Mental Schemas and Applied Learning Activities

When experts are presented with a familiar problem or situation, they often respond quickly with an appropriate decision. If however, novice learners are presented with the same problem, they either do not have a response, or offer a weak solution based on a limited understanding and lack of experience. The difference between these two performances is that an expert possesses a rich network of related facts, concepts and cognitive processes that was built over time with practice and experience. In addition, this network is activated appropriately when presented with a problem to solve. I will refer to this network as a mental schema.

Note: There is disagreement as to whether an individual has a single mental schema of life, or uses multiple schemas to represent anything from a single object to an area of expertise. I will use the term schema in the latter sense realizing that it is a purely conceptual distinction. I will also use the term mental model to denote the more knowledge-based facts, concepts, and procedures of a particular domain.

Inside world and the outside world

A mental schema is an inner representation of the outer world. Each known object in the outer world has a corresponding representation in an individual’s mental schema. In this way, a schema includes objects and their properties, an understanding of how objects (concrete and abstract) interact with one another, and how those interactions can be analyzed, evaluated, and predicted. At its essence, a mental schema is an individual’s inner functional image of his or her outer world.

Mental schemas are always an incomplete and inaccurate representation of reality. For example, if I ask ten students to picture a stalk of corn in their mind and think about what they know about corn, there would be considerable variation due to their previous experiences with corn. Their mental schemas are not aligned. For alignment to occur, each learner must assimilate new material and experiences into their schema in a way that existing areas can accommodate. These existing areas need to be refined or perhaps even pruned when it is discovered that a known fact is not, such as when it was determined that the earth is in fact…not flat.

Schema construction takes time

Construction of mental schemas takes time and requires the commitment and participation of both educators and learners. It is critical to reinforce what has been learned by asking learners to repeatedly explain even basic concepts, and to use those explanations in applied learning activities. These activities should also be used by educators to model expertise to learners because giving learners the opportunity to think does not teach them how to think. They experience great benefit in first listening to an expert on how to solve a problem, then watching how the expert solves the problem, followed by an opportunity to practice the same. This should not seem strange because no one would expect a student to learn how to play a piano without first being permitted to watch and hear the teacher perform.

Coverage or learning

Even though contact time with learners is limited and there is much to be understood, the choice is often between content coverage as the driving force, or a commitment to learning. It does not really matter what is covered if it is also forgotten. The real value of educators that cannot be contained in a learning module is not in the content delivered, rather, it is the judgment and decision-making skills that are modeled and passed on. That is why schema construction requires much of the contact time with learners to be devoted to discussion and approaches to problem solving with opportunities to perform the skill and receive feedback.


Solving a problem requires an adequate schema that is appropriately activated. One explanation for how experts solve a problem is that relevant features of the problem, which also includes any constraints, are identified and considered in light of their mental schema. Various mental simulations are thought through until one is selected and implemented. When the results of the implementation are available and perceived, experts use that feedback to enhance their understanding, which will improve their problem-solving abilities in the future. The main downside of this process for acquiring expertise is that it takes a considerable amount of time, and one’s experiences are limited by circumstances. Applied learning activities address this weakness by providing timely, directed, and focused cognitive practice that is not dependent upon circumstances.

The schema challenge for novice learners

With the help of educators, novice learners are faced with the challenge of transforming themselves from a state of incompetence to one of competence by building and refining their own mental schemas. In addition, they need to learn how to appropriately activate relevant portions of their schema when trying to solve a problem. Unfortunately, while their goals are large, their schemas are small. To make matters worse, novice learners often see the results of expert thinking, but have no clue about how that ability was acquired or performed. And asking experts for an explanation is often unfruitful because of their unconscious competence. Experts can easily provide a solution, but often find it difficult to explain how it came to them. Applied learning activities with feedback can make those explanations easier.

The schema challenge for educators

Educators face a challenge that extends well beyond that of experts. Not only must educators maintain expertise in their domain of interest, they must also have educational expertise in how to help learners build and use their own mental schemas. Educators often accomplish this by modeling their expertise to learners by demonstrating solutions to authentic real-world problems. They also answer questions from learners as to how those solutions were determined, and why other solutions were less acceptable.

