A schema is the word psychologists use to describe a mental framework in which you would file all your knowledge about certain objects, situations, groups of people and even yourself. It would include the whole package of your thinking when you think about something. For example, if you apply concept formation to the word dentist you would probably categorise dentist as an occupation. However if you list everything that you associate with the word dentist this would give you your dentist schema. Your schema may include items such as a waiting room, dread, a dentist's chair, the sound of the drill, the smell of the antiseptic mouth wash and so on.
The term schema (plural schemas or schemata) was used by an influential Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget. Piaget, who died in 1980, spent over 50 years investigating the way that children developed their thinking or cognitive skills. He proposed that they did this by developing schemas which are built up from their experience of the world.
It is as if your memory is a huge filing cabinet and each file in the cabinet is a schema. If you opened the schema labelled ‘going to the cinema’, it would contain all your knowledge about trips to the cinema (e.g. buying a ticket, sitting in the dark, seeing a film, other people around, eating popcorn). If you visited a cinema that you have never been to before you wouldn't have to start from the beginning in trying to work out what to do. You would simply activate your ‘going to the cinema’ schema to guide your actions. In this way schemas help us deal more efficiently with the world around us so when we encounter a new situation we can apply our knowledge of similar past situations to help us act appropriately.
A lot of the knowledge that we hold in our schemas will be shared with other people who have had similar experiences to ourselves. However where our experiences are different our schemas will also be different. For example, if you love football your schema for football will contain a lot of detailed information about particular teams, leagues, championship competitions and even the intricacies of the off-side rule. If you dislike football your football schema may only include the information that it is an outdoor game involving a ball, a number of players and an audience and that you should avoid it whenever possible.
Schemas can help us recall information as they provide an organising framework so that the information is stored appropriately and they can provide cues to prompt our memory.
John Bransford and Marcia Johnson (1972) carried out a number of experiments which illustrated the role of schemas in our understanding and recall of information. In one experiment the participants were read the passage below and then asked to recall it as accurately as possible. However half of the participants were given a title for the following passage and the other participants were given the passage without the title.
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups… Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavour. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well… At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.
(Bransford and Johnson 1972 p. 722)
Most people report that they have great difficulty in understanding the passage let alone trying to recall the details. However if you reread the passage with the title, ‘Washing Clothes’ in mind everything should fall into place. The title provides a schema so that the information can be stored appropriately and recalled more easily.