How to Use Schema to Increase Student Retention (With Sample Lesson)

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Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge. We do this naturally from birth. Schema is how we make connections to our prior knowledge and build on it. It is a component of cognitive learning theory that studies how we think and learn. Making students aware of their personal schema supports their lifelong learning.

A toddler sees snow falling. She touches it for the first time and feels how cold it is. Dad pulls her over the snow on a sled. A few weeks later when mom mentions the word snow the toddler immediately thinks: falling from the sky, white, cold, slippery, fun. She has created a schema for the word snow.

What is schema?

Schema – or plural schemata – was first introduced by psychologist Jean Piaget. He studied how children learn and made several conclusions:

  • Children learn naturally
  • They learn through what they see and experience
  • Because they are naturally motivated to learn incentives aren’t necessary.

Piaget also explained the mental connections that children (and adults) make build upon prior learning. These connections expand and change over time. He called this mental mapping of ideas and facts schema.

Schema can start out simply, like the snow example above. But as we age the schema grows larger and more complex. In school, we might learn how snow is made and that each flake is unique. The new knowledge will be added to the schema. A child’s “snow schema” can later connect to her knowledge of the four seasons.

This Santa Claus schema is a good example.

Piaget’s 4 Stages of Cognitive Thinking

Piaget identified 4 stages of cognitive learning. These stages allow a child to build more complex schemata as they progress. The four stages are as follows:

1- preoperational stage occurs between birth and 2 years of age. Babies are learning an immense amount of information about their physical environment through watching and touching. They cannot yet grasp the idea of object permanence, the fact that something continues to exist even if it’s out of sight.

That’s why a baby might cry when her mom walks out of the room. It’s also why pick-a-boo is so much fun. The baby is delighted to see a face reappear.

2-  The operational stage allows children to start to think symbolically. Pictures in their memories connect to meaning and experiences. At this stage their schemata is egotistical. They cannot see ideas from others’ points of view.

For example, when my son was a toddler he would stand in front of the television blocking his sister’s view.  Jacqueline would get upset with him thinking he was purposely bothering her. What she didn’t know was that Bobby assumed that everyone could see the TV show because he could.

This stage lasts from 2 to 7 years. At this age children are very concrete thinkers and have difficulty with abstract ideas.

3- The concrete operational stage is from 7 to 11 years. Children now begin to use logic, reasoning and the concept of conservation. 

Conservation is the ability to correctly compare different shapes of mass correctly. Before this stage, if you pour 4 ounces of juice into a wide glass and the same amount into a tall, skinny glass the child will believe there’s more juice in the tall, skinny glass. 

4- Finally you reach the formal operational stage at about puberty. At this point,  a child can think abstractly. They can use reason to solve hypothetical problems. 

The 4 Elements of Learning

In order to understand and build schema in the classroom let’s take a look at the basic components of learning.

The process of assimilating new knowledge takes you through a journey of attention, taking in new information, encoding it to fit existing schemata and recalling it.

A teacher is challenged with guiding a student through each of these steps in succession. I have a few students that make it difficult to get their attention. But until I can achieve that no learning will take place.

What is a schema in education?

So now we’ve talked about what schema is and how it grows as a child matures. Next question: how should this information drive teaching?

In order to assume new ideas, a child must add to or create a new schema. If they’re not doing that new information will go in one ear and out the other.

This is often the most challenging part – getting their attention long enough for them to take in new information.

Let’s imagine a science teacher in front of the classroom with a model skeleton. She wants to introduce the various bones in the body. That’s awesome, I love a good skeleton!

Austin sees the skeleton and kind of likes it. Then he notices another boy in the class who beat him at a video game yesterday. His mind wanders to the fatal mistake he made when playing.

Madison sees the skeleton and is thinking it’s so thin. She is preoccupied with her weight and thinks she’s fat. Now Madison is remembering how much food she ate so far today and how many calories it adds up to.

For Javaughn the skeleton reminds him of a horror movie he saw last week. He remembers that Chainsaw Massacre 18 is coming out this weekend. Will his mother give him money so he can go?

Do you see the challenge? For every Austin, Madison and Javaughn there are 2 more wandering minds. And that’s with a cool skeleton in front of the room! What’s a teacher to do?

How to Get Your Students’ Attention

The first, and often hardest part, in building schema in your students, is to get and keep their attention. You need a bag of tricks and the understanding that some things will work some of the time for some of the kiddos.

