Memory Schemas: Under-used Approach to Improving Education

Learning and Memory Schemas Build Competence

Posted Dec 11, 2012

In October I attended a “memory schema” symposium at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience. This “schema” idea is that memory of prior learning provides an organized  framework for new learning. That is, new information is evaluated according to pre-existing mnemonic schema, which may influence how readily new information transfers into memory.

The notion of this kind of schema stems originally from Harry Harlow’s ideas back in the 1940s. Harlow showed that when a monkey learns a new kind of problem, he solves it by slow plodding trial and error. However, if he has experience with a large number of problems of a similar type or class, the trial and error is replaced by a process in which the individual problems are eventually solved insightfully. For example, if you learn how to do task A, B, and C, when presented with a new task D, you might say to yourself, “I don’t know how to do this task D, but it is like task B, and I do know how to do that!” Thus, you have a leg up on learning how to do task D. The idea underlies how people become experts in a given field: their accumulated learning of various tasks provides them with a repertoire of what Harlow called “learning sets” that makes it easier to learn new things.

Few of the speakers or audience discussants seemed to be aware of this literature, and their ideas weren’t really all that new, except that the focus is now shifting to memory instead of schemas for learning and insight. The basic idea of memory schemas is that associations among learning objects profoundly affect how easily and well a person can remember. Certainly, memory is promoted when learning objects have meaningful relationships. Sometimes, however, you can easily remember incongruent items because they are so different. These ideas are important to education, and in the panel discussion at the end of the symposium, speakers were asked to address this matter. But nobody did. And in school systems, few educators do either.

 Master teachers have always known intuitively to structure meaningful relationships among learning objects. In principle, this is done by creating associations of word pairs, concepts, spatial locations, and assorted memorization rules and principles. All these things make it easier for students to remember. The problem is that we educators don’t devote enough thought to practical ways to create structured relationships that will promote memory formation and recall. I don’t follow much of the educational literature, but I suspect that very little of it focuses on the best way to organize the presentation of learning materials. For instance, has anybody conducted an experiment that tests how well students remember the central concepts in the U.S. constitution and its amendments, depending on how the concepts are presented? Or what’s the best way to structure learning objects in the teaching of cell organelles and their functions? Typically, in the latter case for example, a biology teacher considers each organelle in turn and spews out information on what it does. That may not be the most memorizable way to present the information. Maybe it would be better to begin with the biological needs of the cell, how those needs relate to each other, and then how various organelles fulfill those needs. In fact, I took that kind of approach in the on-line biology curriculum I wrote, but no experiment has compared the ease of learning this way versus the traditional approach. I do know from my own experience with trying to learn a little Spanish that the ease of memorizing verb conjugations was greatly affected by how I laid out the words in a table.

Another example is the development of a PowerPoint method I developed to create a one-flash card of animated learning objects that consists of mnemonic icons systematically placed in specified spatial locations. The images represent concepts to memorize, and the spatial locations create spatial relationships that promote memory of the learning objects. For details, see my e-book for students.

In more general terms, the primary task of teachers and students is to develop strategies to enrich the formation of memory schemas. This means finding ways to increase the number and congruence of associations among facts and concepts being taught. The research shows that major benefits can be expected. 


Harlow H,  F. 1949. The formation of learning sets. Psychol. Rev. 56:51-65.

Klemm, W. R. 2012. Better Grades, Less Effort. (e-book in all formats at

Van Kesteren, M. T. R., and Henson, R. N. A. 2012. The re-emergence of schemas in memory research: from encoding to reconsolidation. Society of Neuroscience Symposium. New Orleans.