Our mental architecture is shaped in a way that helps us to deal with our complex environment. Since much of our everyday behavior and many of our experiences are repetitive and routine, our knowledge of regular aspects of the world can be organized in a highly structured way. One important theory about the organization of information in long-term memory is “schema theory”.
Schemas (also sometimes called “schemata”) are long-term memory structures. They are networks of concepts that organize past experiences. By representing general knowledge about concepts, objects, events, etc. in a certain area of reality, schemas give a framework to interpret current experiences. The following summarizes the characteristics of schemas.
Characteristics Of Schemas
(1) A schema can be thought of as an abstract pattern onto which information can be mapped. Schemas consist of different components, including specification about the relationships among the components and slots for all components that can assume different values, as well as default values. (2) One schema can be embedded in another schema and can itself contain sub-schemas. Relationships among these may be considered to be like webs; thus, each one is interconnected with a number of others. (3) Schemas represent episodic as well as generic knowledge. (4) Schemas represent knowledge in very different domains. (5) Schemas are neither fixed nor immutable but can constantly be adjusted to new information and experiences. As schemas evolve with experience, they can develop to include more components and more specificity; they can be added to other schemas. Normally, new information is processed according to how it fits into existing schemas, but schemas may also be reorganized when new information makes it necessary to restructure the concept. (6) Schemas are generally thought to have an activation level that can spread among related schemas. The current level of activation influences how easily a schema comes to mind (accessibility). The more a schema is used, the higher its level of activation; thus experience and expertise may influence the level of activation and accessibility. The spread of activation is the cause of priming effects.
The original concept of schemas is linked with the ideas and work of Selz and Bartlett. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German psychologist Otto Selz came up with one of the fundamental ideas of cognitive psychology. To solve a problem requires understanding of it. To understand the problem, one must be able to relate the current situation to a past situation. Given a problem, the cognitive system must recognize that the situation presented by the problem can be described by a known schema and search long-term memory for an adequate schema. Given access to an adequate schema, a solution can be found.
In the 1930s, while working on constructive memory, Frederic Bartlett found empirical support for the idea of schemas in a series of memory experiments. Bartlett presented the participants with information that was unfamiliar to their cultural backgrounds and expectations. In his most famous experiment the participants read a Native American folk tale “The war of the ghosts.” Then they were asked to recall details of the presented information several times. Typical errors in this task indicated that the participants transformed the content and style of the story in such a way as to align those features with their own cultural norms and expectations. Subjects “remembered” details of stories that were not actually there, omitted information that was considered irrelevant, transformed the order of events, and reinterpreted those facets of the story that did not make sense to them in order to make them more coherent and comprehensible. On the basis of these findings, Bartlett suggested that memory takes the form of schemas.
The Function Of Schemas In Information Processing
Schemas play a role in top-down processing by providing a mental framework for understanding and remembering information. They are vehicles for comprehension, storage, and recall of information. By simplifying the world around us, schemas reduce the need to remember huge amounts of information and influence perception, memory, and recall. In perception, schemas are important for the assimilation of new information because they supply a framework into which it can be fitted, i.e., they work to recognize and process input. Schemas also provide the organizational foundation for the storage of memories. When we learn something new that we interpret to be related to pre-existing schemas, we integrate the gained knowledge into those pre-existing schemas. Faced with new information that does not fit into existing schemas, we may reorganize the existing schemas in such a way so as to re-establish consistency.
In recall, schemas provide the rules for arranging memories and also provide default values for filling out the “what must have been” for any gaps. Due to these processes, we are more likely to remember things that are consistent with our schemas. Beyond this, in most everyday situations information processing can be done without effort, and people can quickly organize new perceptions into existing schemas, predict new situations, and act effectively.
According to schema theory, the learner actively builds schemas and may reconstruct them in light of new information. Each individual’s schemas depend on that person’s experiences and cognitive processes. Learning is explained as involving three different processes: accretion, tuning, and restructuring (Rumelhart & Norman 1978). In accretion, learners take the new input and assimilate it into one of their existing schemas without making any changes to its structure. Tuning is the adjustment of knowledge to a specific task, usually through practice, when learners realize that their existing schema is inadequate for the new knowledge and modify their existing schema accordingly. Restructuring is the process of creating a new schema that addresses the inconsistencies between the old schema and the newly acquired information.
Effects And Implications
Since schemas affect how we perceive, notice, and interpret information, they may bias the encoding of information. Since we tend to pay attention to schema-consistent information, the uptake of new information incoherent with existing schemas may be inhibited. Information that does not fit into existing schemas may not be comprehended, or may not be comprehended correctly. Prejudices are typical schema-based errors. Existing stereotypes, which are special forms of schemas, may lead an individual to “recognize” or “remember” something that has not happened because there is no information about the single case or because this is more coherent with the existing schema.
Schema theory has numerous implications for designing communication processes. Schema theory stresses the role of prior knowledge in knowledge acquisition. In order to process information effectively, existing schemas related to the new content need to be activated. Correspondingly, activating a learner’s schema enables them to better process the information that they are perceiving. There are many (instructional) tools that can help make connections between existing schemas and new information, such as the use of meaningful titles or visuals in texts, the use of familiar scenarios or examples, the use of analogies and comparison, or the use of multiple perspectives. Another important implication of schema theory is the recognition of the role that culture and experience play in processing information. Research on novice versus expert performance suggests that the nature of expertise is largely due to the possession of schemas that guide perception and problem-solving (Chi et al. 1988).
In the context of mass communication studies, schema theory gains relevance when analyzing processes or effects of media exposure. Beyond this, it seems plausible that while using mass media, people may develop “media schemas” that may include evaluations of media credibility, intelligibility, etc. These “media schemas” may substantially influence the acquisition of knowledge from the media and attitudes toward media (Watts et al. 1999).
Schema theory has a strong influence in cognitive science, learning theory, reading theory, and related areas. Schema-like constructs form the basis of many theoretical considerations about cognitive processes, including Shank’s concept of scripts and Minsky’s frame concept as well as instructional theories.
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