• Reconstructive memory (Bartlett, 1932), including schema theory.

Reconstructive memory

Frederick Bartlett’s reconstructive theory of memory proposes that memories are not stored as exact replicas of past experiences, but are instead reconstructed and altered each time they are retrieved. According to Bartlett, memories are influenced by an individual’s current knowledge, beliefs, and motivations, as well as cultural and social factors.

Bartlett observed that people often recall events differently over time and that their recall may be influenced by their own personal biases, emotions, and expectations. He argued that recall is an active process, where the brain selectively retrieves information and then recombines it in a way that is meaningful to the individual.

Bartlett also introduced the concept of schema, which is a mental framework or a set of beliefs and expectations that individuals use to interpret and organize new information. He argued that schemas influence how information is stored and retrieved from memory, and that they shape the way that memories are reconstructed.

Bartlett’s reconstructive theory is considered a pioneering contribution to the field of cognitive psychology and has had a lasting impact on our understanding of memory and how it works. The theory has been influential in shaping research on the role of context, schemas, and social influences in memory, and it remains an important framework for studying the nature of human memory and its processes.

Schema Theory

Schema theory is a cognitive theory of memory that explains how our prior knowledge and experiences influence how we encode, process, and recall information. The theory posits that people organize their experiences and knowledge into mental structures called “schemas”.

A schema is a mental framework that represents a general knowledge structure about a certain category of objects, events, or situations. Schemas help us to process new information by allowing us to fit it into existing knowledge structures, and can also help us to fill in missing information when encoding and recalling information.

According to schema theory, when we encounter a new situation, our existing schemas are activated, which helps us to understand and make sense of the new information. This process is called “schema activation”. If the new information fits within an existing schema, it is more easily processed and encoded into memory. If the new information does not fit within an existing schema, a new schema may be created or an existing schema may be modified to accommodate the new information.

Schema theory has been applied to a variety of fields, including psychology, education, and communication, and has been used to explain a wide range of cognitive processes, including memory, perception, and problem solving. It has been found that schemas can have both positive and negative effects on our cognition, as they can improve our processing efficiency but can also lead to errors and biases in our thinking and memory.

In conclusion, schema theory is an important theory of memory that explains how our prior knowledge and experiences influence how we process and recall information. It highlights the importance of schemas as mental frameworks that help us to make sense of the world and understand new information.


  • Reconstructive memory suggests that when information is absent we fill in the gaps as supported by Bartlett in the War of the Ghosts study (1932) who found that participants filled in gaps in recall from their own schema for example, boats became a substitute for canoes when recalling War of the Ghosts story (see Key Study).
  • Bransford and Johnson (1972) showed how schemas help to encode and store difficult to understand or ambiguous information.
  • Reconstructive memory theory is not a complete explanation of memory as it suggests that memories are part traces part schemas that we encode at the time of the event which fails to explain how memory is reconstructed at the point of recall making it a partial explanation of memory processing.
  • Bartlett’s research had minimal standardised controls when recalling was taking place, therefore the evidence underpinning the reconstructive memory theory lacks scientific rigour.
  • Reconstructive memory simply describes memory traces that we encode at the time of event rather than explaining how it is reconstructed.

Past Paper Questions

2 Markers
  • Describe what is meant by reconstructive memory (2) January 2017
  • Describe what is meant by the term ‘schema’. (2) January 2020
3 Marker
  • Describe, using reconstructive memory (Bartlett, 1932), why Maria and Betsy have different memories of the party. (3) October 2020
4 Marker
  • Explain one strength and one weakness of Bartlett’s (1932) theory of reconstructive memory. (4)  January 2020
  • Explain one strength and one weakness of reconstructive memory (Bartlett, 1932) as an explanation of why Maria and Betsy have different memories of the party. (4) October 2020
8 Markers
  • Discuss how reconstructive memory (Bartlett 1932) could explain the children’s answers (scenario). (8) October 2019
  • Discuss how reconstructive memory can explain recall. (8) June 2019
  • Evaluate Bartlett’s (1932) theory of reconstructive memory, including schema theory. (8) June 2018
  • Discuss how reconstructive memory could explain Zahra and Namra’s recall of the incident. (8) June 2019
12 Marker
  • Evaluate whether reconstructive memory can account for the difference in Antonio’s and Enrique’s recall. (12) October 2019