Aristotle believed that “memory, even the memory of concepts, cannot exist apart from imagery” (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 103). Certainly no conscious mental image can be formed in the absence of attention and in some cases may require an appreciable level of effort. Aristotle described a stimulus as imprinting a sense-affection like a “seal-ring acts in stamping” (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 105), but noted also that impressions are difficult to make on those who are in a “rapid state of transition” or those who are in a “worn-out condition ” (p. 105). He compared the former to the fruitless effort of stamping a seal on running water and the latter to stamping it on an old building, the hardness of which prevents the sense-affection from leaving any impression. The first condition suggests that there must be established a relatively stable foundation of prior experience in order that new experiences might be related to it, and that as the number of ‘moving parts’ or the amount of new information increases in any given learning situation, the relative significance for any individual portion of the total decreases. The second condition, that of a hardened old building, suggest that when the established foundation is too firmly set, the learner may not be willing to accommodate new information; it will simply bounce off and fall away unclaimed.

Aristotle also called attention to the relationship between significance and the need for repetition:

It so happens that some people receive a greater benefit from a single experience than others in whom the sequence has frequently taken place, and hence, in some instances, after seeing things once, we remember them better than others who have seen them frequently. (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 111)

In my own observation, those who benefit to a greater degree than others from a single experience typically do so simply because they are more attentive to the details of the experience, more actively engaged in relating the new to the old, and have a more complete and diverse base of prior experience to which the new might be connected.

Thorndike (1898) described significance in terms of attention and effort. Attention, he said, “emphasizes and facilitates the process which it accompanies” (p. 101). The amount of attention given to an act determines the “celerity with which an association may be formed” (pp. 17, 27). “The kinds of acts which insure attention are those where the movement which works the mechanism is one which the cat makes definitely to get out” (p. 27). Thus, learning experiences which require a deliberate and definite act by the learner are more likely to claim the learner’s attention and provide a significant learning experience.

Thorndike also found that his subjects must expend effort, acting according to their own impetus, in order to learn. In his experiments, no animal was able to learn an act by being put through it:[1]

An animal cannot learn an act by being put through it. For instance, a cat who fails to push down a thumb-piece and push out the door cannot be taught by having one take its paw and press the thumb-piece down with it. (Thorndike, 1898, p. 46)

Significance is found in Pavlov’s conditioning (Pavlov et al., 1928) first of all in the connection between the CS and the UCS. A CS per se holds no significance for the subject relative to the UCR. Because of this, the CS cannot be conditioned to the UCR without being paired with the UCS. This pairing brings significance to the CS inasmuch as it becomes tied to a stimulus that inherently calls out the unconditioned response.

Pavlov also wrote of the relationship between the intensity of the stimulus and the time required to establish a conditioned reflex:

Although there are great differences in the time required for the establishing of a conditioned reflex, some relations have been seen to exist. From our experiments it is evident that the intensity of the stimulus is of essential importance. (Pavlov et al., 1928, p. 89)

He found that the amount of time necessary to condition a stimulus was related to “the intensity of a stimulus and its effect” (p. 91). For example, when stones were placed in the mouth of the dog they were easily ejected and nothing remained in the mouth. However, “if you throw some sand in the dog’s mouth (the same stones but pulverised) , there is an abundant flow of saliva” (p. 48).

Watson (1914) spoke of intensity in terms of both stimulus threshold (p. 37) and of the effort required on the part of the subject in order to establish a habit:

The first and most obvious need in behavior is to provide some form of stimulation which will make the animal move in some way. Unless the animal will work steadily we are powerless to force habits upon him. (p. 57)

In operant conditioning, the significance of a learning experience is seen primarily in the effect of reinforcement. The delivery of a food pellet to a hungry pigeon is physiologically significant to the pigeon, and as long as the pigeon is able to connect the contingent behavior to the delivery of the pellet it will learn to repeat that behavior in order to receive food. Reinforcement relies on the significance of hunger satiation which drives the animal to perform as required, using behaviors that would not normally be observed in the animal’s natural state, in order to obtain food. For example,

Once we have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement, our techniques permit us to shape up the behavior of an organism almost at will. It has become a routine exercise to demonstrate this in classes in elementary psychology by conditioning such an organism as a pigeon. Simply by presenting food to a hungry pigeon at the right time, it is possible to shape up three or four well-defined responses in a single demonstration period—such responses as turning around, pacing the floor in the pattern of a figure-8, standing still in a corner of the demonstration apparatus, stretching the neck, or stamping the foot. Extremely complex performances may be reached through successive stages in the shaping process, the contingencies of reinforcement being changed progressively in the direction of the required behavior. The results are often quite dramatic. In such a demonstration one can see learning take place. (Skinner, 1961g, p. 146)

Other examples of significance through intensity are (a) Hull’s stimulus-intensity dynamism (Hull, 1952), which states that the greater the intensity of the stimulus, the greater the probability that a learned response will be elicited; (b) his notion of drive reduction (Hull, 1943, p. 178); and Guthrie’s stimulus threshold approach to breaking a habit (Guthrie, 1938, p. 60), which relied on presentation of the stimulus at an intensity sufficiently low so as to not call out the response—thereby removing significance from the situation.

