From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

In the application of cognitive theory to online learning, it is suggested that it helps to lighten germane cognitive load by providing learners with worked problems (step-by-step solving of problems for learners) and defined schemas for particular domains. What are schemas, and what do they show? How are they harnessed for online learning? How are schemas created? This brief module provides an introduction to schemas for online learning.


Learners will...

  • consider what schemas are and what they communicate
  • review the basic elements of schemas
  • think about some steps in the creation of schemas
  • consider how schemas are used in online education (and how they may be better adapted for usage in online education)
  • review what features make for strong vs. weak schemas

Module Pretest

1. What are schemas, and what do they generally communicate?

2. What are some of the basic elements of schemas?

3. What are some steps in the creation of schemas?

4. How are schemas used in online education? What are some ways to adapt schemas for uses in online education?

5. What features make for strong schemas? Weak schemas?

Main Contents


1. What are schemas, and what do they generally communicate?

“Schema” comes from a Greek word which means “shape” or “plan” ( “Schema,” June 25, 2017). A “schema” is a simplification of knowledge in a particular domain that enables people to approach the topic for learning and decision-making. “Schemas” or “schemata” (simple knowledge representations or models expressed as outlines / diagrams / text) are commonly used to describe domains in “units of understanding.” Schemas may be informed by (1) lived experiences in the world or by (2) the human imagination, or some mix of the two. Schemas may be expressed as metaphors in phrases or sentences (Albritton, McKoon, & Gerrig, 1995). Metaphors compare unrelated things.

”Whether metaphor-based schemas turn out to be preexisting or ad hoc structures, our experiments have shown that such schemas can be used as a basis for relating and connecting pieces of information in a text representation, in a way that simple semantic associations do not account for. Experiments demonstrating facilitated recognition judgments for schema related words and sentences provided evidence that the use of metaphors can have a measurable influence on how information related to those metaphors is represented.” (Albritton, McKoon, & Gerrig, 1995, p. 619)

Schemas may be expressed as images, comprised of shapes, lines, and words, for example. These may range from highly simple to highly complex diagrams. The placement of the respective elements of a diagram are informative about the dynamics and processes within the schema.

“Graphics serve a variety of functions, among them, attracting attention, supporting memory, providing models, and facilitating inference and discovery” (Tversky, Jan. 2001)

Image schemas are not only visualizations but are informed through multiple modes of perception Image schema

2. What are some of the basic elements of schemas?

Schema theory suggests that knowledge may be separated into units of stored concepts and information. The origins of “schema theory” is from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (1936) and is based on his ideas of how children make sense of the world and form mental models of it through experience. Schemas evolve over time and change as the individual learns more. A schema has to be able to integrate new information, and aschematic information has to be understood within that mental conceptualization. Knowledge in schemas may be associative knowledge (what connects to what) and may be procedural knowledge (sequences of occurrences, what processes have to occur in what order), and others. There has been research to understand linguistic schemas (language-based depictions of the world) and the suggestion that language-enabled complexity is related to cognitive complexity. Some authors write:

”In brief, they are higher-order cognitive structures that have been hypothesized to underlie many aspects of human knowledge and skill. They serve a crucial role in providing an account of how old knowledge interacts with new knowledge in perception, language, thought, and memory.” (Brewer & Nakamura, Sept. 1984, p. 2)

Schemas should be sufficiently abstract and general to be inclusive of all possible exemplars in a particular domain. They should also be general for transferability.

Given the hierarchical nature of schemas, the level of generality should be consistent across the level of the mental model for comparability and consistency.

Schemas comes in various communicative forms, and the conventions of those forms inform on what the respective schemas should contain. Data-based schemas are usually expressed in lists and tables. Workflow schemas are usually depicted as flowcharts and timelines. Some brainstormed schemas may be bubble charts or freehand drawings.

There are many more specific rules in the creation of schemas, but those rules tend to be applied to particular domains.

3. What are some steps in the creation of schemas?

There are many ways at which people—as individuals and as groups and as collectives—may create schemas.

One simple approach may be a simple sequence:

observe -> conceptualization -> doodling -> critique -> revision

Schemas are rarely one-offs. They evolve over time, and they are usually contributed to by a number of researchers over time. All schemas seem somewhat provisional and tentative by design. How schemas are used determines how they are assessed. For example, schemas used for decision-making may be judged by outcomes when they are applied in the world.

4. How are schemas used in online education? What are some ways to adapt schemas for uses in online education?

Schemas are used in online education to lighten the germane cognitive load on learners…by giving them a sense of the knowledge and interrelationships between knowledge units in a particular domain. “Germane cognitive load” is the amount of mental effort required to “process, construct, and automate” schemas, according to John Sweller. Through worked examples and defined informational structures, the learners’ cognition may be applied to acquiring the new knowledge more effectively.

There are ways to adapt schemas for uses in online education. Depictions of schemas should be multimodal—with imagery, text, video, and simulations. The multimedia should be designed for the optimal ease of consumption by the learners. Schemas may be conveyed in an interactive way, so learners may interact with the learning object to better understand causes and effects.

5. What features make for strong schemas? Weak schemas?

The strengths and weaknesses of various schemas will depend on what the schemas were designed for.

If a schema describes a process, how complete and accurate is that schema? Is the sequence depicted as linear or non-linear, non-recursive or recursive? How useful is it for learning and decision-making? How does the schema compare to other depictions of the same phenomena? (If the alternate interpretations are more compelling, does it mean that the earlier schema has lost its explanatory power or not?)

