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Schemata and Instructional Strategies

The EvoLLLution | Schemata and Instructional Strategies
The unique experiences and lenses students bring into the learning environment are critical to their educational experience—it behooves educators to remain conscious of the schemata at play to drive learning outcomes.
The Importance of Schemata in Teaching and Learning

Students’ comprehension of course content will likely be the same or similar, thus it is important to recognize that students’ understanding of content may be drawn through the lens of their prior experiences, known as “schema.” This article will highlight the impact of schemata (plural for schema) on comprehension along with practical strategies for online instructors that will help students retrieve and construct information accurately in the solely text-based, screen-reading learning environment. Regardless of whether you teach full or part time, it is imperative to possess a healthy, informed understanding of how students learn, what factors may impede learning, and what research-based strategies are available to support student success. The act of reading and a student’s ability to become a fluent, comprehending, knowledgeable reader is an area of concern especially for those immersed in the text-only, online learning environment. Based on our collective experience as Associate Deans of Faculty, we have learned that most adjunct online instructors bring superb content knowledge to their courses but very few understand the myriad processes that occur during the act of reading which, in turn, affect students’ learning and subsequent performance in the course.

What Should Teachers Know?

One particular aspect of learning that instructors should consider is how students use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text. Schema Theory emphasizes the mental connections learners make between pieces of information and can be a very powerful component of the learning process. It has been said that the fundamental principle of schema theory assumes that written text does not carry meaning by itself and that it can only provide direction for learners as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own previously acquired knowledge. The activation of a learner’s schema may be recognized as the process in which “textual stimuli signal the direction or area for the reader to look for and evoke the relevant schema from memory into the present reading task” (Li, 1997). According to Psychologist and researcher David Ausubel (1967), “Schema theory has tremendous implications for school classrooms. It is crucial for teachers to realize that students can remember substantial amounts of new information only if they are able to cluster it with their related existing ideas. People forget information if they do not work to integrate it into their existing mental frameworks.”

According to Shuying An (2013) there are three major types of schemata: linguistic, formal and content, all of which correlate to reading comprehension. Linguistic schemata refer to a reader’s existing language proficiency in vocabulary, grammar and jargon. Without it, it may be impossible for the reader to decode and subsequently comprehend the text. Formal schemata are the organizational forms and rhetorical structures of written texts, and readers will us their schematic representations of the text. Lastly, content schemata refer to the background knowledge of the content area. This may include topic familiarity, cultural knowledge, and previous experience with a field (An, 2013).

One assumption that has been made about schema activation is that some words or groups of words or the title of a text are highly suggestive and they may signal a certain schema. For example, textual stimuli may affect a schema in two ways. If a stimulus is highly suggestive of a certain schema, that schema as a whole may be activated. For example, the mention of a police detective may activate a “murder” schema.

According to Mac Duis in his article entitled “Using Schema Theory to Teach American History” (n.g.):

It may be quite useful to know that learners may be limited by their schemata if they are unable to detect relationships between ideas. This may be overcome by challenging them to make the connections between ideas that are necessary for the transfer of abilities from the classroom to their external realities such as a vocation of interest. These many connections may help learners become better able to gain access to their schema-based knowledge when they need it in authentic and relevant situations, not simply for success on an exam.

There is also a cultural implication, which is critical as the demographic landscape of America’s students is dramatically changing. Studies by Johnson (1981) and Carreli (1981), (as cited in An, 2013) have shown that the implicit cultural knowledge predetermined by content may interact with a student’s cultural background knowledge of the topic. Their investigation further shows that this may make texts whose content is based on one’s culture easier to read and understand than a syntactically and rhetorically equivalent text based on a less familiar culture. This is something for instructors to consider when the classroom is populated by students with varied cultural backgrounds.

