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The general scheme theory of Rumelhart and Norman

The general scheme theory of Rumelhart and Norman

January 11, 2023

Rumelhart and Norman made key contributions to the general theory of schemes , a framework for the analysis of cognitive processing and the acquisition of knowledge that belongs to the field of neurosciences.

In this article we will describe the main aspects of schema theory and the most important contributions of these two authors.

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What are cognitive schemes?

In the field of cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics and other related sciences, the term "schema" is used to refer to cognitive patterns of information, including the relationships between different elements of knowledge. They have been studied fundamentally for their influence on the perception and acquisition of new information .


In his book Schemata: the building blocks of cognition (1980), who had a transcendental influence on the development of schema theory, David Rumelhart said that the concept of schema refers to the knowledge we possess. In particular, these would correspond to Generic information sets , relatively unspecific.

In these schemes human experience is represented at all levels, from the most basic sensory perceptions to abstract aspects such as ideology, through the muscular movements, sounds, structure and meanings that make up language.

According to Rumelhart and Norman (1975) the schemes are composed of different variables that can acquire multiple values. The information we obtain is processed at a cognitive level and compared with the schemes and with their possible configurations, which we store in long-term memory and increase the efficiency of our cognition.


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The general scheme theory of Rumelhart and Norman

Rumelhart and Norman argue that learning, and therefore the formation of schemes, is not a unitary process, but that we obtain knowledge through three modes of acquisition: accumulation, adjustment and restructuring. The basic process is the spontaneous accumulation of information that we carry out through the senses and cognition.

However, the accumulation is only possible when the new information is compatible with the schemes that we already have. When there is a discrepancy it is necessary to modify the cognitive structure ; if this is of slight intensity, an adjustment process takes place, which maintains the basic relational network of the scheme, changing only a few variables.


On the other hand, when the discrepancy between memories and novel information is very strong, the adjustment is not enough, but we resort to restructuring. This process is defined as the creation of a new scheme based on the combination of existing schemes or the detection of common patterns among some of them.

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How are the schema variables modified?

As we have said, Rumelhart and Norman talked about "variables" to refer to The factors that define the schemes and their possible manifestations . Frequently the acquisition of knowledge implies the modification of these variables in order to update the cognitive structure, especially in the cases of learning by adjustment.

According to these authors, the change in the variables can take place in four different ways. The first consists in increasing the specificity of the schemes by modifying the meaning associated with a specific range of values. Another way is to increase this range so that the applicability of the variable also does.

Of course, the opposite can also happen: the reduction of the range of applicability or even the replacement of the variable by a constant. The fourth and last mode consists of set some basic values ​​for a given variable ; this serves to make inferences when the information about the variable is insufficient in a specific situation.

The Interactive Model of Reading Comprehension

Rumelhart also developed a theory he called "Interactive Model" to explain reading comprehension from a cognitive point of view. In the Interactive Model Rumelhart describes the acquisition of linguistic-visual knowledge as a process in which the mind works with multiple sources of information simultaneously .

Thus, when we read our brain, we analyze factors such as the relationships between sounds and letters (which have an arbitrary character), the meanings of words and phrases made or syntactic links between the different components of discourse.

If at least one of the physiological-cognitive systems relevant to reading comprehension is altered, the deficit in the processing of information that is derived from it is compensated by another type of information. Thus, for example, when we do not understand the meaning of a word or we do not hear it well, we can try to deduce it from the discursive context.

On the other hand Rumelhart considered that the stories share nuclear grammatical aspects . When hearing or reading stories that we did not know before, the perception of this common grammar helps us to understand the events and to structure them mentally with greater ease, as well as to predict the development of events.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rumelhart, D. E. (1980). Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In R.J. Spiro et al. (Eds.), "Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension." Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Norman, D. A. & Rumelhart, D. E. (1975). Explorations in cognition. San Francisco: Freeman.

Don Norman and Mick McManus on "Design in the Age of AI: A design debate" (January 2023).


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