Evaluate schema theory with reference to research studies.


  • Define schema 
    • Schemas are cognitive structures that organise knowledge stored in our memory.
    • They are mental representations of categories (from our knowledge, beliefs and expectations) about particular aspects of the world such as people, objects, events, and situations. 
  • Expand on schema 
    • Knowledge that is stored in our memory is organized as a set of schemas (or knowledge structures), which represent the general knowledge about the world, people, events, objects, actions and situations that has been acquired from past experiences.
    • Types of schemas: 
      • Scripts provide information about the sequence of events that occur in particular contexts (e.g. going to a restaurant, visiting the dentist, attending class).s 
      • Self-schemas organise information we have about ourselves (information stored in our memory about our strengths and weaknesses and how we feel about them). 
      • Social schemas (e.g. stereotypes) – represent information about groups of people (e.g. Americans, Egyptians, women, accountants, etc.). 
  • Define schema theory 
    • Cognitive theory of processing and organizing information.
    • Schema theory states that “as active processors of information, humans integrate new information with existing, stored information.” 
  • Expand on schema theory Effects 
    • Existing knowledge stored in our memory (what we already know) and organized in the form of schemas will affect information processing and behaviour in specific settings. 
      • E.g. Information we already know affects the way we interpret new information and events and how we store it in our memory.
    • It is not possible to see how knowledge is processed and stored in the brain, but the concept of schema theory helps psychologists understand and discuss what cannot be seen.
    • Schema theory can describe how specific knowledge is organised and stored in memory so that it can be retrieved.
  • State what you are doing in the essay
    • Schema theory will be evaluated, making an appraisal by weighing up strengths and limitations with some reference to studies on the effect of schema on memory.
    • Schema theory provides the theoretical basis for the studies reported below.


Supporting Studies

  • Bartlett – “War of the Ghosts” (1932) 
  • Anderson & Pichert (1978) 
  • Brewer & Treyens – “picnic basket” (1981) 
  • French & Richards (1933) 

*Choose three studies from the above studies in the evaluation of schema theory
Supporting Study 1: Bartlett (1932) – “War of the Ghost”
Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • A significant researcher into schemas, Bartlett (1932) introduced the idea of schemas in his study entitled “The War of the Ghost.” 

  • Bartlett aimed to determine how social and cultural factors influence schemas and hence can lead to memory distortions. 

  • Participants used were of an English background. 
  • Were asked to read “The War of the Ghosts” – a Native American folk tale. 
  • Tested their memory of the story using serial reproduction and repeated reproduction, where they were asked to recall it six or seven times over various retention intervals. 
    • Serial reproduction: the first participant reading the story reproduces it on paper, which is then read by a second participant who reproduces the first participant’s reproduction, and so on until it is reproduced by six or seven different participants.
    • Repeated reproduction: the same participant reproduces the story six or seven times from their own previous reproductions. Their reproductions occur between time intervals from 15 minutes to as long as several years. 


  • Both methods lead to similar results. 
  • As the number of reproductions increased, the story became shorter and there were more changes to the story. 
    • For example, ‘hunting seals’ changed into ‘fishing’ and ‘canoes’ became ‘boats’. 
  • These changes show the alteration of culturally unfamiliar things into what the English participants were culturally familiar with, 
  • This makes the story more understandable according to the participants’ experiences and cultural background (schemas). 
  • He found that recalled stories were distorted and altered in various ways making it more conventional and acceptable to their own cultural perspective (rationalization). 


  • Memory is very inaccurate 
    • It is always subject to reconstruction based on pre-existing schemas 
  • Bartlett’s study helped to explain through the understanding of schemas when people remember stories, they typically omit (”leave out”) some details, and introduce rationalisations and distortions, because they reconstruct the story so as to make more sense in terms of their knowledge, the culture in which they were brought up in and experiences in the form of schemas. 


  • Limitations: 
    • Bartlett did not explicitly ask participants to be as accurate as possible in their reproduction 
    • Experiment was not very controlled 
      • instructions were not standardised (specific) 
      • disregard for environmental setting of experiment 
Connection of study to question 
  • Bartlett's study shows how schema theory is useful for understand how people categorise information, interpret stories, and make inferences. 
  • It also contributes to understanding of cognitive distortions in memory. 

Supporting Study 2: Anderson and Pichert (1978)
Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • Further support for the influence of schemas of memory on cognition memory at encoding point was reported by Anderson and Pichert (1978). 

  • To investigate if schema processing influences encoding and retrieval. 

  • Half the participants were given the schema of a burglar and the other half was given the schema of a potential house-buyer. 
  • Participants then heard a story which was based on 72 points, previously rated by a group of people based on their importance to a potential house-buyer (leaky roof, damp basement) or a burglar (10speed bike, colour TV). 
  • Participants performed a distraction task for 12 minutes, before recall was tested. 
  • After another 5 minute delay, half of the participants were given the switched schema. Participants with burglar schema were given house-buyer schema and vice versa. 
  • The other half of the participants kept the same schema. 
  • All participants’ recalls were tested again. 
  • Shorter Method: 
    • Participants read a story from the perspective of either a burglar or potential home buyer. After they had recalled as much as they could of the story from the perspective they had been given, they were shifted to the alternative perspective (schema) and were asked to recall the story again. 


