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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 5, February 15, 2000

First Contact:
The Use of Schemas By Students Taking Their First Online Course

by AnnMarie Paulukonis
Instructional Technology Developer, UW Oshkosh

Introduction and Background

Online learning is a burgeoning field. Courses are offered in everything from how to use the Internet to masterís degrees in criminal justice. In 1997, The Oryx Guide (Burgess) listed 29 institutions offering Internet programs of study leading to certificates or advanced degrees. College Online (Duffy, 1997) listed 83 degree or certificate programs at 17 institutions. These numbers do not include individual courses. As with any new learning medium, successful developers and instructors of online courses pay attention to how students experience these courses. Unfortunately, little is known about what and how students are learning in online environments.

Schema theory provides a conceptual tool to help examine this issue. This theory is a way of explaining how people structure their knowledge of the world (Rumelhart, 1980; Pearson, 1982; Anderson, 1984a). In the last decade, a second-generation schema theory has been developed called Cognitive Flexibility Theory. This theory shows that people apply not just one schema but parts of multiple schemas to understand new situations (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1992) .

I have used these theories as a lens for looking at how students come to use and learn from an online, masterís-level course. Before describing the details of the study, I provide an overview of schema theory and consider how it can help us understand learning in electronic environments.

Schemas in Text Comprehension and other Fields

Imagine that someone picks up a dictionary to read. This person has never used a dictionary before but has read numerous novels. She assumes this is just another novel and attempts to read it in the same way, starting on page one. We would say this person does not understand how to use a dictionary. However, people typically learn either in school or through out-of-school reading experiences about the differences among dictionaries, novels, encyclopedias, fairy tales, and textbooks. We would expect students who have read many of one type of book to be able to read more texts of that type and to understand their structure. This is called having a schema, which delineates the overall structure of the text or of the content, for that type of text (Mandler, 1984).

How does a schema help us when we read? According to Anderson (1984a), a schema helps a person understand the content, attend to specific information, fill in missing information, and recall the text. That is, the schema enables the reader to comprehend what she read. "Comprehension is a matter of activating or constructing a schema that provides a coherent explanation of object and eventsÖ. The click of comprehension occurs only when the reader evolves a schema that explains the whole message" (Anderson, 1984a, p. 247). Anderson (1984a, 1984b) believes schemas help when participating in or observing events as well when reading about them.

In science, research on the creation of naïve theories, or misconceptions, has often been the focus of schema-related research. For example, McCloskey (1983) described naïve theories of motion. Gentner and Gentner (1983) discussed analogy-based mental models of electricity. Marshall (1995) focused on problem solving in mathematics and developed a mathematical model of schemas. Her previous work identified four components of schema knowledge: identification, elaboration, planning, and execution knowledge.

Most research on schemas has focused on specific bodies of knowledge, such as those discussed above. However, Pearson (1982) described schemas as encompassing the entire realm of a personís interactions, not just those with a school subject. Of particular interest in the present research are classroom schemas. Someone who has spent time in school most certainly will have a concept of what happens in the classroom, involving the placement of objects as well as interactions, such as how a teacherís lecture proceeds (Leinhardt & Putnam, 1987). Shuell (1996) referred to these interactions as activity segments. Both the general conception of what happens in the classroom as well as the knowledge of each activity segment can be schemas, since they are structured knowledge of the objects, people, and actions involved. Being able to learn in the classroom environment requires familiarity with the activities and/or the subject.

Schema theory can also be used to think about educational software, including online courses. Understanding a program is in many ways analogous to a readerís understanding of a particular written text. An author writes a text with a certain goal, audience, message, and medium in mind. Likewise, software authors (content writers, directors, animators, developers, etc.) "write" educational programs. The team has a particular goal such as helping the user develop mathematical thinking skills, a message or content that forms the events of the program, and an audience such as health-care professionals. Just as a reader brings various schemas to bear in comprehending a text, a computer user can bring such schemas to her interaction with software.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Schema theory typically focuses on the application of a single schema to an event. We all know life is more complex than this. As researchers realized this limitation to schema theory, Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) was developed. This extension of schema theory deals with the use of multiple schemas (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1992; Spiro, Feltovich, Coulson, & Anderson, 1989). Cognitive flexibility means "the ability to spontaneously restructure oneís knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demandsÖ" (Spiro & Jehng, 1990, p. 165). Thus, CFT goes beyond schema theory in suggesting people draw upon a plurality of previous knowledge and reassemble it to fit the current situation (Spiro & Jehng, 1990; Spiro et al., 1987).

