Catalyse learning using schemas

Teachers are in the learning business.

One way we learn is by storing knowledge for the long term through a process called ‘consolidation’. Consolidation has been dubbed the “core force of knowledge accumulation” (Shing & Brod, 2016, p.4).

Consolidation = learning.

Memory consolidates into networks called schemas.

Schemas = our prior knowledge.

In this blog we see that schemas act as templates, fitting new information to them. They influence what we learn and how quickly. We’ll see what this means for teachers.

What is a schema?

To understand the 4 necessary properties of a schema (Ghosh & Gilboa, 2014), here’s an example:

I have a reasonable understanding of ‘World War 1’. I know facts about the war, vague images of trenches, what it means to be patriotic etc.

This knowledge has been extracted and stored by my brain from multiple experiences. It is a generalised understanding of World War 1 freed from unique contextual details, i.e., where and when I encountered the information.

My brain stores this information in networks called schemas. A network structure is handy because knowledge that is related is connected.

Having a network of connected, generalised knowledge aids my understanding of new information: when I read Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, I can use my ‘World War 1’ schema to comprehend Owen’s war references and, on some level, his anger.

My schema can also be updated with knowledge about the poem. This is because schemas remain current by being adaptable. They can a) integrate new knowledge and b) change the strength of connections between existing knowledge. These adaptations serve to change my understanding.

Distilling it down, schemas –

  1. Contain generalised knowledge from multiple experiences.
  2. Lack unique details of these experiences.
  3. Contain knowledge and the relationships between knowledge.
  4. Are adaptable.

Schemas and learning

Schemas represent our understanding of the world. They are a prism through which we interpret our experiences (Tulving, 1972). This means they influence what/how we learn (Gilboa & Marlatte, 2017).

For example, my ‘war’ schema contains knowledge about wars in general, e.g., that they have ‘opposing sides’, ‘weapons’ etc. This knowledge acts as a mental template, i.e., a pre-prepared structure for organising incoming information.

This means, when I begin learning about a specific war, say World War 1, my ‘war’ schema is prepared for information about ‘who the opposing sides are’, ‘what weapons they used’… etc. This information can slot into the template more easily because it fits with what is expected. Stuff that doesn’t fit with the template can be harder to learn.**

Now that we think of schemas as mental templates, we can understand 2 principles that affect learning:

  1. A better template improves how quickly and easily information can be stored (learned).
  2. Information that fits the template is learned more easily.

A better template (schema) therefore short cuts the learning process.

Here’s how it happens in the brain.

Information is usually encoded by the hippocampus, which temporarily stores episodes we experience. In a slower process, the hippocampus replays what it knows to relevant schemas in the neocortex (outer layer of the brain) for long-term storage.

However, when new information fits well with an existing schema, we can bypass the hippocampus (to a degree), taking a short cut to the schema (van Kesteren et al., 2012) and the consolidation process may happen quicker (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

In other words: relevant prior knowledge can speed up learning.

What does this mean for teachers?

Plan, check and curate templates

Relevant prior knowledge speeds up learning. This isn’t surprising to teachers. But it does underscore the importance of intentionality: planning, checking and curating the templates pupils need.

For example, when I taught year 8 ‘Animal Farm’, the department made the decision not to teach the context (the Russian Revolution) to save time.

A cost of not building that template? Pupils didn’t understand the significance of the book on a deeper level.

I’m not saying this is wrong. What I am saying is, by seeing prior knowledge as templates through which pupils learn information, we realise how important it is that we are consciously aware of the templates they have.

Teachers can do three things:

Plan: decide the mental templates pupils need.

Check: ask questions that check the state of existing templates.

Curate: teach pupils the templates they need.

Won’t investing time in planning, checking and curating prior knowledge detract from the time-saving benefits of speedy consolidation?

Yes. But it’s worth it.

Building better templates allows for meaningful learning.

Activate schema

It’s not enough to know pupils have relevant prior knowledge.

To speed up consolidation (learning), pupils must activate relevant prior knowledge at the same time new material is introduced (Gilboa & Marlatte, 2017; Zeithamova et al., 2012).

In fact, this is even more important for school-aged children. Their prefrontal cortex, associated with the use of prior knowledge, is still developing (Shing & Brod, 2016).

The brilliant Rosenshine in his “Principles of Instruction” urges us to “Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.” (Rosenshine, 2012, p.12). But I’d add to this. It may be wise to activate prior knowledge in the moment you introduce new material.

For example:

[Activate prior knowledge] “We learned about the idea of devotion in ‘Romeo and Juliet’…”

[Introduce new material] “Now we are going to focus on a different sort of devotion: devotion to one’s country.”

Make explicit links

Information that fits with our mental templates is more readily learned (van Kesteren & Meeter, 2018; van Kesteren et al., 2020).

This means pupils need to recognise the links between what they are learning and concepts they’ve learned before. We can’t leave links to chance.

Make links explicit during teaching (state them or draw them out through questioning) and ensure all pupils understand.

For example:

“We learned about the idea of devotion in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. We saw that this strong feeling led the lovers to extreme risks and sacrifices.

Now we’re going to focus on a different sort of devotion: devotion to one’s country.

[Explicit link] Just like with romantic devotion, this can cause people to take extreme risks and sacrifices…”

Now we see that schemas act as mental templates. We need to be intentional about the mental templates pupils have by planning, checking and curating them. We can then use them to catalyse learning if we help pupils activate them at the same time as introducing new information and explicitly link them to the new information.

In our next blog we look at another way we can catalyse learning: retrieval.

*There are also downsides to schemas, even well-developed ones with lots of well-connected knowledge. We will consider this in another blog.

**There may be a difference between how the brain learns things that jar with current schema and things for which there is just no/little prior knowledge (see van Kesteren et al., 2012 for an explanation in terms of prediction error).


Ghosh, V. E., & Gilboa, A. (2014). What is a memory schema? A historical perspective on current neuroscience literature. Neuropsychologia, 53, 104-114.

Gilboa, A., & Marlatte, H. (2017). Neurobiology of schemas and schema-mediated memory. Trends in cognitive sciences, 21(8), 618-631.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American educator, 36(1), 12.

Shing, Y. L., & Brod, G. (2016). Effects of prior knowledge on memory: Implications for education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(3), 153-161.

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving, & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory. Oxford: Academic Press.

van Kesteren, M. T. R., Krabbendam, L., & Meeter, M. (2018). Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration. npj Science of Learning, 3(1), 1-8.

van Kesteren, M. T., Rignanese, P., Gianferrara, P. G., Krabbendam, L., & Meeter, M. (2020). Congruency and reactivation aid memory integration through reinstatement of prior knowledge. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-13.

van Kesteren, M. T., Ruiter, D. J., Fernández, G., & Henson, R. N. (2012). How schema and novelty augment memory formation. Trends in neurosciences, 35(4), 211-219.

Zeithamova, D., Dominick, A. L., & Preston, A. R. (2012). Hippocampal and ventral medial prefrontal activation during retrieval-mediated learning supports novel inference. Neuron, 75(1), 168-179.


5 responses to “Catalyse learning using schemas”

  1. […] There are ways we can speed up the learning process. Find our how you can use schemas to speed up learning. […]


  2. […] Catalyse Learning Using Schemas – Sarah Cottingham […]


  3. […] they limit what pupils attend to.Now we know prior knowledge is crucial to learning. It affects how quickly pupils learn new information and as we’ve seen in this blog, it actually affects what pupils attend to and interpret from […]


  4. […] First, reactivation. I discuss how we can catalyse learning using what pupils already know in a previous blog. […]


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