What Role Do Schemas Play in the Learning Process? (2023)

You may have heard the word schema as it relates to coding, where it refers to how a database is structured. While a schema in psychology still refers to how information is organized, it focuses on how the human mind does it.

What Is a Schema in Psychology?

Aschemais a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. We use schemas because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to focus instead only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established ideas about the world.

What Role Do Schemas Play in the Learning Process? (1)

History of Schemas

The use of schemas as a basic concept was first used by a British psychologist named Frederic Bartlett as part of his learning theory. Bartlett's theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures.

TheoristJean Piagetintroduced the term schema, and its use was popularized through his work. According to his theory of cognitive development, children go through a series of stages of intellectual growth.

InPiaget's theory, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge. He believed that people are constantly adapting to the environment as they take in new information and learn new things.

As experiences happen and new information is presented, new schemas are developed and old schemas are changed or modified.

Schema Examples

For example, a young child may first develop a schema for a horse. She knows that a horse is large, has hair, four legs, and a tail. When the little girl encounters a cow for the first time, she might initially call it a horse.

After all, it fits in with her schema for the characteristics of a horse; it is a large animal that has hair, four legs, and a tail. Once she is told that this is a different animal called a cow, she will modify her existing schema for a horse and create a new schema for a cow.

Now, let's imagine that this girl encounters a miniature horse for the first time and mistakenly identifies it as a dog.

Her parents explain to her that the animal is actually a very small type of horse, so the little girl must at this time modify her existing schema for horses. She now realizes that while some horses are very large animals, others can be very small. Through her new experiences, her existing schemas are modified and new information is learned.

(Video) Schema Learning: The patterns of behaviour in your child's play

Types of Schemas

While Piaget focused on childhood development, schemas are something that all people possess and continue to form and change throughout life. Object schemas are just one type of schema that focuses on what an inanimate object is and how it works.

For example, most people in industrialized nations have a schema for what a car is. Your overall schema for a car might include subcategories for different types of automobiles such as a compact car, sedan, or sports car.

What are the four types of schemas? They include:

  • Person schemas are focused on specific individuals. For example, your schema for your friend might include information about her appearance, her behaviors, her personality, and her preferences.
  • Social schemas include general knowledge about how people behave in certain social situations.
  • Self-schemas are focused on your knowledge about yourself. This can include both what you know about your current self as well as ideas about your idealized or future self.
  • Event schemas are focused on patterns of behavior that should be followed for certain events. This acts much like a script informing you of what you should do, how you should act, and what you should say in a particular situation.

How Schemas Change

The processes through which schemas are adjusted or changed are known as assimilation and accommodation.

  • Inassimilation, new information is incorporated into pre-existing schemas.
  • Inaccommodation, existing schemas might be altered or new schemas might be formed as a person learns new information and has new experiences.

Schemas tend to be easier to change during childhood but can become increasingly rigid and difficult to modify as people grow older. Schemas will often persist even when people are presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

In many cases, people will only begin to slowly change their schemas when inundated with a continual barrage of evidence pointing to the need to modify it.

How Schemas Affect Learning

Schemas also play a role in education and the learning process. For example:

  • Schemas influence what we pay attention to. People are more likely to pay attention to things that fit in with their current schemas.
  • Schemas also impact how quickly people learn. People also learn information more readily when it fits in with the existing schemas.
  • Schemas help simplify the world. Schemas can often make it easier for people to learn about the world around them. New information could be classified and categorized by comparing new experiences to existing schemas.
  • Schemas allow us to think quickly. Even under conditions when things are rapidly changing our new information is coming in quickly, people do not usually have to spend a great deal of time interpreting it. Because of the existing schemas, people are able to assimilate this new information quickly and automatically.
  • Schemas can also change how we interpret incoming information. When learning new information that does not fit with existing schemas, people sometimes distort or alter the new information to make it fit with what they already know.
  • Schemas can also be remarkably difficult to change. People often cling to their existing schemas even in the face of contradictory information.

Challenges of Schemas

While the use of schemas to learn, in most situations, occurs automatically or with little effort, sometimes an existing schema can hinder the learning of new information.

