Cognitive Psychology Class Notes > Schemas

Definition of Schema:

  • generalized knowledge about situations and events
  • schemas guide our recognition and understanding of new information by providing expectations about what should occur

Scripts (a type of schema):

    • simple, well-structured sequence of events of a highly familiar activity

How do Schemas Operate?

  1. during memory selection (during the selection of material to be remembered)
  2. during memory abstraction (when we extract meaning, and not necessarily details)
  3. during memory interpretation (when schemas help us to comprehend)
  4. during integration (when we form a single memory representation)

Schemas and Memory Selection:

  • 3 conditions that determine whether a piece of info will be selected for encoding:
    • a person must have a relevant schema
    • the schema must be activated
    • the incoming info must be important with respect to the schema
  • we remember schema-consistent info when incidental learning is involved better than schema-inconsistent info ["office schema" example]
  • we remember schema-inconsistent info when intentional learningis involved better than schema-consistent info

Schemas and Memory Abstraction and Integration:

LAB DEMO: Bransford and Franks (1971)

  • memory abstraction:

cognitive process by which we store the meaning of a message and not the exact wording and grammatical structure

  • Reconstructive Model of Memory (Bransford & Franks, 1971)

constructed four-fact sentences, and broke them down into smaller sentences:

4 - The ants in the kitchen ate the sweet jelly that was on the table.

3 - The ants in the kitchen ate the sweet jelly

2 - The ants in the kitchen ate the jelly.

1 - The jelly was sweet.

Acquisition: Ss heard 1-, 2-, and 3-fact sentences only

Test: Ss heard 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-fact sentences (most of which were never presented) and noncase sentences

Results: the more facts in the sentences, the more likely Ss would judge them as old and with higher confidence

why were Ss consistently more likely to believe they heard the whole story -- which they had not -- than the simpler sentences -- which they had heard?

the mind's search for meaning -- when presented with a random series of statements, the mind tries to put them together in a way that tells a meaningful, coherent story

rather than finding verbatim memory, B & F found memory for meaning or memory based on abstraction of meaning from memory and the semantic integration of related material

because the 4-fact sentences most closely match the full meaning of the sentence stories in memory, Ss were most confident of having heard them before

Constructive Model: we integrate info from individual sentences in order to construct larger ideas; emphasizes the active nature of our cognitive processes

Loftus & Palmer (1974)

    • altering memory representations of witnessed events
    • original info combines with info received after the fact to form one memory representation for a complex event
    • Ss view movie of car accident, Ss ask questions about the event:

Critical Question:

'About how fast were the cars going when then SMASHED / COLLIDED / BUMPED / HIT / CONTACTED each other?

Postevent Info

Ave. Speed Estimate











One week later subjects were asked:

'Was there broken glass?'

    • Ss constructed a meaningful, coherent story of the event based on original info and postevent info
    • despite our sense that we remember episodes or events accurately (I vividly recall that..."I saw it with my own eyes!"), we seem to be unaware of the extent to which later events may have altered our memories

Schemas and Memory Interpretation: Inferences

  • with the aid of our previous knowledge, we make logical interpretations and conclusions on information that is never presented to us --> these are inferences

Bransford et al. (1972)

Study sentences:

(1)Three turtles rested beside a floating log, and a fish swam beneath them.

(2)Three turtles rested on a floating log, and a fish swam beneath them.

Recognition sentences:

(3)Three turtles rested beside a floating log, and a fish swam beneath it.

(4)Three turtles rested on a floating log, and a fish swam beneath it.

Mental model:











    • Ss who saw (2) recognized that they had seen (3) more often than Ss who saw (1)
    • it's a reasonable inference!! --> it's a construction

Conclusions about Schemas:

  • schemas are based on our general world knowledge and experiences
  • schemas operate in the selection of memories
  • schemas encourage memory abstraction
  • schemas influence interpretations of our memory for info
  • schemas lead to integration of info in memory

Definition of Metacognition:

  • knowledge and awareness of your own cognitive processes

"I don't recall"

"I understood this fairly well"

"I won't be able to solve this problem right away"

"I can't study with the TV on"

"Her name is on the tip of my tongue"