A Complete Guide to Schema Theory and its Role in Education

You’ve probably come across schemas and schema theory if you’ve researched any evidence based learning theories or maybe you’ve just nodded and smiled as you sat bleary-eyed through a professional development session, not wanting others know you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

If you’re anything like me, you know what I mean. However, in this article, we will go through exactly what schema theory is, how it can benefit students (and yourself) and how you can apply it to your teaching.

So what is Schema Theory? Schemas are categories of information stored in long-term memory. A schema contains groups of linked memories, concepts or words. This grouping of things acts as a cognitive shortcut, making storing new things in your long-term memory and retrieval of them much quicker and more efficient. 

For example: If I smell a cake being baked, it reminds me of things I used to do with my Nan, as we used to bake cakes together. The smell of baking cakes is part of my “Nan” schema.

If you consider schema (Plural: schemata) theory when planning your lessons and making your resources. Your students will construct very strong schemata and remember much more. Especially if you also consider cognitive load theory and dual coding theory.

Schema theory is also considered in the seminal work, “Rosenshine’s principles of instruction“.

Spending time directly teaching them this metacognitive strategy will hugely improve your students ability to remember more from your lessons. When students understand this, it makes studying for a test a much less stressful time too.

Confused? Don’t worry, by the end of this article you will be a schema master.

Let’s get started.

What is Schema Theory?

As we saw above, schema theory describes how people group together associated memories. These groups are known as schemata.

Much like the way you put all your holiday photos into one album or file all your bank statements into the same folder, schemata contain similar things (as we saw from my “Nan schema” image above).

For instance, if you think of the word “car”, images and words will quickly come to the forefront of your mind, these will probably contain thins like: wheels, seats, road, journeys, insurance, steering wheel etc.

You “car schema” allowed you to quickly retrieve all things to do with cars.

It is this retrieval that makes Schema theory hugely important in education. If students can associate new ideas with schema they already have, the likelihood of them remembering them is much higher.

Bartlett’s Schema Theory

British psychologist, Sir Frederick Bartlett (1886-1969) was the first professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge University, UK. He was a pioneer of cognitive psychology which today forms the foundations of all cognitive science.

It was whilst in this position that Bartlett published the book “Remembering” (1932), his most respected work. Within this book, Bartlett discussed in great detail, Schema Theory.

“War of the Ghosts”

Bartlett’s seminal experiment; the “war of the Ghosts” experiment, which was featured in Remembering, demonstrated the reconstructive capability of the human memory. It showed how new information could be linked to, and sometimes adapted to fit existing schemata.

In this experiment, Bartlett assigned reading material to the participants (all of which were English). He gave them a native American folklore text called “War on Ghosts” to read and asked them to recall parts of the text at different intervals.

He noticed that the longer the interval in between reading and recalling, the less accurate the memory.

This wasn’t the surprising result.

The most interesting outcome Bartlett noticed was that where parts of the text didn’t fit with the Edwardian English schemata the participants already had, they were either omitted from the recalled information completely or had been adapted to fit the participants existing schema.

For example, some participants recalled the “canoes” from the text as “boats”. One participant had recalled “something black came out of his mouth” as “he foamed at the mouth”.

It was clear from this experiment, that something was happening subconsciously within the memory of the participants. In order to understand, process and memorize the information within the text, the participants had, without realizing put the new information into schema they already had.

At the time of Bartlett’s work, most psychology was rooted in behaviorism and associationism and thus Bartlett’s more cognitive, Schema Theory wasn’t strongly accepted and thus faded from focus.

Minsky’s Frame Theory

At this point, we must give a nod of gratitude to Marvin Minksy (1927-2016). In the 1970s Minsky, a cognitive scientist, was working on artificial intelligence (AI) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His work involved trying to develop machines with human-like abilities (he wanted them to be able to perceive and understand the world around them).

Whilst this has nothing to do with education, without him, Schema Theory could well have been lost for good.

Whilst trying to solve the complex problems above, he came across Bartlett’s work.

