Animals' abilities to use internal representations of absent objects to guide adaptive behavior and acquire new information, and to represent multiple spatial, temporal, and object properties of complex events and event sequences, may underlie many aspects of human perception, memory, and symbolic thought. In this review, two classes of simple associative learning tasks that address these core cognitive capacities are discussed. The first set, including reinforcer revaluation and mediated learning procedures, address the power of Pavlovian conditioned stimuli to gain access, through learning, to representations of upcoming events. The second set of investigations concern the construction of complex stimulus representations, as illustrated in studies of contextual learning, the conjunction of explicit stimulus elements in configural learning procedures, and recent studies of episodic-like memory. The importance of identifying both cognitive process and brain system bases of performance in animal models is emphasized.