If the schema depicts interrelationships between elements of a model, is that schema accurate in showing those interrelationships? How expressive is the schema? How accurate are the textual labels? If the schema is testable in the world, how well does it fare? Where does the data for the schema come from, and are those valid data sources? (If the schema is based on theory, how well does the schema represent the theory? Is it aligned properly with the theory / congruent with the theory or theoretical framework?)

Schemas are iterated over time. The conventions for schemas differ between schema types and the differing instantiations across various domains.

At heart, schemas enable people to summarize complex information through high levels of generality. They tend to be “closely related to complex cognitive processes” (Larson, 1994), and they are “meta-constructs” (with inherent beliefs, examples, and analogies). They may have spatial and temporal representation. One aspect of their efficacy relates to how logically sound and consistent the schemas are. The power of schemas come from their ability to describe…but also their applied power to analyze and evaluate and to inform decision-making.

”Schemas enable people not only to organize a complex stimulus so that they can better comprehend it, but to make additional inferences using preexisting knowledge and concepts.” (Larson, 1994, p. 22)

Schemas are more formal than belief systems per se, and they are more comprehensive. They incorporate some historical knowledge and so provide heuristics for informed decision-making (even in contexts of limited information and uncertainty). To this end, schemas may contain top-down “scripts” for addressing particular situations (vs. bottom-up responses based only on sensory feedback).

Schemas tend to be fairly change-resistant over time, but they must still be adapted to a changing world as new information emerges.

Some schemas are based on the human imagination. One researcher suggests that such “abstract schemas” are a sign of powerful intelligence which can move beyond the experienced realia and into their imaginations (Ohlsson, 1993).

“For example, powerful minds think about the beginning of the universe, the history of life, and the rituals of societies long vanished. They contemplate structures that are too vast to fit into the visual field of the unaided eye—the ecology, the global weather, the solar system—as well as objects that are too small to be seen (elementary particles, microbes). They think about aspects of reality that are not available to the senses at all (radio waves, x rays, ultrasound) as well as about cultures they have not visited, languages they have not heard, and landscapes they have not crossed.” (Ohlsson, 1993, p. 51)

Some thinkers have created whole universes (Ohlsson, 1993, p. 52), with complex meanings.


Schemas come in various types. They are used to structure data in databases and metadata in various applications. They are used to express mental models of individuals about themselves (self schemas) and about others (social schemas). There are a number of different schemas in different domains that are applied for decision-making and awareness. Depending on the particular topic, there may / may not be common practices and conventions to their creation and design.

It is beyond the purview of this work to point to particular examples, though.

How To

The methods for creating schemas differ based on the particular domain. In some cases, schemas are built off of lived experiences. In other cases, schemas are built from selective experiences and then the human imagination.

Possible Pitfalls

What are some possible pitfalls related to schemas?

Inaccurate to the world. Improperly created schemas may be highly misleading about the state-of-the-world because the person who holds the particular schema to be true may be confusing an internal construct with external reality—as “cognitive bias” researchers have long observed. Schemas are representations, and as such, they are interpretive and subjective. Schemas may be in competition with other schemas to understand in-world phenomena. Paradigms may be predominant for a particular time but end up in disfavor, with other worldviews coming to the fore in other periods. Schemas change over time. One of the largest pitfalls in the uses of schemas is that they may be inaccurate to a particular context.

Misapplication of schemas. By design, schemas serve varying roles, for human understanding, attention, decision-making, and others. Schemas, by definition, are simplifications in order to make a complex world more manageable. They are often abstract, so that the insights within them can be applied to different contexts. However, the applications of a particular schema to a particular context may be inappropriate. Or they may be misapplied in other ways.

Varying degrees of (in)completeness. Schemas may relate to the real world to varying degrees. They may vary in stages of development, from highly incomplete to complete, and they may range from being imperfect to “perfect” (as in full and formal definitional completeness). Misunderstanding how much of a space has been mapped with a schema may be another pitfall.

There may well be other pitfalls in the uses of schemas as well.

Module Post-Test

1. What are schemas, and what do they generally communicate?

2. What are some of the basic elements of schemas?

3. What are some steps in the creation of schemas?

4. How are schemas used in online education? What are some ways to adapt schemas for uses in online education?

5. What features make for strong schemas? Weak schemas?


Albritton, D.W., McKoon, G., & Gerrig, R.J. (1995). Metaphor-based schemas and text representations: Making connections through conceptual metaphors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition: 21(3), 612 – 625.

Brewer, W.F. & Nakamura, G.V. (1984, Sept.) The nature and functions of schemas. Technical Report 325. Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 1 – 87.

Larson, D.W. (1994). The role of belief systems and schemas in foreign policy decision-making. Political Psychology: 15(1), 17 – 33.

Ohlsson, S. (1993). Abstract schemas. Educational Psychologist: 28(1), 51 – 66.

Tversky, B. (2001, Jan.) Spatial schemas in abstract thought. In Merideth Gattis’ “Spatial Schemas and Abstract Thought.” Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 79 – 112.

Extra Resources

“Conceptual model.” (2017, July 17). Wikipedia. Retrieved Aug. 12, 2017, from

“Schema (psychology).” (2017, Aug. 11). Wikipedia. Retrieved Aug. 12, 2017, from