Minsky realized that in order for machines to perceive and understand the world, they’d need to have a frame of reference, i.e. have the prior knowledge to link any stimuli they encountered with. Minsky’s frame was developed directly from Bartlett’s schema.

Modern Schema Theory

Minsky’s resurrection of Bartlett’s Schema Theory gave rise to a plethora of work in cognitive psychology and educational research.

David Rumelhart

In his 1977 paper “The Representation of Knowledge in Memory“, Rumelhart postulated 4 characteristics of schemata, which I shall give some context to below.

(How very meta of me; using YOUR existing schemata to help you understand schema theory!)

  1. Schemata have variables.
    1. Your schema for the word “teach” has several variables: your career, imparting knowledge or a student learning. (maybe even the pirate, Edward Teach!).
    2. These variables would all be located in your “teach” schema, which one you use is determined by the situation or context you find yourself in.
  2. Schemata can embed, one within another.
    1. Using the earlier example; within your “teach” schema, you may have a subschema “lesson plan” or “school” (or “pirate”).
    2. Each of these subschemata may also have embedded schema within them.
  3. Schemata represent generic concepts, which taken all together, vary in their level of abstraction.
    1. Any schemata may be accessed from any number of higher schemata. “school” could be accessed from “teach” or “type of building” or “fish” (as in a school of fish).
    2. This is especially important when students try to make inferences from texts or understand metaphors or analogies.
  4. Schemata represent knowledge rather than definitions.
    1. Schemata represent a more flexible encyclopedic knowledge, rather than a fixed dictionary definition. For example; A dictionary definition of “pirate” could give the eyepatch, rum, parrot, pieces of eight version, whereas our “pirate” schema would also lead you down a more semantic path of pirate movies or music.
    2. This plays into the ability of our students to link what they learn in the classroom to the outside world. Schemata allow apparent mental jumps from one meaning to another.

In his later, 1980 paper, “Schemata: the building blocks of cognition“, Rumelhart said of schemata:

“schemata can represent knowledge at all levels – from ideologSchemaies and cultural truths to knowledge about the meaning of a particular word, to knowledge about what patterns of excitations are associated with what letters of the alphabet. We have schemata to represent all levels of our experience, at all levels of abstraction. Finally, our schemata are our knowledge. All of our generic knowledge is embedded in schemata.”

It is clear from this quote that schema theory plays a large role in learning, it is our job as teachers, not only to give information to our students but give it to them in with the context required that will allow them to process and remember it.

Before we look at schema theory in education, let’s just take a flexible pitstop.

Flexible Schemas

It is worth mentioning here the flexibility of schemas before we delve into the relevancy of schema theory in an educational setting.

In order for students (well, anyone actually) to fit new knowledge into existing schema, schema must have plasticity, otherwise misconceptions will occur.

For example:

Consider your “bed” schema. In your own bedroom, you know that you can get into your bed and sleep right? You also know that in a bed showroom, getting your pjs on and hoping into one of those beds is not the done thing.

They are both beds but your schema has, at some point adapted to fit both scenarios.

We can store multiple versions of the same schema to fit different situations.

(I could have used the example of a bathroom showroom, but…you get my drift!)

Schema Theory in Education

So, now you hopefully have a clearer understanding of Schema Theory and you’ve probably used some of your own existing schemata to make sense of it (again, so meta!).

But how do we transpose general schema theory into our own educational arena?

For this we turn to educational psychologist, Richard Anderson.

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson, professor, educational psychology
Richard Anderson, professor, educational psychology

Richard Anderson is an American Educational Psychologist who in the 1970s used schema theory in an educational setting, predominantly from a reading perspective.

Given that reading (or more specifically, being able to comprehend text) is the basis for most learning, I’m sure you will agree, that his work was a temporal landmark in understanding how students learn.

In his 1976 paper “Frameworks For Comprehending Discourse“, Anderson discusses the relevance of “bottom-up” vs. “top-down” processing, to schema theory.

The Importance of Schemata in Teaching and Learning

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Processing

What is botton-up processing?

In the context of reading, the “bottom” represents the words on the page you are reading from. Bottom-up processing refers to the influence exerted on your mind by the words on the page.

