Understanding Accommodation in Psychology

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How do people learn new things? This question seems quite simple, yet it is a topic that has long been a major subject of interest for psychologists and educators. Experts agree that there are many different processes by which information can be learned.

One of these methods that were described by an early psychologist is known as accommodation. Accommodation is part of the learning process that allows us to change our existing ideas in order to take in new information.

Part of the Adaptation Process

Initially proposed by Jean Piaget, the term accommodation refers to the part of the adaptation process. The process of accommodation involves altering one's existing schemas, or ideas, as a result of new information or new experiences. New schemas may also be developed during this process.​

Consider, for example, how small children learn about different types of animals. A young child may have an existing schema for dogs. She knows that dogs have four legs, so she might automatically believe that all animals with four legs are dogs.

When she later learns that cats also have four legs, she will undergo a process of accommodation in which her existing schema for dogs will change and she will also develop a new schema for cats.

Schemas become more refined, detailed, and nuanced as new information is gathered and accommodated into our current ideas and beliefs about how the world works.

How Accommodation Takes Place

Accommodation does not just take place in children; adults also experience this as well. When experiences introduce new information or information that conflicts with existing schemas, you must accommodate this new learning in order to ensure that what's inside your head conforms to what's outside in the real world.

For example, imagine a young boy raised in a home that presents a stereotyped schema about another social group. Because of his upbringing, he might even harbor prejudices toward people in this group.

When the young man moves away to college, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by people from this group. Through experience and real interactions with members of this group, he realizes that his existing knowledge is completely wrong. This leads to a dramatic change, or accommodation, in his beliefs about members of this social group.


In their book Educational Psychology, authors Tuckman and Monetti note that Piaget believed in the importance of balance between the accommodation and assimilation processes. Imitation is an important part of the learning process, but developing a stable sense of self is also essential.

Play is also critical, but children also must go through the process of assimilating and accommodating new information in order to learn.

"There must be enough accommodation to meet and adapt to new situations and enough assimilation to use one's schemata quickly and efficiently," Tuckman and Monetti suggest.

Reaching a state of equilibrium between the assimilation and accommodation processes is what helps create a sense of stability between the individual and his or her environment.

So what determines whether a new piece of information is accommodated or assimilated. In the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology (2008), Byrnes writes that the two processes actually work in opposition to each other.

The goal of assimilation is to maintain the status quo. By assimilating information, you are keeping your existing knowledge and schemas intact and simply finding a place to store this new information. It's like buying a new book and finding a place to keep it on your bookshelves.

Accommodation, on the other hand, involves actually changing your existing knowledge of a topic.

This is like buying a new book, realizing it doesn't fit in any of your existing bookshelves, and buying a whole new shelving unit to store all of your books in. In any given situation, Byrnes suggests, either accommodation or assimilation will "win out," often depending upon what has been learned.

6 Sources
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  2. Di Paolo EA, Barandiaran XE, Beaton M, Buhrmann T. Learning to perceive in the sensorimotor approach: Piaget's theory of equilibration interpreted dynamicallyFront Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:551. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00551

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."