After modeling their expertise to learners, the next step for educators is to give learners similar applied learning activities to solve with the educator and peers providing feedback on their solutions. Applied learning activities used in this way assist learners in schema building, and provide both educators and learners with evidence of knowing.

Helping learners build their own mental schemas is a creative artistry that uniquely sets one educator apart from another. Each educator has a distinct understanding of the subject domain along with an understanding of individual learners. Applied learning activities allow educators to express their unique understanding of their discipline and their learners.

The class schema

Any meaningful discussion requires that participants have a shared understanding of what each other is saying. Obviously, this understanding does not necessarily mean agreement? Since the mental schemas of a group of learners will vary, it is the educator’s challenge to bring them into enough of an alignment for meaningful discussions to occur. I will refer to this shared baseline understanding as the class schema.

The concept of a class schema is illustrated by the expressions, “Everybody needs to be on the same page” and “Everyone needs to get up to speed.” These expressions capture the need for members of a class to be at a common point of understanding.

Many courses begin with an Introduction and Review session to identify schema deficits. In addition, these sessions serve to reactivate and reinforce cognitive processes that may not have been accessed recently. For some, these review sessions at the beginning of a course can seem tedious, or be viewed as an activity that should not be necessary, but their benefit cannot be overestimated. Even if the review of individual topics is only necessary for a small segments of the class, all learners benefit from the augmentation and reinforcement of their mental schemas. Applied learning activities at the beginning of a course can surface these schema deficits.

While it is important that members of a class begin at a common point of understanding, it is just as important that they continue to maintain and develop common milestones of understanding throughout a course. Obviously, this does not mean that their individual understandings (mental schemas) will not vary widely based on background, experience, and effort, rather, it means each class member’s minimal understanding should encompass the relevant features of the course for continued learning and meaningful discussions to occur. Applied learning activities throughout a course can surface developing schema deficits in individual learners in time for effective remediation.

Course schema

I will use the term, course schema, to represent facts, concepts, and procedures that an educator expects learners to remember, understand, and be able to apply at the end of a course. Thus, at the beginning of a course there is an gap between the class schema and the course schema. Once the initial class schema is established, the remainder of the course is about narrowing that gap until the course schema becomes part of each learner’s mental schema.

Course schemas are not static because educators learn year after year what needs to be improved. New material can be included and existing material may no longer be relevant. In addition, learners will contribute to the class schema from their personal schemas in ways that extend beyond the initial course schema. These contributions may even rise to the level of being incorporated into the formal course schema for subsequent offerings. This continuous enhancement and improvement requires an intentional, pragmatic, and responsive stance by educators.

Capturing augmentations to the course schema from learners by educators in real-time during class is extremely difficult. In addition, learners who are participants find it difficult as well. The problem is cognitive load that exceeds working memory. Listening and thinking creates an intrinsic cognitive load, from which transcribing notes adds to. One solution is to record the class, and have a team of learners review the recording for additional relevant material, and take notes that can be distributed to the rest of the class.

As course schemas evolve, applied learning activities support this evolution by being easily adapted as course requirements change and areas needing improvement are discovered.

Course schema and a program schema

The only way to reliably improve a program of study is to be explicit and intentional about the expected knowledge and cognitive competencies to be achieved in each course, with the ultimate goal that all of the course schemas be coherently integrated into an overall program schema. For this to occur, each course cannot be viewed by its educators as a single silo unto itself. As such, any program of study should have an established program schema that each educator understands, and knows the contribution of his or her efforts.

One challenge to developing an effective program schema is that while the understanding of learners for a particular course is frequently assessed, understanding across multiple courses is not. This lack of comprehensive assessment places a great deal of responsibility on learners to integrate sections of their mental schemas from multiple courses when they are the least experienced and capable of doing so. This should not be surprising because expert educators also find this challenging. A step in the right direction is for program material to be reinforced throughout multiple courses in order for it to become a permanent part of a learners schema. Applied learning activities in a course can help address this when designed to include material from previous courses.