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What Is Schema Theory-Types And Characteristics

It is not humanly possible to remember and process everything we observe. So, it is important to narrow down the information we consume. Hence, schemas are used to organize information. Schema is a mental structure that individuals use to organize their knowledge about the social world around them.

Schema theory states that people store and organize knowledge in the form of units, based on their individual experiences. The theory tries to explain how knowledge is created and used by individuals. Schemas allow individuals to think faster and help them understand the world easily.

History Of Schema Theory

Schema theory was not developed by a single psychologist. It was created, developed, and expanded by various contributors. Bartlett was one of the great psychologists to write about the association between schemas and procedural memory. He stated that previous experiences help us interpret new experiences by giving us certain expectations and assumptions.

Jean Piaget developed a cognitive development theory revolving around schemas. He introduced the term, ‘schema’ and his work popularized the term. His theory stated that new information can be added to new schemas. Cognitive dissonance can occur if the new information cannot be easily combined. This could lead schemas to forcefully accumulate new information. Cognitive development can occur through three factors, biological development, interaction with nature and objects and interaction with others.

Brewer and Terens conducted an experiment to explain schemas. Participants were asked to wait in an office for 30 seconds. Post waiting, they were asked what they saw in the office. A lot of participants reported seeing objects that were not present in the office, such as books. The participants must have assumed the presence of books as their schemas for ‘office’ include books.

Characteristics Of Schema

  • Schemas can change and develop based on new learnt facts and experiences. The plasticity of development is relevant in schemas.
  • Schemas help in comprehending new information and can have a strong influence on our understanding.
  • Schemas have the potential to preserve both declarative and procedural information.
  • Declarative information refers to facts that are consciously stored. For example, learning a historical date and remembering that information is declarative or explicit memory.
  • Procedural information refers to knowing how to do something. The process of learning how to do something cannot be described in words but shown through actions. Examples of procedural information include walking, driving a car, running, etc.
  • Every individual has a specific schema for him or her, based on their individual experiences. For example, an individual who knits sweaters for a living would have a larger schema for knitting than someone who is a beginner.

Assimilation and Accommodation

  • Assimilation is the process of adding new information to previous beliefs. For example, an individual has a schema for colours (red, blue, black, yellow), and a new colour (lilac) has been popularized. He/she learns about this new colour and that information is now added to the schema for colour.
  • Accommodation occurs when a previous schema is changed, or a new schema is developed because of gaining new information or having new experiences. For example, learning a new dance form or changing a previous belief about environment conservation.
  • Equilibration refers to the process of maintaining a psychological balance or equilibrium by including both, assimilation, and accommodation to store and understand information.

Gender Stereotypes, The Role Of Culture And Schemas

Children tend to learn about gender according to the culture they are brought up in. From an early age, children are socialized intentionally or unintentionally by their culture, and they behave according to the taught social and cultural norms of gender.

For example, women can be taught to sit appropriately from an early age, they are also taught to speak softly and play with dolls. On the other hand, men, are taught not to cry and ‘men up’ and are refused dolls if their culture is traditional.

Types Of Schemas

  1. Person Schemas: These schemas focus on particular people. For instance, we might have a schema for our mother. This schema includes information about how she looks, her behaviours, and her choices.
  2. Social Schemas: These schemas focus on how individuals act in social situations. For example, how to behave at a social party, which includes, wearing appropriate attire, greeting people, making conversation, etc.
  3. Self-Schemas: These schemas focus on information and views about the self. This part includes information about the current self and idealized self. Humans continue to develop these schemas throughout their life. These schemas start developing from early childhood through the help of caregivers. They influence how we perceive our self, which leads to the development of schema. As and when we grow up, meet new people, and have new experiences, our schema continues to grow and alter accordingly. For example, Sophia has a schema for smart, she might think of herself as a smart individual.
  4. Event Schemas: These schemas are about how individuals should behave or act in specific contexts or situations. For instance, schemas about how to attend a lecture, how to wait in line for tickets, etc. Event schemas are also known as scripts. Scripts include how to perform or behave during events or situations such as birthdays, or at a cinema hall.
  5. Object Schemas: These schemas focus on material objects and their use. For example, a car is a vehicle that can be used for travelling from one place to another is a schema for a car (an object).


Schemas are helpful to understand the world but can also create hindrances to learning new information. Prejudice and stereotypes are prime examples. When people hold certain beliefs about a particular person or group or race, it can cause problems in looking beyond their existing schemas.

It can make them interpret situations differently. When a situation comes up that does not align with their existing schemas, they can find ways to support their older belief and not agree with the new-found information.

How Can A Teacher Apply Schema Theory To Train Students?

In educational contexts, schema refers to past knowledge or data that students are aware of. For example, students in 7th grade will typically be aware of additions and subtractions. They can now learn more complex mathematics with the help of their previous schemas.

Teachers can encourage or activate previous schemas before teaching a new topic. This can activate connections in the student’s brains, making it easier for them to understand the new material.

Previous schemas can be activated by going through the previous chapter and highlighting the important parts with the students. The teacher can also use warming-up techniques such as asking questions about the topic to activate related schemas.

Research Evidence

Study By: Yanmei Liu

Aim: To study schema theory and its association with reading comprehension.


  • 110 subjects participated in the study. They all were at an intermediate level of proficiency in English. The whole experiment was conducted by their usual English teacher in a classroom environment.
  • There were two groups, an experimental group, and a control group.
  • The control group participants were asked to read and comprehend a passage for 8 minutes. Then they were asked to recall and write that passage in English.
  • The experimental group was given a schema related to the passage and then given the passage to read, and then write it.
  • The participants were also called in post one week, and they had to recall and write the passage again.


  • It was found that the participants provided with a relevant schema before the passage could comprehend the passage better than those without the schema.
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