Schema Theory Joan B

Description of Learning Theory

Schema theory is an information processing theory that explains how information is interpreted, stored and retrieved for processing.

A Schema (plural: schemata) is an internal knowledge structure and is:

  • Knowledge, activity or attitude based
  • Multilayered
  • Used to interpret and predict situations
  • Actively built, changed and adapted

When faced with new information, Schema theory suggests that one of three things occurs:

  • Accretion: added to an existing schema
  • Tuning: an existing schema is adjusted
  • Restructuring: a new schema must be formed

Why Use this Theory?

In practical situations, Schema theory can be challenging to apply because it is difficult to precisely define what a schema is and it can, in fact, be defined in almost any way. Additionally, learners can use their existing schema simply for ease of assimilation and may, as such, lead to adding inaccurate information to an existing schema simply for ease.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, Schema theory does provide a useful metaphor for how information is stored, processed and accessed. It is especially useful to consider during the learner analysis and instructional strategy development stages of the Dick and Carey model of the instructional design process.

Learner Analysis

Analyze goal related schemata in all 4 of Gagne’s Domains of Learning:

  • Verbal Schema
  • Intellectual Schema
  • Psychomotor Schema
  • Attitude Schema

Instructional Strategy Development

Consider level of schema development in areas:

  • Directly related to instructional goal
  • Related to familiar types of learning
  • Related to familiar learning settings

Example Application

Instructional Goal: Teach young students how to write the letters of the alphabet

Learner Analysis:
To identify level of development of learner's directly related schemata:
Verbal: Ask learners to name the letters of the alphabet
Intellectual: Ask learners what the letters are used for
Psychomotor: Ask learners to write any letters they might know
Attitude: Ask learners if they want to learn to write the letters of the alphabet

This simple analysis would help to identify the level of development of learner's schemata in all four of Gagne's Domains of Learning and provide useful information for selecting the level and type of instructional strategies to consider.

Instructional Strategy Development
In addition to considering the learner's directly related schemata, also consider learner's related schemata:

Related learning:
If the learner knows how to scribble with a crayon, relate that to learning to write with a pencil.
If the learner knows how to write numbers, relate that to learning to write letters.

Related types of learning:
Relate the learner's experience with learning by imitating others to how they can also use that approach to learn to write letters of the alphabet.


Dick, W., L. Carey & J.O. Carey (2009).The Systematic Design of Instruction (7th ed.) New Jersey: Pearson.

McVee, M.B., K. Dunsmore & R. Gavelek (2005) Schema Theory Revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4)

Smith, P., and T.J. Ragan. (2005) Instructional Design (3rd ed) New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. p. 154

Created by:
Joan Brandwein
June 21, 2010