Prejudiceis one example of a schema that prevents people from seeing the world as it is and inhibits them from taking in new information.

By holding certain beliefs about a particular group of people, this existing schema may cause people to interpret situations incorrectly. When an event happens that challenges these existing beliefs, people may come up with alternative explanations that uphold and support their existing schema instead of adapting or changing their beliefs.

Resistance to Change

Consider how this might work for gender expectations and stereotypes. Everyone has a schema for what is considered masculine and feminine in their culture. Such schemas can also lead to stereotypes about how we expect men and women to behave and the roles we expect them to fill.

In one interesting study, researchers showed children images that were either consistent with gender expectations (such as a man working on a car and woman washing dishes) while others saw images that were inconsistent with gender stereotypes (a man washing dishes and a woman fixing a car).

(Video) SCHEMAS in psychology | The Adaption Process and Role of Mental Maps

When later asked to remember what they had seen in the images, children who held very stereotypical views of gender were more likely to change the gender of the people they saw in the gender-inconsistent images. For example, if they saw an image of a man washing dishes, they were more likely to remember it as an image of a woman washing dishes.

Gender Schema Theory and Roles in Culture

A Word From Verywell

Piaget's theory of cognitive development provided an important dimension to our understanding of how children develop and learn. Though the processes of adaptation, accommodation, and equilibration, we build, change, and grow our schemas which provide a framework for our understanding of the world around us.

3 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Baldwin MW. Psychological bulletin. American Psychological Association. 1992. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.112.3.461

  2. Padesky CA. Schema change processes in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 1994;1:267–278. doi:10.1002/cpp.5640010502

    (Video) What is Schema Theory in Psychology?

  3. Aosved AC, Long PJ, Voller EK. Measuring sexism, racism, sexual prejudice, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance: The Intolerant Schema Measure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 2009;39(10):2321-2354. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00528.x

Additional Reading

  • Levine, LE & Munsch, J. Child Development. Los Angeles: Sage; 2014.
  • Lindon, J & Brodie, K. Understanding Child Development 0-8 Years, 4th Edition: Linking Theory and Practice. London: Hodder Education; 2016.

What Role Do Schemas Play in the Learning Process? (2)

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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FAQs

What impact do schemas have on learning? ›

Schemas allow learners to reason about unfamiliar learning situations and interpret these situations in terms of their generalized knowledge. In cognitive and educational psychology, schema-based learning is grounded in capturing and using expert-generated schemas as frameworks for teaching and learning.

What role do schemas play in cognitive development? ›

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. We use schemas because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

What is schema and what role does it play in memory? ›

Schemas are semantic memory structures that help people organize new information they encounter. In addition they may help a person reconstruct bits and pieces of memories that have been forgotten.

Why are schemas so important? ›

It has been found in research that 'Schemas link to the development and strengthening of cognitive structures (the basic mental processes people use to make sense of information) in the brain. Children are able to act out experiences and take risks, testing out and talking about what they already know and can do.

What is the role of schemas in child development and learning? ›

Schemas are useful in observation and assessment because they demonstrate the journey children make from sensory learning and physical movement to understanding and becoming skilled in symbolic and cause and effect learning, which enables executive functioning.

How do schemas help children learn? ›

Schemas are described as patterns of repeated behaviour which allow children to explore and express developing ideas and thoughts through their play and exploration. The repetitive actions of schematic play allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing.

What are the effects of schemas? ›

Schemas can have a negative impact on memory performance. According to the false memory literature, activation of a schema can often lead to false memory for non-presented information that is consistent with the activated schema.

What are schemas used for? ›

schema, in social science, mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world.

How do schemas affect behavior? ›

Schemas can influence what you pay attention to, how you interpret situations, or how you make sense of ambiguous situations. Once you have a schema, you unconsciously pay attention to information that confirms it and ignore or minimize information that contradicts it.

What does schema mean in teaching? ›

So, what is a schema? Put simply, it describes the vital interconnected networks of background knowledge that prove so crucial for our pupils' learning.