Let’s go back to Mr. Skeleton. What if students are asked to study the skeleton and draw the most interesting-shaped bone? Or if they can come up and compare the length of their fingers to that of the skeleton?

These tasks draw the kids into your world and out of their heads. It’s at least mildly interesting to think about. It’s more kinesthetic. 

After that quick activity, you have a larger percentage of kids tuned in to the lesson you want to teach. Now they’re more apt to listen.

Here are some more ideas to catch students’ attention at the beginning of a lesson.

– Play music that ties into your lesson as students enter the room

– Ask a question about themselves that leads into the day’s topic

– stand in the back of the classroom rather than the front (anything out of the ordinary catches attention)

– Ask students a riddle or brain teaser that’s related in some way

Those are just a few ideas. If you want to read an article about bell ringers you can check it out here.

Let’s Build Schema

Once you have your students’ attention they are open to building a new schema or adding onto existing schemata.

You can start by triggering knowledge they already have. Ask questions to check for recall of earlier material. If you’re introducing the concepts of communism and Karl Marx, spend a couple of minutes checking for understanding as to what types of governments they already know and even what a government is. That’s one way to open the correct “file draw” or schema you want them to build on.

Graphic organizers are great. They’re concrete examples of mapping out ideas.

Group discussions open students to others’ thought processes. Whole-class discussion offers another way to share thinking out loud.

Just yesterday, I was introducing the concept of a golden age in history. 

Me: Golden age is easy to remember. Most people think of “gold” and connect it to something valuable or positive.

Student: Actually when I thought of golden age I pictured people fighting for gold.

Wow, I never would have gone down that mental path! That was a quick reminder for me that students’ schema is often very different from my own.

Sample Lesson to Build Schema

Here is a step-by-step lesson I used earlier this week that worked really well for many kids. 

We just finished spending weeks on classical civilizations. Students were introduced to the achievements as well as the downfall of 4 classical civilizations: Greece, Rome, India and China.

For this lesson, students worked in pairs to share recall and ideas.

STEP 1: I distributed approximately 24 post-it notes to each pair. The little 2” x 2” size works really well.

STEP 2: I displayed a Google slide showing about 40 different terms from the unit. It included important people, inventions, achievements, etc. The students were asked to choose at least 20 and write 1 term on each post-it.

This only took 5 minutes because they’re working in pairs. Each kid only needs to write 10 words. Simply writing the terms is an exercise that brings the vocabulary top of mind.

STEP 3: Each pair was given a large sheet of paper. I cut easel pad paper in half. In the center of the paper they wrote “Classical Civilizations” then label 4 areas with each of the civilizations, Greece, Rome, India, and China. Then they drew lines connecting each place to the center topic, classical civilizations.

STEP 4: Now it’s time to organize their post-it notes and place them in the proper place on their charts. Together they used recall (and their notes when necessary) to compartmentalize the various terms and people. They instantly started collaborating:

“Was Pericles Roman?”

“No, he was Greek.”

The students were very engaged in the activity. It was challenging enough without being too difficult. And they were building schemata right there on their papers!

STEP 5: Finally, students were instructed to use the information on their charts to create a summary of classical civilizations in a box on their papers. I also gave them colored pencils to add symbols and pictures.

The Results

Two days after this assignment I administered a summative assessment. It was a 35 question stimulus-based multiple-choice exam. I don’t have quantifiable numbers from the last exam but overall the results were markedly better this time.

My 9th graders struggle with multiple-choice questions. Next year they have a state exam (NY State Regents) that must be passed in order to graduate. Stimulus-based multiple-choice questions are approximately a third of the test. So I really need to improve their skills in this area.

Because — as I tell my kids — if they get good grades on the state test I look good. And that’s really what it’s all about! (Only kidding, but some of my students believe me and are taken aback – gotta keep them on their toes!)

The activity led them through handling a lot of data and organizing it into buckets. That’s schema personified.


There is so much pedagogical jargon thrown at us teachers. Most of the time it boils down to a simple concept with a multisyllabic name. Schema is no different. It’s simply the process by which we file and sort facts in a way that allows us to retrieve them at a later time.

Find some methods to grab your students’ attention. Model ways to add new content onto preexisting knowledge. Rinse and repeat. That’s it’s; you’re an awesome teacher!

Happy teaching,


Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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