Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Designing eLearning for Schema Theory

By Shelley A. Gable

Have you ever seen a news story about someone with a phenomenal memory? Maybe someone who could miraculously remember sequences of numbers or objects?

Have you ever been invited to attend a workshop that promises to help you improve your memory? Perhaps it promised to help you remember people’s names, among other day-to-day things?

If you’ve attended this type of workshop, or if you’ve seen an interview with someone who has a remarkable knack for recalling seemingly random items, you may already know the method. In short, the trick is to associate items with familiar visual cues. I attended a free mini-workshop like this a few years ago. The facilitator had us envision a castle; he prompted us to visualize each item we needed to remember in a different room of that castle. It worked impressively well – many of us who attended still remembered the full sequence months later.

This is schema theory.

Part of the foundation of learning psychology, schema theory suggests that memory consists of interrelated networks of knowledge, or mental models. Our experiences constantly build and revise these mental models, which we use to solve problems and understand the world around us.

The more firmly we can integrate newly learned knowledge with our existing mental models, the more likely we are to be able to recall that knowledge later.

That’s why recall is so important.

Regardless of which instructional design model is your favorite – Gagne’s nine events of instruction, Merrill’s first principles, or something else – stimulating recall is likely an important component of it. Many interpret this recall step as a review from a previous lesson, reading, or training session. While it certainly can be a review of recent learning, it doesn’t have to be.

The key is to help learners conjure up an existing mental model, so that it’s easily accessible for integrating the new knowledge they’re about to learn. So, it can also be effective to prompt learners to relate information to other personal experiences; the idea is to prime the schema for new content.

Schema theory also supports the effectiveness of stories and scenarios in learning. A compelling story can help create, or dramatically build, a schema itself. When learners practice skills with problem-based scenarios, those scenarios are likely to include realistic triggers from a story, a learner’s mental models, and the work environment.

Want more?

Has schema theory helped inform the way you design eLearning? If so, please share your two cents. If you’d like to learn a little more about it, check out the resources below.

Emmott, C., & Alexander, M. (2009). Schema theory. In S. Shapiro (Ed.), Review of Educational Research (Vol. 75, pp. 531-566).

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Norman, D. A. (1983). Some observations on mental models. In D. Gentner & A. L. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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