If I ask you to describe what a “head” is, you might talk about the brain, hair, eyes, nose, ears, skin, neck, etc. A head is made up of many things, but you’ve gathered all that information together and called it “head”. Similarly I could talk about the concept “eye”. And you would think about all the things that make up an eye: the eyeball, iris, eyelash, eyelid, etc. Psychologists call these groupings a “schema” (the plural is schemata). You use schemata to store information in ,and retrieve information out of, your long term memory.
A schema builds associations — If you can connect new information you encounter to information that is already stored, then it will be easier for it to stick, or stay in long-term memory, and easier to get it out of your memory. A schema allows you to build up these associations in long term memory. Just one schema helps you organize a lot of information.
Experts have information stored as a schema — The more expert you are at something, the more organized and powerful your schema will be. For example, someone who is new to the game of chess has to have a lot of little schemata — Schema 1: how to set up the pieces on the board, Schema 2: how a Queen can move, and so on. But an expert chess player can pile a lot of information into one schema with ease. They can look at a chess board in the middle of a game and tell you what some of the starting moves were, the strategies for each player, and what the next move is likely to be. They could certainly recite how to set up the board and how each piece can move. What would take many schemata for the novice player, the expert player has stored in one schema. This makes retrieval of information faster and easier, and also makes it easier for the expert to put new information about chess into long term memory.
What do you think? Can you use the idea of a schema to present information in a way that people will process it better? Can you use this idea for yourself when you are trying to learn something new?