Information Processing Theory
Can Understanding Information Processing Theory Help Student
It should. Information Processing Theory uses a computer model to
describe human learning. Information comes in, it gets processed,
and then it gets stored and retrieved.
Of course this is an oversimplification of human learning, but
it gives us a good overview and simile by using the computer model.
(In other words, this theory takes advantage of our computer
schemas to help us
understand it.) Here is a simplified breakdown of the process:
Information is sensed and registered. In human
terms, this means that we sense, or perceive, something in our
environment and it and a decision is made as to whether or not to
attend to it. Is it important? Is it stimulating? Is it
Information is momentarily held in short-term, or working,
memory. Fairly robust research indicates that we can hold
approximately 7 "chunks" of information at any one time in working
memory. If the information is not rehearsed or otherwise actively
used, it is likely to be lost.
Information is encoded and put in long-term
memory. Encoding occurs while information is in working
memory, often by connecting it to existing knowledge (or
Well-organized information is easier to encode because it will be
"filed" in a more easily findable location.
Information is retrieved. Depending on how well it
was encoded (which largely has to do with how much it was worked
with in working memory), information is retrieved with the right
Executive functioning is at work. The executive
function plays many roles, mainly that have to do with
self-regulation. The executive function is responsible for
maintaining attention, planning ahead, organization of thoughts,
task completion, adaptation to unexpected changes or obstacles, and
emotion regulation. Some of this is controlled by the individual
(e.g., individuals with ADHD have more difficulty maintaining
attention) and some is determined by the nature of the information
and task (Is it interesting? Is it active? Is it well
What can I do to ensure information is stored and
Work to sustain students' attention.
Provide a "break" every 10-15 minutes. Even the
best students' attention wanes after about 15 minutes. Try to
plan class time or lectures in "chunks" of about 15 minutes, at
which point you should provide students with a break. The "break"
does not mean a break from thinking - simply a break from one
activity by beginning another. For example, you might show a
demonstration of your concept on a DVD or internet clip, or you
could have students discuss the concept with one another for a
few minutes. Taking breaks serves to hit the "refresh" button on
Keep students active in the learning process.
Instead of just listening to information, are there ways they can
learn it more actively? For example, you might have a discussion
about the concept, coaching students as they work through their
understanding. You might have them try to find the solution to
the problem. When students are active, they will naturally be
Explicitly draw attention to the most important
concepts. By simply stating, "This is important - you
need to understand this," students' attention will at least
momentarily become focused. (
Warning: Although, "This will be on the test," will certainly
gain students' attention, it promotes an
orientation rather than an
intrinsically motivated mastery
orientation. It is better practice to emphasize the
information's importance because of the value of the knowledge to
Get the working memory working.
Provide opportunities for students to actively work with
the course information. In class, out of class, or
online, there are many strategies that can get students to think
more deeply about information. Some possibilities include:
Discussions (in pairs, small groups, or with the whole class),
worksheets, informal quizzes, written student summaries (e.g.,
1-minute papers), case studies, problem sets, and larger
Encourage student organization of their
thoughts. As a method that both gets students thinking
about material and helps them organize it, consider having them
chart, map, or write an outline of the concept - some activity
that requires them to organize the information.
"Memory is the residue of thought."
Organize information for better storage and
Provide an overview of the lesson. For example,
you might wish to put up an outline of the lesson for the
Map concepts as you go. This need not be done in
a formal map; simply organize information visually for students
using circles, lines, and boxes (or tables) to assist them with
understanding the relationships among concepts.
Explicitly point out relationships between new
information and information students already know. This
strategy helps students understand how new concepts fit into the
organization of concepts with which they are already