If you read the word “breakfast”, what comes to mind? Do you think of your favorite breakfast foods? The smell of a cup of coffee? Time spent with family? A quick bite in the car on the way to work?
It is likely that many words, images, and emotions come to mind. This collection of interconnected thoughts and feelings constitute a schema.
What is a schema?
A schema is a mental model stored in long-term memory that the brain uses to organize information. Schemas are built from memories and experiences and are unique to each individual. You have schemas for every topic imaginable: objects, events, people, activities, relationships, and even your concept of self.
How do schemas evolve?
Schemas are constantly changing with every new experience you have. Let’s examine the three ways this occurs, using the “breakfast” example:
? Accretion occurs when new information fits easily into an existing schema. If I encounter a new type of pastry for the first time, I can easily accrete it to my existing schema because it is similar to other thoughts in my schema.
? Tuning occurs when new information partially fits into an existing schema but does not fit in easily. The first time I encountered a breakfast mimosa bar, I was a little shocked at the idea of drinking cocktails at 8 am. Gradually, my schema was tuned to include “special occasion” breakfast beverages.
? Restructuring occurs when information is totally different from an existing schema. If I move to Japan for instance, I would encounter a completely different array of breakfast foods (like rice, fish, and vegetables) than I am used to. I would need to restructure my schema to include this new information.
Why does this matter for learning?
Learners are not “blank slates” waiting to be filled with knowledge; they are ingrained with schemas that can both help and hinder learning. Any learning activity, if effective, is likely to result in a change to an existing schema. When you already have an existing mental model in long-term memory, cognitive load is reduced.
Schemas can also be barriers to learning when learners hold incorrect or biased assumptions, or associate negative experiences with a topic. You can help learners connect new information to these existing mental models and anticipate misinformation by using these four simple strategies:
1. Surface existing schemas early
This tip applies both to the instructional design process and the learning experience itself. Always center your design around the learner’s schema. And, when it comes to understanding your learner’s lived experiences, a SME or stakeholder opinion isn’t enough. First-hand, qualitative information collected from surveys, interviews, and focus groups is the best way to immerse yourself in your learners’ world so you can build a course that is relevant, meaningful, and contextually relatable.
Review and reflection benefits the learner as well; it primes the brain to tap into existing schemas and start making new connections. Start the course with a pre-assessment or review exercise that prompts learners to recall what they already know. Open-ended discussion questions (" What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?") are a great way to generate discussion about the emotions and opinions learners hold within their schemas. If delivered through a social platform, (like Yammer, Teams, or Mural) these questions generate peer-to-peer discussion that can highlight the differences and similarities between learner experiences.
2. Keep the entire learning journey in mind
Rarely is a course truly a one-off experience. Intentional or not, each course—or learning module—is a pit-stop on an ongoing learning journey. Each learning experience builds upon the next and contributes to the learner’s schema for “what does X topic mean for me at my organization?” When done well, these experiences can foster a deeper understanding of a topic and bridge connections between similar topics. However, when this holistic journey is not taken into account, courses may conflict with each other, creating confusion and frustration for learners.
As you design, consider where learners have been and where they are going on their ongoing learning journeys. Use common themes in your design and organizational tactics in your LMS to make connections between similar courses, themes, and topics. Where possible, refer to previous learnings and recommend next steps. Above all, avoid inconsistency and redundancy in your message.
Studies have found that people remember information more readily when it aligns with their existing schemas. For example, when asked to recall unfamiliar folktales from a different culture, study participants were most accurate when describing portions of the story that included familiar words and concepts.
4. Reduce extraneous cognitive load
Extraneous cognitive load is cognitive load that is evoked by the instructional material that does not directly contribute to learning. Evolving a schema takes mental effort; learners will always experience some cognitive load.
You can manage this strategy by being conscious of what you want learners to focus on in each section of your course. Remove any unnecessary images, media, and text that do not contribute to that goal. Keep the tone of the training conversational and use language that aligns with the way learners talk. Avoid unfamiliar technical jargon or corporate lingo. If training on a complex concept or major change, consider spacing learning experiences into bite-sized pieces over time.
Everything you know is tied to a schema; a mental model of related thoughts and feelings. Schemas can be powerful tools for increasing retention by providing a foundational base of knowledge and experience learners can build upon. Alternatively, an individual’s schema can hinder learning when it is linked to a learner's biases, assumptions, or negative experiences. Those obstacles can be surpassed through understanding your learners. By leveraging schemas in your learning design, you can create deeper, more meaningful courses for your learners.