For example:

Imagine I gave you are page of text based on a subject you had absolutely no experience with. As able readers you could read the words, right? This is bottom-up processing.

When you present a new topic to a child in your class, this is where they are starting from, 100% bottom-up processing.

Without context, it means nothing to them.

What is top-down processing?

In contrast to bottom-up processing, top-down processing refers to your preexisting knowledge (your schemata) being used to make sense of the words on the page.

For example:

I have just magically given you all of the knowledge to fly a helicopter (you’re welcome by the way!), you can understand any technical information presented to you as long as it’s written in a language you understand.

However, you stumble upon a helicopter manual written in a language you have no experience with; the letters, words and sentence structure all appear alien to you.

Despite being an expert pilot, you can’t do anything with the manual!

Top-down processing, like bottom up processing only work when accompanied by the other.

If a child in your class can’t relate the new topic you are teaching them with any of their pre-existent schemata, they will simply not be able to learn it.

Also, the cognitive load of being presented with so much new information is far too great for them to make any attempt to comprehend it.

Educational literacy is essential, without it, students stand no chance.

In the next section we will look at how we can apply schema theory in the classroom.

Schema Theory and Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

Essentially then our schema is the cognitive framework we have in which we organize our knowledge.

We use this framework as a mental structure of not only what we have learnt but what we have available to us to learn and where we can place it; our existing schema influences our perception of new material.

Rosenshine places great store on review – daily, weekly and monthly – as part of effective teaching; ‘[daily] reviews ensured that the students had a firm grasp of the skills and concepts that would be needed’.

Add to this Rosenshine’s second principle that new material must be presented using small steps and we see the development of schema – extending the cognitive framework using the existing foundations.

We must not fall into the trap of assuming that one theory correlates directly with another – all research and evidence in education have various Venn Diagrams in which different components nestle with others, but there is a clear line of evidence to show that what works, works!

Understanding the concept of schema as a depiction of cognitive architecture helps a teacher understand how misconceptions may arise and also how to combat them.

Students arrive at learning experiences full of previous learning experiences, perceptions, memories and misunderstandings, as well as thousands of idiomatic associations that they didn’t realize they possessed until they were either explained or challenged.

Rosenshine gives us clear principles from which we can start our instructional journey and then go and explore further as teachers ourselves.

Direct Instruction works!

Schema Theory and Cognitive Load Theory

We know from Rosenshine (above) that more successful teachers present ‘small amounts of new material at one time’ and in such a way that each point is mastered and understood before moving on; ‘too much information swamps our working memory(Rosenshine, 2012).

Sweller et al (2003) explore the Expertise Reversal Effect – what works for Novices doesn’t work for Experts and therefore vice-versa.

Experts need less support in solving a new problem and therefore your approaches as a teacher must vary according to the ability and independence of the students in front of you; this will also affect your resource design.

Sweller (1988) looks at why domain-specific knowledge is necessary for problem-solving; you need to know facts to solve problems.

His piece explores how conventional problem-solving doesn’t help (or is inefficient) in acquiring schemata for problem-solving – doing does not always equal improving!

As teachers we are experts and therefore must avoid means-to-an-end problem solving and working backwards – we will put too much strain, too much cognitive load on the problem and therefore hinder the learning.

Interleaving can help here as a model of instructional design, reducing the pressure on the working memory by factoring in numerous opportunities for successful recall of information necessary for learning to be efficient.

If the methods employed by you as a teacher are in line with the human cognitive architecture then you will enable a more efficient transfer.

Sweller concludes that you don’t learn to solve problems by solving problems!

Schema Theory and Dual Coding Theory

As we have explored, the term schema is applied by psychologists to describe the way long-term memory is organized and sculpted.

Therefore, anything that helps organize and interpret new experiences, new information, will be a benefit and enable the efficient construction of that high-level knowledge structure – see the work of Roediger et al.

Schemas are complex layers of connections and visuals can help with the facilitation of this as the connections between the information/facts/ideas are clearly represented by the appropriate depiction.

Building connections is a multi-sensory process; well-selected visual accompaniments to complex theories can help turn the abstract to concrete and thereby render them firmly in the schema of the student.

