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Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Information Processing Theory

Information Processing TheoryCan Understanding Information Processing Theory Help Student Learning?

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:

Step 1: 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 perceivable?

Step 2: 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.

Step 3: 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 schemas). Well-organized information is easier to encode because it will be "filed" in a more easily findable location.

Step 4: 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 environmental cues.

Throughout: 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 organized?).

What can I do to ensure information is stored and retrievable?

1. 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 students' attention.
  • 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 more attentive. 
  • 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 extrinsic motivation orientation rather than anintrinsically motivated mastery orientation. It is better practice to emphasize the information's importance because of the value of the knowledge to the individual.)

2. 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 projects.
  • 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."
(Willingham, 2009)

3. Organize information for better storage and retrieval. 

  • Provide an overview of the lesson. For example, you might wish to put up an outline of the lesson for the day.
  • 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 familiar.


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