Schema Theory

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Schema Theory (learning theory, psychology, cognitive science)

According to schema theory, people make sense of new experiences and the world by activating the mental representations or schemata stored in their memory. New experiences and information are interpreted according to how it fits into their schemata. Information that does not fit may be misunderstood or miscomprehended.

Key Concepts


A schema (plural: schemata) is an abstract structure of knowledge, a mental representation stored in memory upon which all information processing depends. It may represent knowledge at different levels, e.g. cultural truths, linguistic knowledge or ideologies. They are mental templates that represent a person’s knowledge about people, situations or objects, and which originate from prior knowledge or experiences.

How is schema activated?

A schema may be perceived as a structure consisting of a series of spaces, some of which are filled and others empty. When faced with a situation or trying to comprehend something new, the appropriate schema is activated and used to infer, produce or accommodate new information for the empty slots. If the input is assimilated into existing schema without making any changes, it is called “accretation”; “tuning” on the other hand takes place when the existing schema is inadequate and needs to be modified; while “restructuring” is the process of creating new schema.

A person's possible schema of an egg

Egg schema.jpg


Activation of schema can take place from the whole to the part, that is ‘’top-down’’ or it may be ‘’conceptually driven’’ from the parts to the whole, that is "bottom-up" and also known as "data driven". For example, if on seeing the word "car", one thinks of the parts, e.g. bumper, dashboard, boot etc., that is "top-down" or "conceptually driven”.

Types of schema

Social schema

Social schema is generated by an event (going to a restaurant), that consists of a script and scenes (booking a table, arriving at the restaurant ordering food etc.); props (menu); enabling conditions (money); roles (waiter, client); and outcomes (not feeling hungry). Social cognition researchers are particularly interested in studying what happens when the schema activated conflicts with existing norms.

Ideological schema

Ideological schema is generated by attitudes or opinions on relevant social or political issues, for example abortion and ecology.

Formal schema

Formal schema is related to the rhetorical structure of a written text, such as differences in genre or between narrative styles and their corresponding structures.

Linguistic schema

Linguistic schema includes the decoding features a person needs in order to understand how words are organized and fit together in a sentence (be it spoken or written discourse).

Content schema

Content schema refers to knowledge about the subject matter or content of a text.


Early influence

Kant could be considered a precursor of schema theory in that he maintained that new information and ideas could only have meaning when related to something already known. Later developments of the idea in psychology emerged with the Gestalt psychologists and Piaget, but the first person to propose schema theory as such was the Gestalt psychologist, Bartlett in 1932. He carried out studies on reconstructive memory and found participants existing schemata influenced how they perceived and recalled information.

Schema Theory and artificial intelligence

Minsky 2008

The American cognivist scientist in artificial intelligence, Marvin Minskyis credited for having re-introduced the schema construct into psychology in the 1970s when he came across Bartlett’s work while trying to simulate human abilities, such as perceiving and understanding the world, with machines. He developed the frame construct as a way of representing knowledge in machines and conceived it as interacting with incoming knowledge from the world. According to him, each frame consists of a series of slots that accept a certain range of values; if none exist,these are filled with default values.

Modern Schema Theory

The greater understanding on thought processing and memory that evolved with the appearance of computer programming and simulation of human cognition, led to the resurgence of the concept of schema. It was later further developed in the 1980s into an explicit psychological theory of the mental representation of complex knowledge by the cognitive psychologist David Rumelhart . The educational researcher Kenneth Goodman (1967:127)also made important contributions with his findings which led him to conclude that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game” that involves interaction between thought and language.

Schema Theory and Education

The educational psychologist Richard Anderson is accredited with having introduced schema theory into the educational community in 1977. Research carried out by him found that comprehension and in turn memory and learning depend on the student recurring to or bringing to bear the appropriate schemata. Following Piaget’s ideas, he argues schema can be thought of as assimilation, and schema change as accommodation of knowledge. However, without some schema into which the knowledge can be accommodated, the situation or experience is incomprehensible and of little pedagogical use. These ideas were considered revolutionary because reading ceased to be considered a matter of simple word recognition; instead, attention was placed on the reader's role in the process of comprehension. In current schema theory reading is considered an interactive process between the reader's background knowledge and the text. Since these early days, schema theory has proven useful in many other disciplines and has been used for discourse analysis, marketing, music and more.


  • Anderson, R.C. (1977) "The Notion of Schemata and the Educational Enterprise: General Discussion of the Conference". In R.C. Anderson, R.J. Spiro and W.E. Montague (Eds.), 1977:415-431
  • Anderson, R.C. and J. Spiro (Eds.). (1977) Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge. USA: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Anderson, R.C. and Z. Shifrin (1980) "The Meaning of Words in Context". In R.J. Spiro, B.C. Bruce and W.F. Brewer (Eds.),1980: 331-348.
  • Anderson, R.C. and P.D. Pearson (1984) "A Schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension". In P.Carrell, J.Devine and D.E. Eskey (Eds.),1998: 37-55
  • Carrell, P.L. and J.C. Eisterhold (1983) "Schema Theory and ESL Reading Pedagogy".TESOL, Quarterly 17( 4): 553-573.
  • Carrell, PL (1987) "Content and Formal Schemata in ESL Reading".TESOL Quarterly 21(3):461-481
  • Carrell, P., J.Devine and D.E. Eskey (Eds.), (1998) Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge, CUP.
  • Goodman, K. (1967) "Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game". Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6(1):126-135
  • Goodman, K.(1975) "The Reading Process".In P.Carrell, J.Devine and D.E. Eskey (Eds.),1998:11-21
  • Goodman, K. (1996) On Reading. Canada, Scholastics Canada Ltd.
  • Rumelhart, D.E. (1980) "The Building Blocks of Cognition". In R.J.Spiro,B.C. Bruce and W.F. Brewer (Eds.),1980:33-58
  • Spiro, R.J., B.C. Bruce and W.F. Brewer (Eds.).(1980)Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension. USA: Lawrence Erlbaum

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