Schema as an Active Recognition Device | Experiment

Written report of a cognitive psychology experiment.

Schemas are integrated chunks of knowledge stored in memory allowing us to form expectations and make sense of the world. Rumelhart and Norman (1988) described schemas as having variables or slots where schemas vary in the amount of information they contain and overlap to relate together to form systems. For example, a schema for a picnic may be part of a larger system of schemas including ‘meals’, ‘outings’, and ‘parties’ (Gross, 1996). Therefore, suggesting schemas to be active recognition devices where we try to make sense of ambiguous and unfamiliar information in terms of our existing knowledge and understanding.

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Bartlett (1932) argued that we rely on schemas as well as content to remember stories. Based on his findings of participants recalling a story “The War of the Ghosts” from a different culture, Bartlett (1932) found that distortions increased over successive recalls and most of these reflected the participants’ attempts to make the story more like a story from their own culture. Changes from the original story included rationalisations, which made the story more coherent as the story was shortened and phrases changed to be more similar to their own language, participants failed to recall unfamiliar details such as the ghosts, and they elaborated certain content and altered its importance (Bartlett, 1932). Therefore, the changes made the story easier to remember. Bartlett (1932) concluded that the changes to the story on recall showed that the participants were actively reconstructing the story to fit their existing schemas and that schemas affect retrieval rather than encoding or storage.

Other evidence suggested schemas influence comprehension and retrieval. For instance, Bransford and Johnson (1972) argued that schemas often influence comprehension processes rather than retrieval. Presenting participants with a passage in which it was hard to determine which schemas were relevant Bransford and Johnson (1972) found that participants who heard the passage without a title recalled an average of only 2.8 idea units compared to the participants who were given the title who recalled an average of 5.8 idea units. Bransford and Johnson’s (1972) study show that the title acted as a useful retrieval cue.

Anderson and Pichert’s (1978) research showed that a person’s perspective could guide retrieval of information. For instance, Anderson and Pichert (1978) asked participants to read a story about two boys playing in a house from one of two perspectives, that of a home-buyer or that of a burglar and to write as many of the stories detail they could recall. The participants asked to recall the story again but with half of the participants in the home-buyer condition recalling the story from the perspective of a burglar and half of the participants in the burglar condition to recall the story from the home-buyer perspective. Anderson and Pichert (1978) found that people recalled new information following the change of schema. Anderson and Pichert’s (1978) findings suggested that schemas play a critical role for readers in selectively attending to elements of a passage that is significant for recall. Therefore, this study aims to replicate the Anderson and Pichert (1978) study to see if there would be a significant difference in the recall for participants who changed schema compared to the recall of the participants who did not change schema.


Purposive sampling selected a sample of 40 participants: 20 males and 20 females, age range of 20 to 25 for males and 20 to 26 for females, mean ages 20.5 and 32.7 years respectively. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups; home-buyer schema group and the burglar schema group.


The study used a repeated measures design, with two conditions: condition A (no change schema) and condition B (changed schema). The IV being the number of story details recalled correctly and the DV measured was recall accuracy for the change in schema perspective. Controlling for order effects, half of the participants of each group were randomly assigning to condition A and half to condition B for the second recall task.


The materials used were the story used in the original study by Anderson and Pichert (1978) about two boys who played truant from school and spent the day at the home of one of the boys because no one was home that day. The story contained many details, of which some were expected to be more salient for a person with a home-buyer schema, such as attractive grounds, leaking roof, and damp basement; and other details more salient for a person with a burglar schema, such as valuable coin collection, nobody home on Thursdays, and an expensive TV. Part B of the Productive Vocabulary Levels Test (PVLT) (Laufer and Nation, 1995) was the ‘filler’ task used before the first recall of the story. Before instructions for the second recall participants were asked to count backwards from 99 until asked to stop as a ‘filler’ task before the second recall, with the stopping cut off point was 30.


The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group was told to imagine that they were looking for a house to buy (‘home-buyer’ schema group). The other group was told to imagine that they were burglars looking for a house to break into (‘burglar’ schema group). Working with one group at a time, participants were given a story to read about two boys who played truant from school and spent the day at the home of one of the boys because no-one was home that day, and were given two minutes to read the story. Next, the participants were instructed, to complete the (PVLT) test for twelve minutes. When the twelve minutes were up the participants were told to stop the test and to write down as many of the details of the story they could recall. When the participants had completed the first recall task, they were instructed to count backwards from 99 until told to stop. The participants were asked to stop counting at the count of 30, and then handed envelopes containing standardised instructions for the next stage of the study. Half the participants received instructions asking them to recall the story a second time from the same perspective, the other half of the participants were given instructions asking them to recall the story a second time from the other perspective. For example, half of the participants who had imagined they were home-buyers were asked to imagine they were burglars (the other half kept imagining being home-buyers), and half of those who had imagined they were burglars were asked to imagine they were home-buyers (the other half kept imagining being burglars). Once participants had read the instructions, they were asked to write down as many details of the story they could recall for a second time. When the second recall task was completed, debriefing took place and the participants were thanked for their participation. This standardised procedure was used for both groups.