Teachers already possess appropriate schema; they have to impart aspects of these to their ‘Novice’ students.

If they speak, that schema can be transient – the words disappear. If they write it, there is often inference required – computational disadvantage; the meaning is hidden to the Novice reader.

A good, clean graphic, a concept map or a diagram can all help enable the connections.

Schema Theory and Metacognition

Prior knowledge supports new learning.

If you can, as a teacher, explicitly link new learning to experiences and knowledge that students already possess then you help students integrate this new learning into their existing schema, however, limited they may be.

By doing so you are also promoting students’ to think about their own learning.

The very essence of metacognition.

If students can make conscious decisions about their own learning processes and by doing so eliminate the inefficiencies then they become better learners.

If they see you model your process, explain your thoughts and use the language of schema in your descriptions and scaffolds then they will apply them to their own independent study.

Metacognition requires self-reflection; self-reflection requires a knowledge of how to reflect, which in turn requires a knowledge of how the mind works, and in particular the ability for students to articulate (either internally or externally – the latter is better!) how each piece of knowledge is connected to the next.

Teach students about their mind and their schema; help them to help you.

Application of Schema Theory in the classroom

By now you will have realized that, as teachers, schema theory, is probably the most important thing to consider when planning and teaching your lessons.

Put simply, if students have no context of what you are teaching, the battle has already been lost.

As Richard Anderson eloquently puts it:

“The schemata a person already possesses are a principal determiner of what will be learned from a new text.”

Schemata as Scaffolding for the Representation of Information in Connected Discourse

The implication of this is, the more we know the easier it is to learn more. This results from the fact that we rely on our preexisting schema to make sense of new information.

It is, therefore, our job to ensure that we both ensure that students have the prior knowledge that will enable them to assimilate new information into their preexisting schemata.

But how on Earth do we do that. Surely, if we haven’t taught them it yet, how will they have prior knowledge?

Don’t worry, it’s simpler than it sounds.

As we discussed earlier, schema theory is especially important when it comes to educational literacy.

For subjects or topics that rely on specific words that aren’t part of a student’s regular vocabulary (such as science for instance), understanding new concepts is impossible if you don’t know what the keywords mean.

It’s like being surrounded by locks, having never been taught what a key is!

Understand Definitions Before Concepts

A simple, yet hugely effective strategy I use, makes huge headway to bringing down this barrier.

Before starting a new scientific topic, I will give my students a list of the keywords and their definitions from the new topic and allow them to learn what the words mean (this is not a spelling test!).

I will give them time to quiz each other, make flashcards or do an online quiz (I always set up a Quizlet for each set of keywords). When they are confident they know what the words mean, I give them a little quiz.

I will read out the definitions and they have to write the associated keyword down. Again, this is not a test of their spelling prowess. My goal is to give them a level of prior knowledge they will need to build schema for the new set of lessons.

This strategy is easily transferrable to many other subjects and takes relatively little time to do (you could even set the learning of the definitions for home learning).

Schema Theory in Math Lessons

In 1989 Richard Clark published a paper called ‘When Teaching Kills Learning’; in this, he defined two types of activities: –

  • ‘mathemagenic’ – Activities that promote and give birth to learning.
  • ‘mathemathantic’ – Activities that kill learning by mismatching strategy with learner competency.

“Whenever an instructional treatment encourages students to replace an existing, effective learning strategy with a dissimilar alternative, learning is depressed”.

Clark looks at examples from Math lessons, “In a math task involving the specification, intersection and separation of sets, Gagne & Bessler (1963) found it difficult to explain why an untreated control group significantly outperformed an experimental group on a nine-week delayed retention test. The treated group had received training in applying intersection rules to a number of example problems.

In the article, Clark gives an example: “mathematics teachers discourage the concrete “finger counting” that slower math learners use while performing arithmetic operations. Mathematics teachers tend to encourage their own more “abstract” learning strategies that seem not to help the lower aptitude or younger subjects.””

The caveat here is that what works for one learner may not work for another.