Significance in Estes’ stimulus sampling model is in the form of attention. Only a certain portion of the total number of stimulus elements will be effective, or experienced by the subject, on any given trial (W. K. Estes, 1950, p. 96; Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 223). It is only those stimulus elements which are attended to that have meaning and become connected to the response which is made. No connection is made between the response and stimulus elements which the subject does not take notice of.

In cognitive learning theory, significance is less frequently attributed to intensity of sensation and more frequently discussed in terms of the allocation of attention, the connection of new information with existing cognitive structures, and self-directed effort. For example, Ebbinghaus reported that attention, or “mental vigor and receptivity,” are less in the later hours of the day and that “the series learned in the morning and then relearned at a later hour, aside from other influences, require more work for relearning than they would if the relearning were done at a time of mental vigor equal to that of the original learning (Ebbinghaus, 1913, p. 66). He described a great dependence of retention and reproduction on the intensity of attention and interest at the time of learning:

Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present. The burnt child shuns the fire, and the dog which has been beaten runs from the whip, after a single vivid experience. People in whom we are interested we may see daily and yet not be able to recall the color of their hair or of their eyes. (pp. 3-4)

He also found significance through connection with existing knowledge when he discovered a great savings in the number of repetitions required to learn sense material versus non-sense syllables—the former taking one tenth the amount of time than the later. This savings he attributed to factors which provided significance to what was being learned, namely, “the combined ties of meaning, rhythm, rhyme, and a common language” (pp. 50-51).

Significance in Tolman’s view of learning was attributed to both attention and intensity. Attention was manifest in the form of a “persistence until character” (Tolman, 1925a, p. 37) of behavior, meaning, the goal-directed behavior persisted until the goal was reached (p. 38). Intensity was manifest as a “strong appetite” which provided the catalyst for a rat that had become familiar with a maze through latent learning to enact its cognitive map and return directly to the goal box once food had been introduced at that location (Tolman, 1938, p. 161). Similarly, Kohler’s apes, which learned to use round about means and tools to obtain an objective, were only able to do so when they were actively attending to the effort of trying to do so, or, in a few cases, when they attended to and then imitated the actions of one of their successful peers (Kohler, 1951). This attention behavior learning was also significant in respect to the apes’ desire to obtain the banana. They did not learn to use ropes, sticks, and boxes simply for the sake of performing the actions which were ultimately learned per se. Rather, they learned what was required in order to secure for themselves that which they desired.

Under the cognitive information processing model significance has been described as attention, intensity, connectedness between new and existing knowledge, and effort. Ericsson (1996a and 1996b, as cited in Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 336) described the importance of attention in learning by saying,

Mindless drilling practice leads to little improvement. For practice or drill of any kind to be effective, it should be mindful, or deliberate. Individuals should be attentive to what they are doing. They should watch for and correct errors and work toward improvement.

Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) viewed attention as limited in capacity and noted that “only that information selected by the subject, often a small proportion of the initial ensemble, is maintained” (p. 35). Furthermore, they believed that attention is under the control of the individual and that in processing incoming information “the first decision the subject must make concerns which sensory register to attend to” (pp. 31-32). Attention has been conceptualized as a “filter” which selects from among different information input “channels” (Broadbent, 1958); a “tuner” which selectively attenuates, or raises the thresholds for accepting signals from non-relevant or non-interesting sources (Treisman, 1960); and as “mechanisms that control the significance of stimuli” through the allocation of limited resources or capacity (Kahneman, 1973, p. 2). As Kahneman stated, attention controls the significance of stimuli. That which is attended to is significant. That which is not attended to is lost.

Another view of significance in cognitive information processing theory has to do with intensity of emotion. Flashbulb memories, a term coined by Brown and Kulik (1977), are memories of an event that is so emotionally powerful that the recollection is highly vivid and richly detailed. Although some research shows that the details of these events are often recalled in accurately (Romeu, 2006  Schacter, 1996  and Talarico & Rubin, 2007, as cited in, Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 294) the fact remains that the occurrence of the event itself and, in many cases, many fine and accurate details, are impressed on the mind with great resistance to forgetting.

