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The Role of a Schema in Psychology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Dec 06, 2021


  • A schema is a knowledge structure that allows organisms to interpret and understand the world around them. Schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently.
  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development put the concept at the forefront in cognitive science. Contemporary conceptions of schema evolved in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The widespread use of computers in the last decades of the 20th century also affected theories of how people store and use information in the brain.
  • There are four main types of schemas. These are centered around objects, the self, roles, and events.
  • Schemas can be changed and reconstructed throughout a person’s life. The two processes for doing so are assimilation and accommodation.
  • Schemas have been pivotal in influencing theories of learning as well as in teacher instruction methods.

Historical Background

Schema theory is a branch of cognitive science concerned with how the brain structures knowledge. Schema (plural: schemas or schemata) is an organized unit of knowledge for a subject or event based on past experience.

Individuals access schema to guide current understanding and action (Pankin, 2013). For example, a student’s self-schema of being intelligent may have formed due to past experiences of teachers praising the student’s work and influencing the student to have studious habits.

Information that does not fit into schema may be comprehended incorrectly or even not at all. For example, if a waiter at a restaurant asked a customer if he would like to hum with his omelete, the patron may have a difficult time interpreting what he was asking and why, as humming is not typically something that patrons in restaurants do with omeletes (Widmayer, 2001).

The concept of a schema can be traced to Plato and Aristotle (Marshall, 1995); nonetheless, scholars consider Kant (1929) to be the first to talk about schemas as organizing structures that people use to mediate how they see and interpret the world (Johnson, 1987).

F.C. Bartlett, in his book, Remembering (1932), was the first to write extensively about schemas in the context of procedural memory. Procedural memory is a part of long-term memory responsible for organisms knowing how to control their bodies in certain ways in order to accomplish certain tasks, also known as motor skills.

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, best known for his work on child development, was the first to create a cognitive development theory which included schemas.

Piaget (1976) saw schemas as mental structures alterable by new information. In Piaget’s theory, new information can be added or assimilated into current schemas — ideas that people have about how the world functions.

However, new information that cannot be integrated into an organism’s current schemas can create cognitive dissonance. When this happens, the schemas must change to accommodate new information.

Characteristics of Schemas

The theorists of the 1970s and 1980s conceptualized schemas as structures for representing broad concepts in memory (Ortony, 1977; McVee, Dunsmore, and Gavelek, 2005).

This definition highlights several important features of schemas as noted by Rumelhart (1984):

  • Schemas have variables,
  • Schemas can be embedded, one within another,
  • Schemas represent knowledge at all levels of abstraction,
  • Schemas represent knowledge rather than definitions,
  • Schemas are active processes,
  • Schemas are recognition devices whose processing is aimed at evaluating how well new information fits into itself.


Piaget developed the notion of schemata; mental “structures” which act as frameworks through which the individual classifies and interprets the world. It is these schema which allow us, for instance, to distinguish between horses and cows by looking for key characteristics.

A schema can be discrete and specific, or sequential and elaborate. For example, a schema may be as specific as recognizing a dog, or as elaborate as categorizing different types of dogs.

For example, when a parent reads to a child about dogs, the child constructs a schema about dogs.

Example of Accommodation in Psychology

Example of Accommodation in Psychology

On a more sophisticated level, schema allow us to interpret geographical features, understand complex mathematical formulae and understand acceptable behavior associated with particular roles and contexts.

Piaget argues that, as we grow and mature, our schemata become increasingly more complex and intricate; allowing us access to more sophisticated understandings and interpretations of the world.

A baby, for instance has only its innate schema through which to interpret and interact with it’s environment, such as grasping and sucking. As that baby grows, however, new schema develop and become more complex.

For instance, it will learn to distinguish objects and people, and manipulate its surroundings.

As it develops further, the child will develop the schemata necessary to deal with more abstract and symbolic concepts such as spoken (and later, written) language, together with mathematical and logical reasoning.

Schema and Culture

People develop schemas for their own and other cultures. They may also develop schemas for cultural understanding. Cultural information and experiences are stored and schemas and support cultural identity.

Once a schema is formed, it focuses peoples’ attention on the aspects of the culture they are experiencing and by assimilating, accommodating, or rejecting aspects which don’t conform.