Using abstract representations of pizza slices and Swiss Roll to explore fractions may benefit in terms of students enjoying the lesson but enjoyment is not engagement and memories aren’t the same as memory.

They may simply remember the pizza and nothing about the fractions!

Novices need guidance and structure; Experts will benefit from greater independence. Consider your approach carefully based on your knowledge of your students.

Jitendra’s Schema Based Instruction

In 2011 Jitendra et al conducted research showing that a model of Schema-Based Instruction enabled students to solve mathematical problems presented in word form by emphasizing the ‘underlying mathematical structure of problems via schematic diagrams’.

Although limited, the study showed the effectiveness of SBI in improving students’ problem-solving.

The paper offers two key implications for teachers:

Firstly.teachers need to provide instruction on using schematic diagrams that are appropriate for the problems, support the use of multiple ways to solve problems, and model how to monitor and reflect on the problem-solving process’ – see Metacognition below.

Secondly.teachers need to optimize learning opportunities to help students transfer’ information from one aspect to another, developing and strengthening the connections accurately and building the schema.

The research showed this process to be effective in math lessons but the ideas themselves are transferable, where appropriate, to all domains.

Schema Theory in Physical Subjects

According to Early Years specialist Chris Athey, schemas are those “patterns of behavior and thinking in children that exist and evolve, and which may be represented by actions, language and symbolic play

The repeated nature of behaviors can show patterns which may reflect a child’s interest in a concept or the properties of materials/objects they are using in their play.

Athey built from Piaget – schemas are manifested through a range of perceptual and active experiences in children’s relationships with others and their representations of that experience – patterns of physical behavior.

This led to types of schema such as rotation, trajectories, transporting, enveloping, connecting and transforming, among many others.

The development of physical embodiments of concepts helps, like Dual Coding, to create a pattern of recognition and strengthen the schema through associations.

This should not be seen as the dreaded Kinaesthetic learning, however!

By having an understanding of how knowledge is acquired, rehearsed and retrieved from schema, teachers can plan for activities that promote effective learning and retention of material – drills, practice, repetition, challenge.

Schema Theory in Foreign Language Lessons.

In the excellent ‘Learning; What is it?’ paper Peps McRae explores insights into effective and efficient learning.

One such insight is that understanding arises through connection:

‘Focus on helping pupils see and make meaningful connections between what they know and what they are experiencing.

Provide non-examples as well as examples. Don’t leave out any parts or steps, even though they may seem obvious.

Provide opportunities for pupils to ask questions and attempt to make sense of what they are encountering. Ensure pupils have adequate thinking time to explore and establish connections.’.

This can be prevalent in any classroom environment but perhaps most so in languages, where failure to activate adequate schema can result in poor comprehension or translation, and therefore inaccurate communication.

The use of examples and non-examples help address misconceptions that may arise, anticipating them from your own experience as a teacher and addressing them before they occur.

One method can be to give students texts to read on the topic at hand in their first language before then introducing the topic in the language being taught, as well as regular checks for understanding, practice and rehearsal.

A good source of evidence for misconceptions in foreign languages, as in other subjects – are Examiner reports published after each Exam series; these detail where successes were found but also, more usefully, where errors were made by students in decoding or responding to questions.

Schema Theory in Science Lessons

In 1946 A. D. de Groot published his PhD thesis around how chess masters interpret and solve chess problems.

He found that the more expertise a person has in a particular area, the easier they find it to categorize and then solve problems because they have greater, deeper conceptual knowledge and understanding of principles and ideas.

In 1981 Chi et al conducted research using Physics students in their first year and PhD candidates (Novices and Experts) to compare how they classified Physics tasks into different categories and found (naturally) that the Experts classified them differently from the Novices.

The experts, because of their conceptual grasp, had strategies for solutions that matched the problems already to hand.

When teaching Sciences, as with other subjects, we must be careful to ensure that the process is clear, the steps are small and the essential knowledge needed to solve the problems is accurate.

Diagrammatical representations of processes can be very helpful to help students visualize the schema, as can the modelling and explanations of the teacher.

For example, if you are looking at the change of matter from one form to another, you may start by asking students to represent that from their own knowledge – what happens to an ice cube left on the side on a hot day?

