Organizing Knowledge Cognitively

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People sort and store knowledge in many different ways. The main storage types are: Concepts, Schemes and Scripts, and Personal Theories.


A concept is a system of grouping and categorizing our brain uses to sort and store information. Concepts change and adapt as the amount of knowledge about a particular subject changes and grows. For example, as a child we were told that dogs and cats are animals. The concept of an animal might have been something furry with four legs. As school progressed and we learned more about animals the concept changed to incorporate everything from mammals to amphibians to fish.

Limited concepts can lead to two things:

  • undergeneralization - too narrow of a view of what or who are included in a concept, like thinking fish are not animals because they have no legs or fur.
  • overgeneralization - placing things and ideas in a concept that are, in fact, not related to the concept, like thinking a chair is an animal because it has four legs. There are a few main parts to a concept.

Feature Lists[edit]

Theorists believe that creating a concept includes learning the distinct features and characteristics that are present in all examples of a concept. A good way to know if something is part of a concept is to identify the defining features of the concept and see if the object or event in question shares those defining features. For example, an animal must eat food, a plant must grow, and a vertebrate must have a spine. So, every example of an animal must have the defining feature or eating food, every plant must grow, and every vertebrate must have a spine to be included in the concept.


Most people have a mental prototype, or mental example of a concept. For example, when referring to the concept of "transportation" you might think of a car, bus, truck, or train, but not typically of a skateboard or a pogo stick. Once the prototype for a concept is found, compare new objects and experiences with that prototype. Objects or events similar to the prototype are readily accepted as instances of the concept. Objects and events that are different are often rejected as instances of the concept when, in fact, they are.


Exemplars are similar to the prototype except your concept was formed by a mixture of different examples. This helps to limit undergeneralization, a common problem with using the prototype alone. For example, when developing the concept of birds, not only learn about sparrows and pigeons but penguins and ostriches. By learning from a variety of examples, the concept is more complete and less susceptible to error.

Schemes and Scripts[edit]

A scheme is simply an organized set of knowledge about specific items and events. Schemes give a general or common understanding of how things are. Schemes are not only a way to organize information but also influence our perception and interpretation of new things or experiences. A script is a scheme with a particular order or sequence. For example, if we hear a story about how a man left his house, got into his car, and went for a drive at night, we would assume that he had turned on his lights between getting in his car and going for a drive even though we are not told so. The general information about driving a car would be the scheme and the sequence of events in driving the car would be the script.

Personal Theories[edit]

Ever since birth we have been forming our own personal theories about the world and everything in it. We form personal theories to explain the events and objects in our individual world, such as family and entertainment. Although these theories are based on observation and fact, they are not necessarily 100% correct or complete. Theories grow and change the same way as concepts and schemes. Personal theories are what influence defining features of concepts, thus influence whole concepts. This is an individual process; personal theories are formed without any outside help. This can often lead to misconceptions or false beliefs. The most correct personal theories are the ones based on the most correct concepts and schemes, the building blocks of theories.

External links[edit]

Source: Educational Psychology- Developing Learners 4th Edition, Jeanne Ellis Ormrod