For example, someone growing up in England may develop a schema around Christmas involving crackers, caroling, turkey, mince pies, and Saint Nicholas.

This schema may affirm their cultural identity if they, say, spend Christmas in Sicily where a native schema of Christmas would likely involve eating several types of fish.

A schema used for cultural understanding is more than a stereotype about the members of a culture.

While stereotypes tend to be rigid, schemas are dynamic and subject to revision; and while stereotypes tend to simplify and ignore group differences, a schema can be complex (Renstch, Mot, and Abbe, 2009).


There are several types of schemata.

Event schema

Event schemas, often referred to as cognitive scripts, describe behavioral and event sequences and daily activities. These provide a basis for anticipating the future, setting objectives, and making plans.

For example, the behavior sequence where people are supposed to become hungry in the evening may lead someone to make evening reservations at a restaurant.

Event schemata are automatic and can be difficult to change, such as texting while driving.

Event schemata can vary widely among different cultures and countries. For example, while it is quite common for people to greet one another with a handshake in the United States, in Tibet, you greet someone by sticking your tongue out at them, and in Belize, you bump fists.


Self-schema is a term used to describe the knowledge that people accumulate about themselves by interacting with the natural world and with other human beings.

In turn, this influences peoples' behavior towards others and their motivations.

Because information about the self continually comes into a person’s mind as a result of experience and social interaction, the self-schema constantly evolves over the lifespan (Lemme, 2006).

Object schema

Object schema helps to interpret inanimate objects. They inform people’s understanding of what objects are, how they should function, and what someone can expect from them.

For example, someone may have an object schema around how to use a pen.

Role schema

Role schemas invoke knowledge about how people are supposed to behave, based on their roles, in particular social situations (Callero, 1994).

For example, at a polite dinner party, someone with the role of guest may be expected not to put their elbows on the table and to not talk over others.

How Schemas Change

Piaget argued that people experience a biological urge to maintain equilbrium; a state of balance between internal schema and the external environment - in other words, the ability to fully understand what’s going on around us using our existing cognitive models.

Through the processes of accommodation and assimilation schemas evolve and become more sophisticated.

  • In assimilation, new information becomes incorporated into pre-existing schemas. The information itself does not change the schema, as the schema already accounts for the new information. Assimilation promotes the “status quo” of cognitive structures (Piaget, 1976).

In order for organisms to learn and develop, they must be able to adapt their schemas to new information, and construct new schemas for unfamiliar concepts. Piaget argues that, on occasions, new environmental information is encountered which doesn’t match neatly with existing schemata; and we must consequently adjust and refine these schema using accodomation.

  • In accommodation, existing schemas may be altered or new ones formed as a person learns new information or has new experiences. This disrupts the structure of pre-existing schemas and may lead to the creation of a new schema altogether.

Generally, psychologists believe that schemas are easier to change during childhood than later in life. They may also persist despite encounters with evidence that contradicts an individual’s beliefs.

Consequently, as a person grows and learns more about their world, their schemata become more specialized and refined until they are able to perform complex abstract cognitions.

It is important to note, however, that - according to Piaget - the refinement of schemata does not occur without restrictions; at different ages, we are capable of different cognitive processes - and the extent of our schemata is consequently limited by biological boundaries.

Consequently, the reason that 6-year-old rocket scientists are thin on the ground is because the difference between the mental abilities of children and adults are qualitative as well as quantitative.

In other words, development is not just governed by the amount of information absorbed by the individual, but also by the types of cognitive operation that can be performed on that information.

These operations are, in turn, determined by the age of the child and their resultant physiological development. Piaget consequently argues that, as children age, they move through a series of stages; each of which brings with it the ability to perform increasingly more sophisticated cognitive operations.

How Schemas Affect Learning

Learners under schema theory acquire knowledge in a similar way to Piaget’s model of cognitive developments. There are three main reactions that a learner can have to new information (Widmayer, 2001):

  1. Accreditation: In accreditation, learners take a new input and assimilate it into their existing schema without making any changes to the overall schema.

    For example, a learner learning that grass blades as well as tree leaves undergo photosynthesis may not need to change their schema to process this information if their photosynthesis schema is that, “all plants undergo photosynthesis.”

