How Mental Schemas Affect Learner Outcomes

Help you learners create a framework to remember new experiences more effectively.

Have you ever noticed how some of your course information is easier for your learners to absorb than others? There are any number of reasons why this may be the case, but one of those reasons may have to do with mental schemas.

Simply put, a mental schema is a framework our brain uses to organize and store information. Schemas are a tool to help us quickly absorb incoming information from the world around us and associated it with other experiences. This helps us remember that information better, and to make decisions more accurately.

Think of it like driving: you had to learn not just how to operate a vehicle, but also the rules of the road so that you didn’t get into trouble with other drivers. Unsurprisingly, as driving spread around the world, many countries adopted many of the same signs and driving conventions, which is why the red hexagon is recognized internationally as the sign for “STOP.”

For most of us, as we go about our daily lives, we can readily assimilate new information with our past experiences, much like if we suddenly found ourselves driving in a foreign country and came across that familiar red hexagon. But what if the cars in that new country drove on the other side of the road from the one we’re used to? This would be like encountering a new, contradictory schema to the one we’d already learned, and it would be disorienting and confusing.

This has significant implications for elearning. The more you can associate your content with mental schemas your learners are familiar with, the more success you will have in helping them relate to your course. But if your course conflicts with those schemas, you will have to work harder to help that information stick. Here are a few tips to get mental schemas to work in your favor.

1. Learn about your learner’s experiences, and show how your subject is relevant.

If you can learn a little about your learners before you launch your course, you will have an easier time creating a schema that helps them learn. Consider running a short entrance survey of your learners as they join the course. Then respond to each with a few examples of how your course relates to their daily lives.

Alternatively, look for trends to understand the type of learners you’re attracting to your course, their familiarity with the subject matter, and the expectations they have when they start. Use that information to improve the course over time.

Also consider running an exit survey when learners finish the course and ask them how you could fit your material to better match their experiences and expectations.

2. Provide multiple reference points to touch on as many experiences as possible.

Here’s another example to help you visualize schemas at work: many chess grandmasters are successful because they can recognize patterns on a chessboard and quickly map them to prior experiences of games they’ve played or chess problems they’ve solved. This experience is what allows them to respond so quickly to moves. Because Chess has strict rules governing the way the board is set up and the pieces move, boards tend to arrange themselves in a set number of patterns.

However, if you were to place chess pieces on the board randomly, it would take a grandmaster longer to make a move, because those random patterns would not relate to one of their known schemas.

It’s hard to know what experience your learners will bring to the classroom, so it is difficult to predict which examples will strike a chord and which ones will fall flat. But the more variety you offer in your examples, the more likely you are to hit one a theme that resonates with your audience.

3. Introduce jargon terminology cautiously.

Jargon is a common roadblock for many learners. The more jargon-laden a text is, the harder learners have to work to understand it. This isn’t to say jargon is bad—in fact, it’s very important in order to quickly reference complex ideas. (In fact, “mental schemas” is itself a jargon term.)

So, while learners will eventually need to learn jargon words in order to progress in a course, it’s important to do so slowly. Avoid alienating learners by making sure each new jargon term is understood before using it regularly in your text, and offer a glossary that they can easily reference if they forget about it down the road.

4. Encourage learners to reframe what they’ve learned in ways that are familiar to them.

Every learner is going to have a different set of experiences. You can try your best to match your course to them, but it may be even more helpful to ask them to engage in that process themselves.

For each lesson, as learners to give an example of how the material they’ve covered dovetails with their lived experiences. Even better, make this a regular discussion point in your course forum. As learners share experiences, they may learn as much from each other as they do from your course.

5. Give your learners time to assimilate information at their own pace.

The more your leaners can self-pace themselves in your course, the better positioned they will be to absorb information long-term. This can be counterintuitive for some instructors, especially if they’re worried that learners who are left to pace themselves will simply drop out of the course.

However, a better way to approach this problem would be by encouraging your learners to strengthen their intrinsic motivation. Motivated learners will demonstrate more tenacity when they encounter difficult material, and will put in the leg work to actually understand it instead of glossing over it because they’re being pressured to move on.

Build your concepts off each other to strengthen mental schemas.

Mental schemas grow stronger the more a learner has to work with. Because of this, it’s important to look at your course structure and make sure that everything fits together well. If you spend one lesson building one set of related concepts and then switch to something completely different in the next lesson, it can be very difficult for learners to keep up.

However, if you can construct a framework for your course that your learners can understand, and then fit each concept into that framework, your learners won’t just remember the coursework better—they’ll have a stronger reason to see it through to the end.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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