Course Content

At our university, course content is created by subject matter authors in collaboration with instructional designers. How effectively the author constructs the text and how well the reader reconstructs it and discovers meaning may influence comprehension. It is critical for instructors to know that meaning does not necessarily pass between author and reader and that perceptions of meaning may vary greatly based on schemata. Comprehension difficulties may occur when the student is unable to immediately access knowledge stored in their schemata (S.J. Samuels, 2013). This is something to consider in relationship to the role of the teacher. If what has been said is true, perhaps we best serve our students when acting as mediators guides, and interpreters for content and what may or may not be fully comprehended.


Several methods have been endorsed to foster more meaningful learning through the activation of schemata. David Ausubel (1967) recommends the “advance organizer” as the best way for teachers to activate the appropriate schemata of students so that more “conscious clustering of new information with existing ideas could take place.”

For example, to introduce a lesson on the tenets of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, a teacher might activate students’ legal schemata by having students think about their own experiences with the law. The students are more likely to remember the key tenets of the Fourth Amendment by directly placing them into their existing schematic “organizations” than if they were presented with those tenets without cognitive preparation.

What happens when students are limited by their experiences and do not possess schemata with which to comprehend new information? To meet the learning needs of these students, an instructor must go beyond merely activating existing student schemata. When examining potentially complex concepts or abstract ideas that students may not be familiar with, instructors must help students develop the appropriate new schemata. This serves to underscore the advantages that practitioner-academics may have, as they can offer real-world experiences that in part or in whole, relate to student schema (Duis, n.d.). I’ve often used this approach when teaching about the decades-long commitment to the practices and policies of the processes involved in community policing. By placing them in the schema-developing role of police-policy planner, this has led toward a higher level of comprehension and understanding. After being presented with the negative effects of the historical fracturing of the police and the communities served, students are directed to create strategies to rebuild and repair the relationships with the inclusion of focus questions such as: “What are the most pressing problems in the communities? Who needs help and why? What can the police do to meet these needs?” In addition, providing background knowledge of the subject has helped enhance students’ comprehension (Shen, 2004). It has been additionally beneficial when I have assisted students with the identification of keywords and clarification of meaning. These have contributed to enhanced literal comprehension, while other activities such as brainstorming, evaluation, inferring, encouraging re-reading, and discussion contributed to better to comprehension of content. (İsmail, Hakkı, Erten, 2009)

According to Reading Specialist Dr. Andy Johnson (2014), he offers four very clear and authentic implications pertaining to instructor’s recognition of schematic impact;

  • Pre-Teach to Build Requisite Knowledge: Don’t expect students to read content “cold.” Introduce them to the concepts and ideas they may not be academically familiar with.
  • Integrate the New to the Known: This is where the instructor should describe and discuss how the new material may relate to what the student already knows.
  • Highlight the Structure of the Material to be Learned: The instructor should break down the material into coherent and clear components. Using tools such as a graphic organizer in order to organize the components outlined are highly recommended.
  • Providing Packets of Factoids Limits Learning: If you seek to cover too much material, you may end up ignoring or covering up what should be learned. It’s best to cover less information more deeply for enhanced comprehension (Johnson, 2014).


Student schemata is single albeit critical aspect of the learning process. Recognition of the fact that comprehension is an interactive process whereby the students will seek to correlate prior knowledge with new learning in order to construct meaning from text is crucial to instructional strategies that serve to guide, interpret and clarify content.

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An, S. (2013). Schema Theory in Reading. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 130-133.

Ausubel, D. (1967). Learning Theory and Classroom Practice. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 99-107.

Duis, M. (n.d.). Using Schema Theory to Teach American History. National Council for the Social Studies.

İsmail Hakkı Erten, S. R. (2009). The effects of cultural familiarity on reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 60-77.

Johnson, A. (2014, March 26). Schema, Theory, and Learning Comprehension. Retrieved from Dr. Andy Johnson:

Samuels, S. J. (2013). Toward A Theory of Automatic Information Processing In Reading. In(n.g) Theoretical Models of Reading (pp. 698-718). Newark: International Reading Association.

Smith, M. C. (1994). What Do Adults Read and Why Does It Matter? Chicago: Mid-Western Educational Research Association.

Zhaohua, S. (2004). Effects of Previewing and Providing. TESL Reporter, 50-63.

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