Schema Theory And Its Role In Education

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | published Dec 11, 2021

Several instructional strategies can follow from schema theory. One of the most relevant implications of schema theory to teaching is the role that prior knowledge plays in students processing information.

For learners to be able to effectively process information, something needs to activate their existing schemas related to the new content. For instance, it would be unlikely that a student would be able to fully interpret the implications of Jacobinism without an existing schema around the existence of the French Revolution (Widmayer, 2001).

This idea that schema-activation is important to learning is reflected in popular theories of learning, such as the third stage of Gagne’s nine conditions of learning, “Stimulating Recall of Prior Knowledge.”

Many teachers even use “metacognitive” strategies designed to activate the learner's schema before reading, such as reading a heading and the title, looking at visuals in the text, and making predictions about the text based on the title and pictures (Widmayer, 2001).

Another way of pre-activating schema encourages the use of analogies and comparisons to draw attention to the learner's existing schema and help them make connections between existing schema and the new information (Armbruster, 1996; Driscoll, 1997).

Instructors could also use familiar scenarios in teaching problem-solving rather than abstract contexts (Price and Driscoll, 1997). For instance, a professor explaining supply and demand in terms of the current housing market may do so more saliently than one who immediately draws mathematical equations and curves.

This use of schemas and mental models in facilitating students’ developing an appropriate schema has been advocated for by many (Gagne and Glaser, 1987; Driscoll, 1994). There have been several studies examining the validity of schema theory in instruction.

Current research, such as Price and Driscoll’s study of student problem solving in familiar and unfamiliar contexts and the study of the relative effects of familiarity with the topic and the use of maps on student recall (Ellsworth, 1998), suggest that Schema Theory is an adequate tool for explaining how students build knowledge structures to recall information.

In their study, Price and Driscoll found that 10.5% of participants could solve a particular problem in an unfamiliar context. However, 57.3% of those in the study could solve a similar problem in a familiar context.

The researchers then set up three different treatments designed to help learners construct a problem solving schema for solving these problems regardless of context. However, these treatments did not have significant effects, the authors eventually concluding that, “Schemata exist and that they powerfully influence problem solving.

However, there is no evidence that our subjects spontaneously abstracted a useful schema while trying to solve the selection problems nor did the feedback conditions appear to promote such abstraction” (Price and Driscroll, 1997).

This evidence by Price and Driscoll demonstrates a difficulty in schema theory: strongly situated schema may make it difficult for learners to develop functional problem solving skills that are appropriate across knowledge domains.

Additionally, scholars have noted that transfer of knowledge outside of the context in which it was originally acquired is difficult, and may require that learners be exposed to similar knowledge in numerous different contexts to eventually be able to construct less situationally-constricted schema (Price and Driscroll, 1997).

About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has recently worked as a psychology teaching assistant for The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology

He previously worked for Wigan and Leigh College, where he was a psychology lecturer for ten years, primarily teaching A-level psychology and sociology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2021, Dec 11). Schema theory and its role in education. Teacher Support Network.


Armbruster, B. B. (1986). Schema theory and the design of content-area textbooks. Educational Psychologist, 21(4), 253-267.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Allyn & Bacon.

Gagne, R. M., & Glaser, R. (1987). Foundations in learning research. Instructional technology: Foundations, 49-83.

Price, E. A., & Driscoll, M. P. (1997). An inquiry into the spontaneous transfer of problem-solving skill. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22(4), 472-494.

Widmayer, S. A. (2004). Schema theory: An introduction. Retrieved December, 26, 2004.