Train the Trainer: The Power of Schema

Do you remember what it was like when you were trying to memorize the names of the different Champagne bottle sizes for your CSW exam?  You studied and studied, only to forget the terms by the next day.  Finally, you dreamed up a silly mnemonic device such as “Mary Jackson makes small boys nervous.”

Brilliant!!  Now you can remember M-J-M-S-B-N…in other words, the perfect sequence of:

  • Magnum
  • Jeroboam
  • Methuselah
  • Salmanazar
  • Balthazar
  • Nebuchadnezzer

Congratulations! What you did was trick your brain, and while it may have helped you pass your CSW exam, it did nothing to help you really know and understand the relevance of the different sizes of the bottles. In order to do that, you would really have to experience them.  I suggest buying one of each bottle size of your favorite Champagne, and on subsequent nights, consume the entire thing while both taking pictures and keeping an on-line journal of your thoughts. (What do you mean, that’s not practical?)  Never fear, there is an easier way.

As the Bubbly Professor, I am not here to criticize your study habits, but I am interested in just why it is so much easier to remember a sentence than it is to memorize a string of seemingly unconnected data, and how we might use such information to make our teaching and learning more effective.

It boils down to one word:  Schema.  Schema is a powerful learning concept which has been discussed in the context of educational psychology since Dr. Frederic Bartlett coined the term in the 1800’s – although if you study the educational practices of the Ancient Greeks you can clearly see that they were wise to it as well.

Schema is one of the factors of the educational process that can determine – in the first few seconds of learning – whether or not something that is being perceived will actually be remembered, and more importantly, understood.  A schema is a type of mental framework – a way of organizing thoughts around some aspect of the world. Schema involves prior knowledge, the structure of that knowledge, and the way we fit new knowledge into our “world.” 

Simply put, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context. One of the best methods for getting students to remember details is to tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details – in other words, introduce a schema.  

According to research, (thank you, Dr. R.C. Anderson),  triggering a schema around a moment of learning can increase retention and comprehension of the salient details by between 50 and 100%.

So, how do we harness this knowledge and turn it into teaching power? 

Here are three tips:

Teach meaning before details.

As we have experienced, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context.  To help your students remember details,   tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details.

In 2005, I did a little classroom experiment in my “Wines of France” class concerning the “facts and figures” of Beaujolais. Over the course of a year, 500 students were taught the details of the wine before the historical story of the wine, and another group of 500 were taught the story before the details.  In other words, the second group of 500 was provided with a schema. 

The results:  students who were taught the details of the wine before the telling of the story got a total of 68% of the questions on a pop quiz given the following day correct.  The students who were told the story before being told the details of the wine got a total of 91% of the answers correct.  While both figures could demonstrate the effectiveness of narrative as a teaching device, the students who were taught the meaning before the details did significantly better.

Use the power of three.

One of the easiest ways to set up a schema is to use pattern recognition using the “power of three.”  Three is the minimum number of items the brain needs to see before it recognizes a pattern,in other words, invokes a schema.  In addition, three details or “chunks” of information sit well within the limits of working memory.

It’s easy to think of dozens of examples of this concept in use in popular culture, literature, and oration.  For example:

  • Lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape
  • Location, Location, Location
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen…
  • Three bears, three wishes, three graces.  Now you know why there are three!

A great tip to put this power to use is to start a session off with the statement: “Today, I want you to remember three things.”  Everyone can remember three things, it doesn’t sound too hard.  Then, it’s your job to “chunk” all your “facts and figures” into three meaningful chunks – now known as “schemata.” 

DIY Schema

Since prior knowledge is essential for the comprehension of new information, teachers either need to help students build the prerequisite knowledge, or remind them of what they already know before introducing new material. 

You might have to get creative with this, but with the subject of food and wine it is often possible to find references to our subject matter in pop culture, movies, television, and even songs. 

Another great teaching tip is to create your own set of schema by purposely “injecting” your classes or sessions with references to future material.  It takes some deliberate effort, but your students will appreciate your efforts – whether they are aware of them or not!