Overview of the Study

The concept of schemas based on past experience provides a framework usable by designers of online courses. Knowing how people learn a new interface can provide insight on designing more understandable interfaces. With this insight, designers could develop ways of activating appropriate schemas. It also could help them create additional ways of using the software, such as providing different navigation structures. Instructors can also benefit from thinking about schemas for the same reasons. Such information can guide them in selecting modes of delivery, exercises, activities, and types of content.

One main research question guided this study: How do students new to online education learn how to learn in the new situation? What prior experiences are used to help make sense of the course?

This study examines the experiences of five students taking their first online course, Social Work 891: Special Topics in Graduate Social Work: Children with Special Needs (SW891), offered at Michigan State University (MSU) in Spring 1999.

Overview of the Site

MSU offers online courses through its Virtual University (VU). Rather than being a separate unit of the university to which students apply, VU supports the development and administration of courses offered by university departments and programs. A project leader works with the course faculty to develop a course Web site. It may include content and help pages, discussion areas, a grade book and attendance record, evaluation forms, and online tests. The pages may contain text, graphics, videos, animation sequences, audio passages, downloadable files, and so forth. I worked at VU on the development of six courses, serving as the project leader on five. I was not involved in the development of the course in this study, although I knew the project leader and had previously met the professor.


Five students elected to participate in the study. All were female, ranging in age from 26 to 46. Four were in the MSU social work masterís program; one already had her masterís degree. Four were taking the course to receive School of Social Work approval; the fifth student took it as an elective.

The instructor, James,1 had taught for MSU for five years. He is a school psychologist and social worker. This was Jamesís third experience teaching SW891. He had never developed an online course before, although he had been an assistant teacher for another online course in the series the previous fall. He had never taken any distance education classes.

The project leader had been employed as a graduate assistant at VU since the previous summer. This course was one of her first assignments. She had both a bachelorís and a masterís degree in computer science and was pursuing a masterís degree in digital media arts. She had never taken any distance education classes. She had no background in social work and was not familiar with the siteís content.

Children with Special Needs is one of three courses in a series taught at MSU by the Department of Social Work. A social worker who takes these three courses is approved by the state to be a school social worker. Such approval, which may also be obtained in other ways, is necessary to work as a school social worker in Michigan.

The online course was divided into five content areas.2 Each was a single Web page (i.e., all content was contained within one URL or file). The site also included a grade book, a technical help page, WebTalk, and a class directory. WebTalk is VUís proprietary program for asynchronous (at different times) communication within a class via the Web.

Data Collection and Analysis

Interviews provided the primary data for this study. The professor and project leader were each interviewed in person mid-semester. Each student was interviewed three times, at approximately one-month intervals. These interviews took place in person or online with the AOL Instant Messenger chat software.

Through an extensive process of data analysis of my transcripts and notes of the interviews, I determined general areas of experience evidenced by the students. The interviews suggested they invoked three broad types of schemas: classroom schemas, other educational schemas, and technological schemas. Within each area, different students experienced different events. Hence, the five students as a whole brought little in common. However, their experiences are common enough to other people that the experience can teach us about how students approach an online course.

Summary of results

Classroom Experiences

Since the environment under study was a course, it makes sense that the students brought classroom experiences to bear upon their understanding. These other classes had shaped their schemas of courses in general and of social work courses specifically. These schemas helped the studentsí understanding when the online course matched situations with a classroom-based course. Differences led to greater difficulty in developing schemas for the course, particularly for those who focused on these differences. The lack of choice between an online and a classroom environment also led to difficulty for one student.

All five students identified ways in which the online course was similar to a regular classroom-based course. These similarities made the course comprehensible to an extent because it followed classroom norms. Similarities included the presence of lectures, class discussion, papers, and a final research paper. However, these similarities were generally not very important to any participant's understanding of the new environment.

Classroom differences

Differences between the two types of classrooms had more impact on the development and use of schemas by the participants. These included differences in locus of control, nonverbal communication, rapport with the instructor, casual interactions, and class discussion.

In a typical, face-to-face classroom, much of the control is in the professorís hands. In this virtual course, each student chose the times and days she wanted to attend class. Once "at class," each student chose whether lecture, discussion, or reading would happen, if at all. The control was in the studentís hands in this virtual classroom. All five students recognized and appreciated this difference in locus of control.

Another difference is the complete lack of nonverbal communication in the virtual classroom. In a classroom, nonverbal signals help students to understand the lecture better. They show reactions to what a student has saidówhether it is the professorís indication of approval or a classmateís dislike. Since people never saw each other face-to-face when online, these ordinary cues were not available.

