Schema Theory Research Paper Starter

Schema Theory

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of schema theory, a learning theory that explains how prior knowledge is organized into long-term memory. This theory asserts that learners comprehend new texts or new situations when they bring to mind a schema that illustrates the ideas in the message. Knowledge is stored into "slots," with each slot containing related information. As knowledge is stored into these slots, these structures set up expectations for the learner when new knowledge is encountered for interpretations. Typical ways to activate knowledge within schemata include determining the background or prior knowledge that learners already possess. By making these links, learners' schemata changes and learning takes place.

Keywords Comprehension; Conceptual Schema; Intertextual Schema; Linguistic Schema; Prior Knowledge; Purpose-Sensitive Schema; Story Grammar; Textual Schema


Schema theory explains how learning occurs when learners integrate new knowledge with prior knowledge stored in long-term memory. Tompkins and McGee (1993) define schema as "a mental bundle of knowledge that holds everything we know about a topic" (p.143). When learning occurs, schema is modified as new knowledge is stored in the brain. In other words, learning occurs when schemata grow and change. Schema (plural schemata) is an abstract framework that organizes knowledge into long-term memory by putting information into what might be considered slots, with each slot containing related information. As knowledge is stored into these slots, these structures set up expectations for the learner when new knowledge is encountered for interpretations. Within this framework are clusters of related knowledge, experiences, feelings, and ideas that guide learners' interpretations, inferences, expectations, and attention as ideas are comprehended (Roe, Stoodt-Hill, & Burns, 2007). This theory asserts that learners comprehend a text or new situation when they bring to mind a schema that illustrates the ideas in the message. Schema is internalized in the brain and that guides and controls a learner's use of subsequent information and response to experiences. Without schemata to guide comprehension, learners could make little sense out of texts or new information. Schemata aid learners in making connections to their prior knowledge. Learners comprehend a message when they are able to bring to mind a schema that gives a good account of the objects and events described in the message. Comprehension is a matter of activating this schema and then constructing a new schema that provides a coherent explanation of these new ideas (Anderson, 1994).

The original concept of schema was introduced in 1932 by British psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett. His seminal work in reconstructive memory demonstrated that long-term memories are neither fixed nor immutable but are constantly being adjusted as schemata evolves through experience. The theory was further developed through Brewer and Treyens (1981), building on Bartlett's ideas. They state that new information that falls within a learner's schema can be easily remembered and incorporated into his or her worldview. In other cases, when new information is perceived that does not fit into schema, then learners either ignore or forget it. When this information can't be ignored, existing schemata must be changed and a new schema is formed.

Originally, cognitive theoreticians saw the child as a "tabula-rasa," a blank slate not yet affected by knowledge or impressions gained by experience. In the 1970's, a new focus on schema theory evolved as a result of work by computer scientist Marvin Minsky (1975). Through his work with computers and their corresponding human-like abilities, such as perceiving and understanding the world, Minsky concluded that humans were using their stored knowledge about the world to carry out many of the processes that he was trying to emulate in his computers. Through transition of thought processes, cognitive psychologists now see that young minds are a set of empty shelves or slots that are filled, modified or expanded by learning. These slots constitute the schemata by which the child organizes information.

Minsky's work impacted the field of cognitive psychology, through cognitive psychologist David Rumelhart's (1980) work on mental representation of complex knowledge. In the 1990's, Richard Anderson's work on schemata theory in education provided an account for how prior knowledge might influence the acquisition of new knowledge. The term schema originated with Piaget in 1926 and was expanded by Anderson's work. Anderson (1994) states that what teachers need to do to activate and enhance schema is: to teach general knowledge and generic concepts, to strengthen connections between schemata and new ideas, through discussion, songs, role play, illustration aids and explanations about how a piece of knowledge applies; and to help learners build prior knowledge. In 1988, schema theory shifted to incorporate what is called "purpose-sensitive schema." The idea that knowledge is stored in slots has evolved to include the storage of chunks of information, as chunks of information are more complex in nature than singular points. These chunks, when paired with new knowledge, form more complex schemata. Purpose-sensitive schema accounts for more effective problem-solving and construction of meaning and for the assembling of new knowledge that goes far beyond the original and more simplistic hierarchical model presented by Rumelhart (Ruddell & Unran, 1994).

According to Ruddell and Unran (1994), schema appears to function by way of the following properties:

• Presenting procedural information allows schema to become activated

• Schema can acquire knowledge from higher-level schema

• Schema inferences can be triggered by text

• Schema is stored hierarchically

This schema-theoretic perspective of comprehension works on the premise that what learners know about a topic - their prior knowledge - affect the ease or difficulty in understanding new knowledge. Pearson and Johnson (1978) state that the process of activating and building schemata into long-term memory builds bridges between new and prior knowledge. Underdeveloped schemata - a lack of prior knowledge - result in learners' inability to understand. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1982) assert that by the time learners reach school age, they have learned the schemata common to conversations; they have less schemata concerning written composition.

There are several schemata types: content or conceptual schema, textual, intertextual, and linguistic content or conceptual schemata are based on world knowledge. When learners have prior knowledge of a subject, they bring schemata of that given topic to new information. Learners' schema, or their organized knowledge of the world, provides much of the basis for comprehending, learning and remembering the ideas in stories and texts (Anderson, 1994). This schemata represents a wide range of experiences and understandings that have been acquired both in and out of school. Content schema also includes systems of factual knowledge, values and cultural conventions. Life experiences can also impact interpretation. As Ruddell and Unran (1994) point out, "Meaning that is understood from text is not in the text itself, but in the learner, in his or her…schematic knowledge" (p. 1056).

In textual schemata (the rhetorical structure of different modes of text), learners have prior knowledge of the structural characteristics of written language. This schemata of prior knowledge of the structural characteristics of text helps students to anticipate, follow and organize information and enables learners to find important information in a new text. For example, once learners activate schemata, they can anticipate ideas and information and make inferences about content. Learners can understand a text, based on past schematic understandings of that type of text. Once learners have experience with poetry, they have developed a mental schemata of poetry and can apply this understanding when experiencing new poetry (Roe, Stoodt-Hill, and Burns, 2007). Narrative text structure is called story grammar, and relates to setting, characters, plot structure, climax and resolution.

Intertextual schemata occur when there appears to be links between ideas discovered in one text that can be applied to another. Comprehension occurs when knowledge of ideas in one text aid in students' understanding of ideas in another. Linguistic schemata are schemata by which we produce and comprehend language rules. Innate language capacity must be stimulated and supported by new knowledge about language that learners acquire over time. These linguistic schemata include sentence structure, grammatical...

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