Schema Theory to Improve Design, Learning, and Retention

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What is a schema?

A schema is a mental model stored in long-term memory that the brain uses to organize information and knowledge. Schemas are built from memories and experiences and are unique to everyone. 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 get. There are at least three ways this change.

Accretion occurs when new information fits easily into an existing schema.

Tuning occurs when new information partially fits into an existing schema but does not fit in easily.

Restructuring occurs when information is totally different from an existing schema.

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. SME opinion isn’t enough. Collect information from learners is the best way to immerse yourself in your learners’ world to build a course that is relevant, meaningful, and contextually relatable.

Try 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.

2. Keep the entire learning journey in mind

Each course or module is a pit-stop on an ongoing learning journey. Each learning experience builds upon the existing ones and contributes to the learner’s schema. When done well, such organization of experiences can foster a deeper understanding of a topic and bridge connections between relevant topics. Where possible, refer to previous learnings and recommend next steps. Above all, avoid inconsistency and redundancy in your message.

3. Put new information into the context of existing schemas

Studies have found that people remember information more readily when it aligns with their existing schemas. Use realistic case studies and scenarios to illustrate how new information would be used in the context of a learner’s larger activity, job, or life.

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.


The Schema Theory fits perfectly in the Instructional Design of Adaptive Learning based on our CLARITY platform. Our Authoring Tool provides designers with its universal Systems Framework for defining specific Schemas and developing Framework/Schema-based Courseware. Then it verifies designed Courseware for cross-consistency and sufficiency for achieving learning objectives. The verified Courseware is then used by our Instructional Engine for real-time automatic planning/running an Adaptive Instructional process toward achieving all the learning objectives by every learner and contributing to professional competencies and organizational goals/performance.

If you are not 100% sure how to apply the Schema Theory in your practice, contact the iTutorSoft team today. We take the guesswork out of instructional Design with our Authoring Tools and Engine generating reliably effective personalized learning processes. Contact us to see how our tools and services can get the most out of your investment.


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