Another aspect of significance that is more frequently addressed in cognitive information processing theory is that of connections between incoming information and information that is already stored in long-term memory. Hoffding (1891) pointed out that before any association of ideas can be made there must first be recognition, or “in other words that the sensation shall have a point of attachment in consciousness” (p. 153). Mediation is a strategy that “involves tying difficult-to-remember information to something more meaningful” (Bruning et al., 2004, p. 67). Similarly, another strategy using mnemonics involves “attaching new information to well-known information—in possibly a very artificial way” (p. 69).

Learning, according to cognitive information processing theory, requires effort, for example, the effort to encode. “For rehearsal to succeed you need to do more than just mindlessly repeat words. You must make an active effort to encode and store the information” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 317). Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) found that effort applied to various coding operations “will increase the strength of the stored information” (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 39). Elaborative rehearsal “involves taking the information to be learned and trying to associate it with other things you know” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 274).

In the levels-of-processing model of cognition, “memory does not comprise three or any specific number of separate stores, instead, storage varies along a continuous dimension in terms of depth of encoding (theoretically there are an infinite number of levels of processing)” and “the deeper the level at which an item is processed, the higher the probability that the item will be retrieved” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 286). Deep processing—i.e., the kind of processing that brings significance to the information being learned—happens when, for example, students are asked to underline a set of vocab words in an essay versus asked to explain the essay in their own words (Bruning et al., 2004, p. 77); when students “reason with concepts rather than simply memorize concepts” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 317); when students make overt responses  (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 27); and through organization, elaboration, and cognitive activity (Eggen & Kauchak, 1999, p. 258).

Ausubel primarily recognized connectedness and effort as bringing significance to learning, though he also acknowledge the role of intensity. Connectedness, however, is the core behind his ideas on meaningful learning and is how he explained the difference between meaningful and rote material—i.e., in terms of whether or not the material being learned could be related to existing cognitive structure:

Meaningfully learned materials have been related to existing concepts in cognitive structure in ways making possible the understanding of various kinds of significant (e.g., derivative, descriptive, supportive) relationships… Rotely learned materials, on the other hand, are discrete and isolated entities which have not been related to established concepts in the learner’s cognitive structure. (Ausubel, 1962, pp. 215-216)

The key to meaningful learning, according to Ausubel et al. (1978), is the prior establishment of adequate subsuming ideas in cognitive structure:

Once subsuming ideas are themselves adequately established in cognitive structure: 1) They have maximally specific and direct relevance for subsequent learning tasks. 2) They possess enough explanatory power to render otherwise arbitrary factual detail potentially meaningful. 3) They posses sufficient inherent stability to provide the firmest type of anchorage for newly learned detailed meanings. 4) They organize related new facts around a common theme, thereby integrating the component elements of new knowledge, both with each other and with existing knowledge. (p. 58)

Such connections with prior knowledge are most effectively made when learners expend effort by adopting a “set to relate the material to cognitive structure” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 213) and “reformulate new propositions in their own words” (Ausubel et al., 1978, pp. 123-124). Ausubel et al. (1978) found that greater effort and attention are given after longer retention intervals, when learners perceive a greater need, since more forgetting has occurred:

After a longer retention interval, when more material is forgotten, the learner is more highly motivated to profit from the opportunity for review. He or she is less likely to regard this opportunity as unnecessary and superfluous, and is therefore more disposed to take good advantage of it in terms of effort and attention. (p. 319)

Although connectedness and effort are the foundation of significance in Ausubel’s theory of meaningful learning he also acknowledged intensity as a factor in some cases—especially in the learning of rote materials—specifically noting intensity in the forms of “unusual vividness” (Ausubel, 1962, p. 216), “primacy,” “uniqueness,” and “enhanced discriminability” (p. 218).

Connectedness is also the central idea underlying schema theory. New information is interpreted and understood as relevant schemata are activated and new information is fit into the existing schema (Anderson et al., 1978, p. 434; Pichert & Anderson, 1977, p. 314; Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 13) by binding or encoding it in terms of the variables of the activated schema (Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 10). In this way schema impose structure on the new information (Pichert & Anderson, 1977, p. 309).