  • Participants who changed schema recalled 7% more points on the second recall test than the first. 
  • There was also a 10% increase in the recall of points directly linked to the new schema. 
  • The group who kept the same schema did not recall as many ideas in the second testing. 
  • Research also showed that people encoded different information which was irrelevant to their prevailing schema (those who had buyer schema at encoding were able to recall burglar information when the schema was changed, and vice versa). 
    • This shows that our schemas of “knowledge,” etc. are not always correct, because of external influences. 
  • Summary: On the second recall, participants recalled more information that was important only to the second perspective or schema than they had done on the first recall. 


  • Schema processing has an influence at the encoding and retrieval stage, as new schema influenced recall at the retrieval stage. 

  • Strengths 
    • Controlled laboratory experiment allowed researchers to determine a cause-effect relationship on how schemas affect different memory processes. 
  • Limitations 
    • Lacks ecological validity 
      • Laboratory setting 
      • Unrealistic task, which does not reflect something that the general population would do 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study provides evidence to support schema theory affecting the cognitive process of memory. 
    • Strength of schema theorythere is research evidence to support it. 

Supporting Study 3: Brewer and Treyens (1981) “picnic basket”
Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • Another study demonstrating schema theory is by Brewer and Treyens (1981).  


  • To see whether a stereotypical schema of an office would affect memory (recall) of an office. 

  • Participants were taken into a university student office and left for 35 seconds before being taken to another room. 
  • They were asked to write down as much as they could remember from the office. 


  • Participants recalled things of a “typical office” according to their schema. 
  • They did not recall the wine and picnic basket that were in the office. 


  • Participants' schema of an office influenced their memory of it. 
  • They did not recall the wine and picnic basket because it is not part of their “typical office” schema. 


  • Strengths: 
    • Strict control over variables --> to determine cause & effect relationship
  • Limitation: 
    • Lacks ecological validity 
      • Laboratory setting artificial environment 
      • Task does not reflect daily activity 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study provides evidence to support how our schemas can affect our cognition/cognitive processes, in particular memory. 
  • Our schemas influence what we recall in our memory. 
    • Strength of schema theory – there is many types of research evidence to support it. 

Supporting Study 4: French and Richards (1933)

Introduce Study/Signpost:

  • A further study demonstrating schematic influence is by French and Richards (1933). 


  • To investigate the schemata influence on memory retrieval. 

  • In the study there were three conditions: 
    • Condition 1: Participants were shown a clock with roman numerals and asked to draw from memory.
    • Condition 2: The same procedure, except the participants were told beforehand that they would be required to draw the clock from memory. 
    • Condition 3: The clock was left in full view of the participants and just had to draw it. 
  • The clock used represented the number four with IIII, not the conventional IV. 


  • In the first two conditions, the participants reverted to the conventional IV notation, whereas in the third condition, the IIII notation, because of the direct copy. 
  • They found that subjects asked to draw from memory a clock that had Roman numerals on its face typically represented the number four on the clock face as “IV” rather than the correct “IIII,” whereas those merely asked to copy it typically drew “IIII.” 


  • French and Richards explained this result in terms of schematic knowledge of roman numerals affecting memory retrieval. 
  • The findings supported the idea that subjects in the copy condition were more likely than subjects in other conditions to draw the clock without invoking schematic knowledge of Roman numerals. 


  • Strengths: 
    • Strict control over variables to determine cause & effect relationship
  • Limitation: 
  • Lacks ecological validity 
    • Laboratory setting artificial environment 
    • Task does not reflect daily activity 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study provides evidence to support how our schemas can affect our cognition/cognitive processes, in particular memory. 
  • Our schemas influence what we recall in our memory. 
    • Strength of schema theory – there is many types of research evidence to support it. 
Summary of evaluation of schema theory: 
  • Define strengths of schema theory: 
    • Supported by lots of research to suggest schemas affect memory processes knowledge, both in a positive and negative sense.
    • Through supporting studies, schema theory was demonstrated in its usefulness for understanding how memory is categorized, how inferences are made, how stories are interpreted, memory distortions and social cognition. 
  • Define weaknesses of schema theory: 
    • Not many studies/research evidence that evaluate and find limitations of schema theory 
    • Lacks explanation
    • It is not clear exactly
      • how schemas are initially acquired 
      • how they influence cognitive processes 
      • how people choose between relevant schemas when categorising people 
    • Cohen (1993) argued that: 
      • The concept of a schema is too vague to be useful. 
      • Schema theory does not show how schemas are required. It is not clear which develops first, the schema to interpret the experiences or vice versa. 
  • Schema theory explains how new information is categorised according to existing knowledge.
    • But it does not account for completely new information that cannot link with existing knowledge.
    • Therefore, it does not explain how new information is organised in early life
      • E.g. language acquisition 


  • Thus schemas affect our cognitive processes and are used to organize our knowledge, assist recall, guide our behaviour, predict likely happenings and help make sense of current experiences helps us understand how we organize our knowledge. 
  • In conclusion, strengths of schema theory: 
    • Provides an explanation for how knowledge is stored in the mind something that is unobservable and remains unknown in psychology
    • There is much research that supports schema theory 
  • But its limitations are that, 
    • It is unclear exactly how schemas are acquired and how people choose between schemas 
    • It does not account for new information without a link to existing schemas 
  • Overall, with the amount of evidence, schema theory should be considered an important theory that provides insight into information processing and behaviour. 
  • It has contributed largely to our understanding of mental processes. 
  • But the theory requires further research and refinements to overcome its limitations and uncover its unclear aspects