Schema Theory: A Summary

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Studies and Theories

Schema theory's primary claim is that our mind has mental frameworks that help organize information - these are schemas. These schemas help us to save our cognitive energy when processing the millions of pieces of information we encounter every day.

Updated, July 2020

Schema theory is perhaps the most difficult theory in psychology to comprehend. But once you understand it, you’ll see the effects of schema everywhere. In this post, we’ll break down the theory step-by-step. 

What is schema theory?

Schema theory’s central claim is that our knowledge of the world is organized and categorized, which can influence our cognition and behaviour. Unlike other theories in psychology, schema theory isn’t attributable to a single psychologist but has had many contributions from various psychologists over almost 100 years of research. Some of the most notable contributors include Bartlett, Piaget and Vygotsky.

Like a filing cabinet keeps information categorized, schema theory claims that our mind organizes our knowledge and memories to make them easily accessible.

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What is a schema?

A schema is a cluster of knowledge or memory that is stored in the mind. They’re also called “cognitive frameworks” as they are a system for categorizing and organizing information and memory.

The metaphor I use to explain a “schema” is to imagine your mind is a filing cabinet, or your computer’s hard-drive. Schemas are like the individual files. 

If you think of your mind like a computer, a schema is a folder and individual bits of knowledge and memories are the files.

What are the characteristics and functions of schema? (These are the key claims of schema theory).

Along with the existence of schema, another central claim of schema theory is that their function is to help us make sense of the complex world of information that we live in. They also enable us to make generalizations about situations, people and places. Stereotypes are an example of a social schema and how we can generalize about groups of people to save our cognitive energy.

This video of mine on our ThemEd youtube channel gives a detailed summary of all the points in this post.

How can schema influence our thinking and/or our behaviour? 

Our Revision Guide has a full summary of schema theory and related studies for IB Psych students and teachers.

One way schemas can influence cognition is that they can affect our ability to comprehend new information. When we’re exposed to new information we relate it to our existing knowledge (our schemas) and this can improve our comprehension of that information (as seen in Bransford and Johnson’s study).

This process of relating new information to existing schema can also influence our processing of new information and can lead to confirmation bias. If we have an existing stereotype (social schema) about a group of people, we use this schema when we’re processing new information and we might tend to focus only on details that are consistent with our schema, since this is cognitively easier. This means that we might focus on and remember details of someone that are consistent with our existing stereotype, which is how stereotypes might be reinforced. This is seen in Cohen’s study using the waitress/librarian paradigm.

This Crash Course video called “The Growth of Knowledge” has some more explanations about schemas. (Link)

What are the applications of schema theory?

From the above examples we can see that ideas related to schema theory have multiple applications. Education and especially literacy (reading and writing skills) researchers use many elements of schema theory in their research. By understanding how existing knowledge can influence comprehension of new information could help design better reading programmes and help kids develop better reading comprehension skills.

We can also use schema theory to explain how stereotypes might affect our behaviour. While the examples above may not provide a great explanation for the origin of stereotypes, they do show how they could lead to confirmation bias, which might serve to strengthen and reinforce existing stereotypes.

What are the limitations of schema theory?

  • A good theory should be testable. What factors may influence how easy it is to test claims of schema theory?

Exam Tip: When asked to describe schema theory students often make the mistake of skimming over the theory and focusing on the studies – make sure you can fully describe the theory as well as be able to explain how it can be supported by studies.

Three Levels of Thinking about Schema Theory

In order to describe schema theory accurately, you need to know:

  • What is schema theory? What is a schema?
  • What are the characteristics and functions of schema? (These are the key claims of schema theory).
  • How can schema influence our thinking and/or our behaviour?

In order to explain schema theory, you need to understand:

  • How can claims of schema theory be demonstrated in studies?

In order to evaluate schema theory, you need to be able to explain:

  • What are the applications of schema theory?
  • What are the limitations of schema theory?