The students also found it difficult to establish rapport with an instructor they never saw and never talked with. Similarly, the students never engaged in casual conversations with each other during class downtime. Thus, they rarely felt connected to their classmates as they would in a regular classroom.

In a regular classroom, discussions are synchronousóeveryone who contributes is present and contributing at the same time. All the participants knew what to expect in that situation; that is, they all had class discussion schemas. The virtual course also included class discussion in WebTalk, an asynchronous, text-based discussion board. Each participated on her own time, by typing in a message for the class to read at any time. The differences between regular and virtual classroom discussions caused patterns of contribution to change. On the negative side, students experienced repetition, intimidation, lengthy waits for responses, and fewer contributions. Positive benefits of the change included finding the discussions easier, less anxiety-provoking, and more personal; having more personal control; and having greater access to different conversations.

Anger over lack of choice

Spring 1999 was the first time this course was offered online and there were no plans to offer it again in the classroom. Susan said she felt "forced" into the online course, which made her quite angry. If she wanted School Social Worker approval, this was the last semester she could take the course and still meet her goal of graduating at the end of the summer. While not a schema, this anger definitely hindered Susanís ability to be flexible and adapt to the new learning environment. That is, this affective response made it difficult for her to apply previous schemas or to develop new ones. More than any other participant, Susan focused on the differences between a classroom-based and an online course.

Other Educational Experiences

In addition to experiences revolving around typical classroom schemas, students also brought other educational schemas, including televised courses, independent studies, the use of two-way interactive television, and attending a new school. The latter two are described below.

Many of the regular MSU Social Work classes use two-way interactive television to connect students and instructors at two or more sites. Rosalyn noted a similarity between WebTalk and the two-way TV classes regarding not being able to see her classmates as they posted messages. In the classroom, she can hear what a student at another location is saying, but often cannot see him. When Rosalyn noticed she did not have a feel for who was saying what in the online conversations, she accommodated by considering this similarity. She felt less bothered by her lack of connection with other students because she had previously experienced this in another setting. Others who did not recognize this similarity expressed more concern over the lack of connection to their virtual classmates.

Karen remembered what it was like when she went from college to graduate school. Having spent four years at the former, she knew what college classes were like. She figured graduate courses would be similar, but she did not know exactly what to expect. While some things would be the same, others would be different. She thought about going from the classroom to the virtual course in the same way. While using this comparison may not have given her knowledge of exactly what to expect, it did provide a schema for approaching the new situation.

Technological Experiences

The final set of schemas relates to technology as a whole. The students used schemas based on general computer experience, listservs, discussion boards, DOS, and e-mail to develop interaction modes with the virtual course. Strong feelings about technology also affected two studentsí schema development.

Many Web sites feature discussion boards. Rosalyn had been a participant on one such board. Rosalyn noted the similarities between her other discussion board and this courseís discussion area. This helped her understand how WebTalk worked. On the other hand, one major difference caused her difficulty: WebTalk does not thread discussions. Instead, messages are listed in chronological order. Rosalyn found this made it much harder to follow conversations within the main discussion.

All but one of the study participants were frequent Windows or Macintosh users. Before this class, Karen had been primarily using DOS and the keyboard. Now, she faced daily interaction with a graphical user interface. This was not her first use of Windows or of the Internet, but it was the first time she used them for something other than recreation. Karen initially had trouble thinking about scrolling down the page with the mouse and the scrollbars and using the mouse to click on links. For example, she did not know the WebTalk page had topics besides the first one for some time. Without paying attention to the scroll bar on the right side of the browser window, there is no way to know there is additional information on that Web page. She recognized her prior experiences had influenced how she interacted with the computer. They had shaped her expectations towards a text-based interface and so she was not readily paying attention to graphical cues.

Karen was the only participant who took the course as part of the Life-Long Education program, a way to take MSU courses without being a full- or part-time student. After registering, she received a packet in the mail from MSU about her student number and e-mail account. "I had no idea how to attend the course. Iíve even [recently] looked over the stuff I got in the mail and donít see any mention of going to to attend class. It seems I got so much material in the mail about this Pilot e-mail that that was how the course was going to be taught." It took over a week of telephone calls for someone at MSU to figure out she was not aware that the course was web-based. Given the lack of information she had, it was not a great stretch for her to imagine this course taking place completely on e-mail.

