Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Theory, Policy, and Practice

First Advisor

David Kirshner


The purpose of this study is to develop a framework for the notions of meaningful and non-meaningful and to test for learning interference from a non-meaningful then meaningful instructional sequence. A review of the literature reveals that terminologies differ widely, but similarities in notions emerge. The terms meaningful and non-meaningful are employed here to indicate, respectively, richness in relationships, or a relative absence of relationships both within the knowledge structure, and in relation to previous knowledge. Based on a Piagetian framework of learning involving assimilation/accommodation and consequently disequilibrium, I hypothesize that non-meaningful learning tends to establish constructs that interfere with subsequent meaningful learning. Two processes are possible: the non-meaningful knowledge structure may need to be discarded and a new structure formed; or the meaningful concepts may be rejected due to noncompliance with prior non-meaningful structures. Thus non-meaningful learning may hinder, or even preclude subsequent meaningful learning. To test this hypothesis a two-treatment research design was framed: Treatment 1 has non-meaningful then meaningful instruction; Treatment 2, meaningful-only instruction. Posttests and a retention test provide evidence of learning. Two studies were conducted according to this design: a generic with eighth graders and a mathematics-specific with fifth graders. An analysis of quantitative and qualitative data was conducted. In both studies students receiving only meaningful instruction scored significantly better than those receiving meaningful preceded by non-meaningful instruction. Interviews revealed Treatment 1 students were hindered in transferability and creativity in problem solving, and made errors by over-generalizing their learning. The results of this study suggest that behavioral and constructivist methodologies are inherently incompatible, which has implications for the relations between administrative and professional branches of education.