Why is Schema theory important in education? ›

The concept of schema helps us understand how learners can link new pieces of information to the already existing knowledge in their minds. The notion of 'Constructivist Approach' has been extracted from the field of educational psychology for triangulation.

What is a real life example of schema? ›

For example, a child may see a cow and say “Look! A Horse!” Here, the child's schema of 'horse' is likely based on the fact it's a rather large animal with four legs that hangs out in a paddock.

What is schemas in child development? ›

Schematic play happens when babies, toddlers and young children are involved in repeated actions or certain behaviours as they explore the world around them and try to find out how things work. We call these specific actions or behaviours 'Schemas'.

What is schema theory in learning? ›

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.

What is an example of a schema in child development? ›

Have you seen a toddler repeat an activity over and over again – tipping over the Lego box and emptying its contents on the floor, swishing the paint around in a circle, rolling their toy car over the uneven tiles and refusing to stop? It's actually all part of their essential brain development and is called a schema.

What is the main benefit of schemas quizlet? ›

Schemas can be beneficial because they help to quickly organize a complex world, reduce ambiguity in our environment, and can help us make quick decisions in a dangerous situation.

How do you use schema in education? ›

A schema is a general idea about something. Its plural form is schemata. Schemata can help students learn. In order to use schemata in education, teachers should activate prior knowledge, link new information to old information and link different schemata to each other.

What is an example of schema and what good is it? ›

Schemas (or schemata) are units of understanding that can be hierarchically categorized as well as webbed into complex relationships with one another. For example, think of a house. You probably get an immediate mental image of something out of a kid's storybook: four windows, front door, suburban setting, chimney.

How do schemas improve memory? ›

Schemas support memory and perception by providing an organizational framework within which we can encode and store relevant information, and efficiently incorporate new information.

Why are schemas important Piaget? ›

Piaget suggested that we understand the world around us by using schemas. A schema is a pattern of learning, linking perceptions, ideas and actions to make sense of the world. Piaget described it simply as the “way we see the world”.

Why do teachers consider the students schema in their lesson? ›

One particular aspect of learning that instructors should consider is how students use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text. Schema Theory emphasizes the mental connections learners make between pieces of information and can be a very powerful component of the learning process.

What is Schema theory how it is important to the reading process? ›

It is a process of using reader's existing knowledge (schemata) to interpret texts in order to construct meaning. Many reading experts agree that the schema theory is one of the reasonable theories of human information processing. Schemata, the plural of schema, are believed to be the building blocks of cognition.

How do you explain schema to students? ›

Schema is your background knowledge; it's what you already know before you even pick up the book. Its major “ingredients” are your memories, the books you've read, the places you've been, the movies you've watched, the vocabulary you know, etc. Your schema, or background knowledge, is highly fueled by your interests.

What are schemas and how do they develop? ›

Schemas are higher-level cognitive units that are acquired through slow learning. However, some primitive schemata are assumed to be innate. The gradual and lasting development of schemas is associated with processes of abstraction and generalization .

What can schemas impact? ›

Schemas can have a negative impact on memory performance. According to the false memory literature, activation of a schema can often lead to false memory for non-presented information that is consistent with the activated schema.

What do schemas affect? ›

Schemas can influence what you pay attention to, how you interpret situations, or how you make sense of ambiguous situations. Once you have a schema, you unconsciously pay attention to information that confirms it and ignore or minimize information that contradicts it.

How do schemas impact our ability to learn quizlet? ›

Schemas help us understand how something works, or what something is. Schema's can also help us remember things! all knowledge is organized and stored in units. When new information is taken in, it is compared to schemas found in memory.

How does the schema theory influence teaching and learning in the classroom? ›

One particular aspect of learning that instructors should consider is how students use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text. Schema Theory emphasizes the mental connections learners make between pieces of information and can be a very powerful component of the learning process.

How do schemas influence behavior? ›

Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information.

What is the main idea of schema? ›

The Schema theory thinks that comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader' s background knowledge and the text. Comprehension of the text requires the ability to relate the textual material to one' s own knowledge.

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