Students will use previous experience to determine that it will melt; some may understand also that water evaporates – drawing on this schema you as a teacher can prepare them for concepts such as solid – liquid – gas.

As ever, it is about assessing the existing knowledge, checking for the misconceptions and preventing the development of inaccurate connections and links.

Impact of Schema Theory on Education

Schema theory can help us understand the differences between Novices and Experts and therefore also our approach to classroom teaching, curriculum planning and resource design.

In 1979 Chi et al explored this through Physics problems (above) but ultimately they tell us that ‘not only do experts have more knowledge and can work faster than beginners, they also look at or tackle problems differently’.

Essentially, what you already know determines what you see, find or look for, as well as the way you approach the problem itself – the more complex and developed your schema, the more you have at your disposal to deal with it.

To quote from Kirschner and Hendrick (2020):

‘for optimal learning, new knowledge must be related to the knowledge that students have already acquired’.

Piaget referred to the integration of the new knowledge into the existing schema as assimilation (insert new knowledge into existing schema) and accommodation (adapt existing schema to fit the new knowledge).

Ultimately, beginners have incomplete schema, possibly full of misconceptions, which teachers need to be aware of and make allowance for.

Differentiation, therefore, needs to take place at an early stage to help combat any misconceptions before they develop and corrupt the schema.

Novices have no access to schema relevant to the task before them; Experts have the schema and therefore can use it to encode the various elements into single entities, working forwards.

Novices work backwards from a means-end perspective.

Schemata are the mental models we have – they get increasingly more complex, more elaborate, more sophisticated with every piece of knowledge applied, but that knowledge has to be accurate and appropriate to the schema being built.

One dodgy brick and a house can fall down…

This can have significant implications for curriculum planning as perception is so individual but if the focus of the curriculum is explicit and success is clearly defined then this job becomes easier.

The key is to ensure that no student leaves a lesson with an incorrect piece of knowledge or a poorly applied example.

Good curriculum planning involves thinking about the links you want your students to develop. Exposing students to well-selected examples of ideas and concepts that enable, as opposed to overloading them to make links with other related aspects.

Over time the schema develops appropriately and their level of thinking becomes more sophisticated.

The development of schema is also not a job for a single teacher, but more for an integrated and thorough set of educational principles.

The journey starts with the first ideas about anything and then develops with each set of instruction.

It is the duty of every educator to ensure that the information given is presented in the most appropriate way to enable not only understanding but also retention and retrieval.

Knowledge is intellectual Velcro; it sticks to its own

(love the quotation but citation unknown!)

We must, as educators, beware that curse of knowledge, where we have forgotten what it is like to learn something!

Criticisms of Schemas

Ostensibly, schema is a word for a mental representation, a knowledge structure.

Piaget (1952) tells us that a schema is a ‘cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning’.

The problem may arise with pinpointing what a schema actually consists of – can we build a house on poorly defined foundations?

As with many educational theories, the awareness of schema can form a starting point for the development of other ideas – a springboard as opposed to a target.

Work by many significant researchers – Ausubel, Sweller among others – have used Schema as a concept on which they expand.

Ultimately we must be aware that there are effective learning strategies and ineffective learning strategies, but these are not always the same for everyone – one size fits very few in education.

To enable and promote learning you must have a knowledge of what your students know and don’t know; you can then ascertain the schema they hold and how to add to it in the most efficient way.

Are they novices with rudimentary schema who need facts, guidance and structure, or are they experts with more sophisticated schema who can tackle problems, work more independently and categorize their approaches without as much need for your explicit instruction?

You know your students; use that knowledge for good.

Schema Theory FAQ

What Is Schema Theory?

Schema theory describes how people group together associated memories. These groups are known as schemata. Linking new information to existing knowledge makes it easier to move it from working memory to long term memory and makes retrieval much more efficient.

Who Developed Schema Theory?

British psychologist, Sir Frederick Bartlett (1886-1969) first proposed the idea of schema theory. He was a pioneer of cognitive psychology which today forms the foundations of all cognitive science.

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