Schemata also function as a filter inasmuch as new information that fits the schema will be prioritized over information that does not (Anderson et al., 1978, p. 439). Later recall of learned information is facilitated by schemata, which are used in production as a retrieval plan “to provide implicit cues for important elements” (Pichert & Anderson, 1977, p. 309). Thus, schemata provide significance both for incoming information to be learned and coherence to communication later produced and ideas recalled by the learner. For example Bower, Black and Turner (Bower et al., 1979, abstract) found that “a scrambled text that presented some script actions out of order tended to be recalled in canonical order.”

Another aspect of significance in the view of schema-based learning theory is that the structuring of new schema is dependent upon the prior accretion of information. In other words, a given schema is only meaningful in its connection to—and power to anticipate, explain, or describe—a set of relevant experiences. In this way, “accretion of information would appear to be a necessary pre-requisite for restructuring; there must be a backlog of experiences and memories on which to base the new structures” (Rumelhart & Norman, 1976, p. 5).

Connectedness, effort and attention are also important aspects of learning in constructive learning theory. King (1994p. 340) found that questions which prompted “comparing and contrasting, inferring cause and effect, noting strengths and weaknesses, evaluating ideas, explaining, and justifying” were especially effective in promoting learning. Brooks and Brooks (1993) recommend encouraging student attention and effort by “asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other” (p. 110) and seeking elaboration of student’s initial responses (p. 111).

Piaget (1969) described awareness of connections inherent in external stimuli (significance) as only possible when they can be assimilated by means of existing structures:

The organizing activity of the subject must be considered just as important as the connections inherent in the external stimuli, for the subject becomes aware of these connections only to the degree that he can assimilate them by means of his existing structures….that is to say, the input, the stimulus, is filtered through a structure that consists of the action-schemes (or at a higher level, the operations of thought), which in turn are modified and enriched when the subject’s behavioral repertoire is accommodated to the demands of reality. The filtering or modification of the input is called assimilation; the modification of internal schemes to fit reality is called accommodation. (pp. 5-6)

Bruner described significance as “representing the structure of [a] subject in terms of the child’s way of viewing things” (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 33) so that it makes sense to the child. He also noted that “understanding the fundamentals makes a subject more comprehensible” (p. 23). Here again, we see a theme of significance through connecting previous learning with new learning, for a subject is only comprehensible when there is a prior understanding of fundamentals.

In human learning theory, Fuller (1962, p. 24) explained that some sensations are more significant than others, for example, the relief of hunger following a meal is more gradual than the cessation of pain through escape. Stimuli also lose novelty with repetition, and excessive novelty may give cause for activation without organizing a direct response (p. 92). Rogers (1969, pp. 3-4) explained significant learning as learning that involves feeling, personal meaning, and relevance. He said that much significant learning is acquired through doing, and maximized through active participation. “When [the learner] chooses his own directions, helps to discover his own learning resources, formulates his own problems, decides his own course of action, lives with the consequences of these choices, then significant learning is maximized”(p. 162).

Vygotsky said that learning has significance when “an external activity is reconstructed and begins to occur internally” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57). “The internalization of cultural forms of behavior involves the reconstruction of psychological activity on the basis of sign operations” (p. 57). When another person responds to one’s actions—for example, when a mother responds to a baby’s reaching for a toy beyond its grasp—the action becomes significant and the baby internalizes the symbolic gesture of pointing and a culturally mediated sign:

We call the internal reconstruction of an external operation internalization. A good example of this process may be found in the development of pointing. Initially, this gesture is nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt to grasp something, a movement aimed at a certain object which designates forthcoming activity. The child attempts to grasp an object placed beyond his reach; his hands, stretched toward that object, remain poised in the air. His fingers make grasping movements. At this initial stage pointing is represented by the child’s movement, which seems to be pointing to an object—that and nothing more.

When the mother comes to the child’s aid and realizes his movement indicates something, the situation changes fundamentally. Pointing becomes a gesture for others. The child’s unsuccessful attempt engenders a reaction not from the object he seeks but from another person. Consequently, the primary meaning of that unsuccessful grasping movement is established by others. Only later, when the child can link his unsuccessful grasping movement to the object situation as a whole, does he begin to understand this movement as pointing. At this juncture there occurs a change in that movement’s function: from an object-oriented movement it becomes a movement aimed at another person, a means of establishing relations. The grasping movement changes to the act of pointing. As a result of this change, the movement itself is then physically simplified, and what results is the form of pointing that we may call a true gesture. It becomes a true gesture only after it objectively manifests all the functions of pointing for others and is understood by others as such a gesture. Its meaning and functions are created at first by an objective situation and then by people who surround the child. (p. 56)

