New York: Corwin Press.
Walsh, K. (2013). Oxford textbook of medical education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]