In addition to the schemas described above, affective issues also appeared to have an effect on two studentsí development of an understanding of the new learning environment. Each anchored a different end of the affective spectrum: one was angry and fearful about a virtual course while the other was excited to learn more about technology. The anger and fear appeared to make it harder for the student to adapt. The excitement and enthusiasm appeared to make it much easier for another student.

Summary of Results

Returning to our earlier question, how do students new to online education learn how to learn in the new situation? What prior experiences are used to help make sense of the online course? The short answer is that students gradually learn by being cognitively flexible and developing new schemas. As we have seen, the schemas and experiences can easily be divided into the three areas of classroom schemas, other educational schemas, and technology schemas. Table 1 is a complete listing of the 17 primary schemas and affective issues I saw. These 17 are certainly not an exhaustive list, nor would they necessarily be found in all online courses. The table also points out that the students were cognitively flexible; the number to the right of each entry is how many students showed evidence of that schema. They drew on 37 schemas, an average of 7.4 schemas per person. Certainly, no student tried to understand the new environment exclusively through one schema.

Table 1: Primary schemas and number of students evidencing each

Classroom schemas


Other educational schemas


Technological schemas


Classrooms (similarities)


Two-way interactive television


Online discussion board


Locus of control


Television-based video course




Nonverbal communication


Independent study




Class discussions


New school




Rapport with the instructor




General computer experiences


Casual conversations




Affective issues


Anger (lack of choice)







Limitations to the study

First, there are limitations in the generalizability because of the participants. I had a non-random, self-selected group of participants, with a very small sample size. They were all women. None were typical college-age students, although they appeared fairly representative of the adult learner returning to school for a masterís degree. I do not claim these students are representative of all online students. However, they do show there is no one type of online student.

Second, due to circumstances beyond my control, the methodology changed or did not provide all of the answers for which I was looking. I expect that if I had been able to interview students before they saw the course, they would have been able to explicate their expectations more clearly. Another drawback occurred because most of the interviews took place online. Watching them use the course may have given deeper insight into how they used the interface. I also was not able to explicate the instructorís and project leaderís schemas as deeply as I had originally expected. A longer interview or a series of interviews during the development stage may have been better.

Implications for Research on Online Courses

This study is only one small part of the beginning of online education research; there is a need to continue in-depth studies on students in online courses. Many of these studentsí experiences emerged only as the semester progressed and we revisited the same issue. More information on the development of schemas would come from observing students during their online time.

Two groups of students to study are undergraduate students and students starting an entire program online. Students beginning an online degree program could have a different outlook because they are embarking on an entire series of courses. It also would be valuable to study students taking a second or third online course. We should look specifically at how the first course influenced their expectations and adaptations to the latter course. Such a study could follow the same students through the series of courses and compare schema use and development.

Studies focusing on instructors and course developers would also add greatly to our knowledge. Such research could develop suggestions or even a program to assist instructors with first-time online course development.

Implications for Developers of Online Courses

The point of this project has been two-fold. First, I have developed a way to think about incoming students. In a way, I have developed a schema for thinking about student experiencesóa framework based on schema theory and Cognitive Flexibility Theory. Second, I have brought these issues into focus at an opportune momentójust when online courses are burgeoning but backed by little research. As part of this focus, course developers need to become aware of how to use the results of this study in their work:

  1. Apply schema theory and Cognitive Flexibility Theory. Schema theory and CFT will help only if developers actually use them to think about the studentsí experiences. Then, they can use those expected schemas to guide the course structure.
  2. Develop explicit commentary. Students with all types of schemas would be served by explicit commentary about similarities and differences between the online course and other experiences.
  3. Give more directions to the students. Four students out of five had difficulty understanding what the course encompassed
  4. Include time for orientation to the online environment. In a regular classroom, a professor will usually spend at least the first day discussing the course. The same care should be taken with an online course. Students need time to find their way around the unfamiliar location of the course site.


1) All names used in this report are pseudonyms.

2) Information about the course is taken from the developer and professor interviews as well as the course Web site. URLs for the course pages are not provided because the course is password-protected. Passwords are required for all cost-bearing VU courses to limit use of the content to students, course instructors, VU employees, and invited guests.

3) This URL is to the VU home page. Deeper in the VU site, students can follow a link to their course. Students can also use the direct URL to their course. However, the VU home page is often given out initially, since students can view a preview and setup pages prior to the opening of the course.


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AnnMarie Paulukonis is the Instructional Technology Developer at UW Oshkosh. Her primary job is to assist faculty with the integration of technology into their teaching. In 1999, she received her Ph.D. in educational psychology (concentration in educational technology) from Michigan State University. This article is based on her dissertation research.

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