Significance is found in attention, accurate perception of significant features, and expenditure of effort (Bandura, 1977b, p. 24). It is found in the commitment of time, intensified effort, increased responsibility, and sense of identity (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 111). It is found in resolution of actual contradiction in real-world situations (Engestrom, 2001, pp. 135, 137, 140, 142-145; Engestrom, 2010, pp. 3-4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 17-20); the learning of knowledge in context (J. S. Brown & Duguid, 1991, p. 47); active participation (J. S. Brown et al., 1989, p. 38); narratives and stories (p. 40); the learner’s articulation of their “knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving processes”  (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 14); and a sense of ownership, personal investment, and mutual dependency (p. 16). Table 7 summarizes the local principles from the theories reviewed that are subsumed by the universal principle of significance.



Table 7

Principles of Learning Subsumed by the Universal Principle of Significance

Theory Group   Local principles






Relationship between significance and need for repetition



Amount of attention determines speed of learning

Attention insured in acts where a definite movement is required

Attention emphasizes and facilitates the process which it accompanies

Effort: an animal cannot learn an act by being put through it



Size of conditioned reflex dependent on intensity of stimulus

Relationship between intensity of stimulus and time to establish a conditioned reflex

Effort: ejecting stones v. ejecting sand from mouth

Association: CS gains meaning through pairing with UCS



Intensity of stimulus must be sufficient to elicit a response

The animal must work steadily



Intensity through hunger satiation

The law of threshold

Attention: work in area free from distractions

Magnitude of response



Stimulus-intensity dynamism

Drive reduction



Stimulus threshold intensity


Significance through isolation of association (preventing an association from being unlearned)

Emotional reinforcement

Intention to learn

Significance by doing



Attention: effective stimulus elements



Cognitive   Ebbinghaus:

Mental vigor and receptivity

Meaning, rhythm, rhyme, and a common language

Intensity of attention and interest



Attention as ‘persistence until’

‘Working over’ and ‘elaboration’

Strong appetite



Actively attending to the effort of trying

Desire to obtain food


Cognitive Information Processing:

Active effort to encode


Deep processing


Overt response

Organization, elaboration, and cognitive activity

Mindless drilling vs. attentive learning

Getting attention

Limited attention

Learner choice

Attention as a filter

Attention as a tuner

Attention as allocation of capacity

Point of attachment in consciousness

Strength – significance is created through rehearsal

Connecting new information to something meaningful

Leveraging preexisting associations to encode new information

Intensity: emotionally powerful



Meaningful v. rote

Meaning through subsumability

Adequately established subsuming ideas in cognitive structure

Central unifying ideas

Anchoring ideas

Anchorage, dissociability, and obliterative subsumption


Set (attitude) to relate new material to cognitive structure

Effort and attention result from learner’s perception of need

Reformulate new propositions in own words

Intensity: unusual vividness

Intensity: primacy, uniqueness, enhanced discriminability


Schema Theory:

Connected: new information fit into existing schema

Schema activation

Structure imposed by schema on new information

Schema as filter for what will be learned

Schema as retrieval plan

Significance of text elements depends on schema

New structures are based on a backlog of experience and memories

Variable binding

Schema selection

Understanding based on level of specificity of the activated schema



Constructive   General:

Effort encouraged through guided questioning

Learning requires extended learner effort

Student participation through inquiry methods

Cross domain (physical, intellection, emotional, and social) experience

Intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience

Significance due to language, cultural, and social background

Meaningful learning

Possibility of application



Awareness of connections only by means of existing cognitive structures




Representing the structure of a subject in terms of the child’s view

Understanding fundamentals

Importance of detail

Discovery facilitated through prior experience and knowledge

Accessibility in memory

Exercise of problem solving and effort of discovery



Human   Biological Motivation:

Relative significance of relief from hunger versus pain

Decrease in novelty with repetition

Excessive novelty may activate without organizing a direct response


Freedom to Learn:


Personal meaning


Much significant learning is acquired through doing

Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process

Significant learning is maximized through participation





Symbolic representation

Response of others to one’s own actions


Attention and interest (in primitive stage), then relation to inner framework (fourth stage)



Attention, accurate perception, and significant features

Expenditure of effort


Situated learning:

Commitment of time, intensified effort, more and broader responsibilities, and sense of identity


Activity theory:

Resolution of actual contradictions in real-world situations


Cognitive apprenticeship:

Knowledge in context

Active participation

Narratives and stories


A sense of ownership, personal investment and mutual dependency



[1] See also Watson (Watson, 1914, pp. 282-296)

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