  2. Tuning: Tuning is when learners realize that their existing schema is inadequate for the new knowledge and thus modify their existing schema accordingly.

    For example, someone may learn that a particular proposition is nonsensical in a particular sentence structure and thus need to modify their schema around when is and is not appropriate to use that proposition.

  3. Restructuring: Finally, restructuring is the process of creating a new schema that addresses the inconsistencies between the old schema and the newly acquired information.

    For example, a learner who learns that corn is technically a fruit may need to overhaul their entire schema of fruit to address the inconsistencies between how they had previously defined fruit and this new information.

Unlike Piaget, schema theorists do not see each schema as representative of discrete stages of development, and the processes of accreditation, tuning, and restructuring happen over multiple domains in a continuous time frame (Widmayer, 2001).

According to schema theory, Knowledge is not necessarily stored hierarchically. Rather, knowledge is driven by the meanings attached to that knowledge by the learner and represented propositionally and in a way that is actively constructed by the learner.

In addition to schema, psychologists believe that learners also have mental models — dynamic models for problem solving based on a learner’s existing schema and perceptions of task demand and task performance. Rather than starting from nothing, people have imprecise, partial, and idiosyncratic understandings to tasks that evolve with experience (Driscoll, 1994).

Critical Evaluation

While schema theory gives psychologists a framework for understanding how humans process knowledge, some scholars have argued that it is ill-constrained and provides few assumptions about how this processing actually works. T

his lack of constraint, it has been argued, allows the theory enough flexibility for people to explain virtually any set of empirical data using the theory.

The flexibility of schema theory also gives it limited predictive value, and thus a limited ability to be tested as a scientific theory (Thorndyke and Yekovich, 1979).

Thorndyke and Yekovich (1979) elaborate on the shortcomings of schema as a predictive theory. In the same vein as the criticism about the over flexibility of schema theory, Thorndyke and Yekovich note that it is difficult to find data inconsistent with schema theory and that it has largely been used for descriptive purposes to account for existing data.

Lastly, Thorndyke and Yekovich (1979) argue that the second area of theoretical weakness in Schema theories lies in its specification of detailed processes for manipulating and creating schemas.

One competing theory to the schema theory of learning is Ausubel’s Meaningful Receptive Learning Theory (1966). In short, Ausubel’s Meaningful Reception Learning Theory states that learners can learn best when the new material being taught can be anchored into existing cognitive information in the learners.

In contrast to Ausbel’s theory, the learner in schema theory actively builds schemas and revises them in light of new information. As a result, each individual’s schema is unique and dependent on that individual’s experiences and cognitive processes.

Ausubel proposed a hierarchical organization of knowledge where the learner more or less attaches new knowledge to an existing hierarchy. In this representation, structure as well as meaning drives memory.


Schemas are a major determinant of how people think, feel, behave, and interact socially. People generally accept their schemas as truths about the world, outside of awareness, despite how they influence the processing of experiences.

Schema therapy, developed by Jeffrey E. Young (1990), is an integrative therapy approach and theoretical framework used to treat patients most often with personality disorders. Schema therapy evolved from cognitive behavioral therapy.

Those with personality disorders often fail to respond to traditional cognitive behavioral theory (Beck et al., 1990). Rather than targeting acute psychiatric symptoms, schema therapy targets the underlying characteristics of personality disorders.

The schema therapy model has three main constructs: “schemas,” or core psychological themes; “coping styles,” or characteristic behavioral responses to schemas; and “modes,” which are the schemas and coping styles operating at a given moment (Martin and Young, 2009).

According to the schema therapy framework, the earliest and most central schemas tend to originate in one’s childhood. These schemas begin as representations of the child’s environment based in reality and develop from the interactions between a child’s innate temperament and specific unmet, core childhood needs (Martin and Young, 2009).

Schema therapy seeks to alter these long-standing schemas through helping people to identify and heal their own schemas, identify and address coping styles that get in the way of emotional needs, change patterns of feeling and behaviors that result from schemas, learn how to get core emotional needs met in a healthy and adaptive way, and learn how to cope healthily with frustration and distress when certain needs cannot be met.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Dec 06). The Role of a Schema in Psychology. Simply Psychology.


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