Ethical considerations:

For ethical reasons the following steps were taken Firstly, during gaining consent before the participants’ participated in the study it was explained that the true nature of the study would not be explained until the debriefing after all measures were taken. However, the participants were reassured that their participation will be kept anonymous and that the study was not a test of their intelligence or mental abilities and that they were free to withdraw at any time during the study. Finally debriefing at the end of the study took place informing the participants of the true nature of the study, and that they could withdraw from the study. The debriefing also ensured that the participants suffered no distress during the study.

Recall results were collected for the first and second recall tasks and the details recalled which related to the schema perspectives were recorded. Mean scores were calculated for the correct recall of schema related details from the first recall task (table 1).

The data was analysed with the anaylsis of variance (ANOVA) showing that there was a significant effect for the number of story details recalled by the participants with different schemas F = 4.49, p < 0.018. Where the home-buyer schema group recalled more home-buyer details than burglar related details, and the burglar schema group recalled more burglar details than home-buyer details. For analysing the difference between the participants first and second recall each participants recalls were recorded, showing the number of ‘new’ story details which had not been recalled in the first recall task. Each total of schema related recall scores for each group were averaged to calculate the means for the correct recall of schema related details from the second recall task (Table 2).

The data was analysed with the analysis of variance (ANOVA) (table 3) showing a significant main effect of changing interaction F = 4.3, p < 0.022. These results showed that the participants who changed schema recalled more ‘new’ details for the changed schema than recalled for their original schema.

Schema theory research has assumed that explicit thought about a schema’s topic or an encounter with relevant information can activate a schema. Bransford and Johnson (1972) argued that schemas often influence comprehension processes rather than retrieval where Anderson and Pichert (1978) argued that schemas influence the retrieval of information. The aim of this study was to replicate Anderson and Pichert’s (1978) study, claiming that people store information when reading a passage, which they fail to produce when recalling the passage after changing schemas. This study was a replication of Anderson and Pichert’s (1978) study which predicted that participants who changed schemas would recall more information related to the ‘new’ schema than ‘new’ information for their original schema. An anaylsis of variance (ANOVA) statistical test showed a significant effect if the type of recall presented, showing that the participants who changed schemas recalled more additional information which was previously unrecalled than the participants who did not change schemas. These findings supported Anderson and Pichert’s (1978) claims that correct recall resulting from the retrieval of knowledge are strongly influenced by the perspective taken during perception and cognition of the retrieved information.

It has been show, that schemas provided after learning can affect recall. For example, when participants are given an additional perspective at test (e.g. home-buyer) may use this perspective as a retrieval cue and remember additional information (e.g. leaky roof) (Anderson and Pichert, 1978). Besides increasing correct recall, use of schemas post encoding may also lead to bias and memory errors. For example new information learned after the fact can activate a schema which participants then use to reconstruct the original events. Lotus and Palmer (1974) demonstrated this phenomenon in their classic study that questioned participants about a slide show they had just seen. One question asked how fast the cars were going when they “hit” or “smashed” into each other. One week later, those whose question read smashed were more likely to report seeing broken glass. Post encoding use of schema research has focused on correct recall (e.g. Anderson and Pichert, 1978) or on memory distortions resulting from post event information, which strongly implied the biased memory.

This study controlled confounding variables by testing the participants in two separate groups and getting them to carry out a ‘filler’ task between first and second recall. In addition, for each group half the participants were assigned to the no change schema condition and the other half assigned to the changed schema condition for the second recall task to control for order effects. The participants were deceived of the true nature of the study to control for participants expectancies, to ensure that schema change was the only variable manipulated while all other variables are held constant so as not to affect the results.

In summary the findings of this study showed, there to be a significant difference in the recall of additional information for the changed schema than for the additional information recalled for the original schema compared to the additional information recalled by the no change schema group. Showing that schemas are active recognition devices and play a critical role in reading where readers selectively attend to details of a passage that is significant to recall and that schemas strongly influence our retrieval of information. As the study used undergraduate students, who have plenty of experience in reading for text from different perspectives future research would benefit from looking at how schema change influences recall when reading from a studying perspective or reading from an entertainment perspective in primary school children.


Anderson, R.C. and Pichert, J.W. (1978) ‘Recalling of Previously Unrecallable Information Following a Shift in Perspective’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 17: 1-12.

Bartlett, F.C. (1932) Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bransford, J.D. and Johnson, M.K. (1972) ‘Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding: Some Investigations of Comprehension and Recall’, Journal of Verbal Language and Verbal Behavior, 11: 717-726.

Gross, R. (1996) (3rd Ed.). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Laufer, B. and Nation, P. (1995) ‘Vocabulary Size and Use: Lexical Richness in L2 Written Production’, Applied Linguistics, 16: 307-322.

Lotus, E.F. and Palmer, J.C. (1974) ‘Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction between Language and Memory’, Journal of Verbal Language and Verbal Behavior, 13: 585-589.

Rumelhart, D.E. and Norman, D.A. (1988) ‘Representation in memory’, In R.C. Atkinson, R.J. Herrstein, G. Lindzey, and R.D. Luce. (2nd Ed.) Steven’s Handbook of Experimental Psychology. New York: John Wiley and Son: 511-587.

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