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Cognitive View - Information-Processing Theory, Part 1

Module by: Brian Beitzel. E-mail the authorEdited By: Nathan Gonyea

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Information-processing theory is a psychological theory about how we process and learn information. Clearly, this is a topic that is at the core of the everyday work of a classroom teacher, so let's spend some time exploring this theory and how it applies in the classroom.

Human Cognitive Architecture

The phrase human cognitive architecture is just a fancy academic way of referring to the areas of the human brain involved in thinking. Don't be dazzled by this term—it means little more than what I've just told you.

But now we're going to explore the details of human cognitive architecture and show why this is such an important topic for classroom teachers to understand.

Thinking Wasn't Always Fashionable

Before we discuss cognitive architecture we should first say that it used to be the case that few scholars wished to speculate about how the mind thinks. Researchers known as “behaviorists” preferred to talk only about observable aspects of learning—in other words, what was put into the system (e.g., teachers' questions) and what came out of it (e.g., students' responses). In fact, there was fierce resistance among these folks to use terms such as “think” because there could be no direct observation of thinking; therefore, any claim about thinking must necessarily be restricted to conjecture and was thus off-limits. A few of these folks are still around today, but most of them have been converted to a new way of—dare I say it?—thinking.

Information Processing

Long ago and far away, in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, researchers became increasingly dissatisfied with the behaviorist explanations of learning and began to work on some new models explaining how people learn. Most famously, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968) proposed a cognitive model describing how the mind processes information. This model remains popular even today, so we will take a close look at it now.

Although somewhat oversimplified when compared to more recent work in this field, Atkinson and Shiffrin's model has become known simply as “the information-processing model.” The basic notion of this model is that it tracks the flow of information as new knowledge moves from the entry point toward permanent storage within the information-processing system. The model proposes three storage compartments (see Figure 1), known as “stores,” which hold information at various points during processing.

Figure 1: Atkinson and Shiffrin's (1968) information-processing model. Note that short-term memory is now more commonly known as “working memory.”
Figure 1 (InfoProcessingModel.png)

Sensory Memory

The first store is known as sensory memory. This is the entry point for all information coming into the system. Specifically, the kinds of information that sensory memory processes are signals from the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Because these senses are always up and running, they are continuously delivering new data to the sensory memory (even during sleep). Take a moment to close your eyes and notice the information from your other four senses that you were unaware of when you began reading this paragraph (e.g., whether your chair is cushioned or hard, whether your neck feels warm or cool, etc.).

Capacity and Duration

Although sensory memory can hold quite a lot of information, it cannot keep any of this information for very long due to the constant inflow of new data. Estimates of duration vary somewhat, but most agree that information cannot be kept active in sensory memory for more than a few (e.g., 3-5) seconds.

We cannot possibly process all of the data that sensory memory intakes. Therefore, we must select those sensory data that are relevant to whatever task we are currently undertaking—and ignore the rest. For the most part, we do this without being very aware of it.

One bothersome aspect of sensory memory is that it collects some sensory data that we wish we could ignore. Have you ever tried to concentrate, perhaps on school assignments, but felt distracted by the goings-on around you? That is a classic example of having sensory data that you felt compelled to process when it didn't meaningfully benefit you.

Imagine Pierre, a student in a busy classroom where a teacher is giving a group of students directions for an assignment. Pierre is trying to concentrate on the teacher's instructions, but some other students are creating a distraction with a butterfly display on the other side of the room. The problem here, from a cognitive perspective, is that Pierre cannot effectively process both the actions of his classmates and the teacher's directions; he must choose whether to pay attention to the distraction or to his teacher. All of this information is contained in sensory memory, but not all of it can be processed in working memory, for reasons we discuss next.

Application Activity

How many times have you seen a penny? Would you be able to recognize a penny if you saw one? Go to and see if you can indentify which one is the real penny. Explain, based on the information-processing model, why you (or someone else) might have difficulty with this task.

Working Memory

Let's clear something up before we get ourselves too involved talking about working memory. Atkinson and Shiffrin originally called this store “short-term memory” (to contrast with long-term memory), but modern researchers use the term “working memory” instead. These two terms have some rather subtle distinctions (which cognitive scholars care deeply about), but for our purposes the differences are negligible. Thus, in this discussion, we will prefer the more common term “working memory.”

Working memory is where the real business of thinking takes place. This is where your students will process the content of your carefully crafted lessons as well as your instructions for how to complete their assignments—oh yes, and your warnings regarding proper decorum in the classroom. This is where rocket scientists do their thing, eventually accomplishing moon landings, sending spacecraft to land with precision on other planets millions of miles away, and the like. Now you can see that working memory is a space to be respected (please remove your hat, if you are wearing one).


The pity is, in spite of all of its capabilities, working memory is a very small place. Well before Atkinson and Shiffrin developed their information-processing model, George Miller (1956) discovered that most individuals have approximately seven cognitive “slots” available to be filled with information at any given time and that this number varies by about two slots across the population, yielding the now-popular estimate of “seven plus or minus two” elements available in working memory to hold all the information one wishes to cram in.

Take a moment now to think how you might remember a telephone number if you had to look it up and then walk over to a phone a short distance away to dial that number. If it is a local number, it has seven digits. As long as your working memory has seven slots available, you should be good to go. But what if someone delivers some surprising news to you halfway through your walk to the phone? It is unlikely that you will remember the phone number because you will be using some of your working-memory capacity to process the news you have just received. The point is, working memory is just too small for us to do everything we would like to be capable of doing.

This limited capacity has profound implications for teaching and learning. Let us now consider how the students in your classroom are affected. If you provide them with complicated instructions for an assignment, there is likely minimal space remaining in working memory for them to comprehend the content. Likewise, if the pace of your instruction is too fast, with lots of information conveyed at a quick pace, there will be little chance for your students to sufficiently process the information, and maybe even not enough opportunity for them to write it down for later study. A disciplined, controlled pace of presentation is essential if meaningful learning is to occur.

Demonstration Activity

You might be surprised how quickly information escapes from your working memory. Go to and see how well you score!

Maintenance and Elaborative Rehearsal

You might be wondering exactly what happens while information is being processed in working memory. What does it mean for information to be “processed”? We typically refer to processing in working memory with the term rehearsal. There are two principal types of rehearsal: maintenance and elaborative. Maintenance rehearsal is what you were likely doing as you walked from the telephone book to the nearest phone across the room—i.e., repeating the information over and over to yourself in order to keep it “active.” This is by far the easiest type of rehearsal but it is also the least effective. How well will you remember that phone number two hours from now?

The second type of rehearsal is elaborative rehearsal. When one uses elaborative rehearsal, one connects the new information with previously learned information; this integration of old and new information has a dramatic impact on the memorability of the new information. Let's go back to that phone number. Imagine that you recognize the last four digits to be the same as the house number where you lived for your entire childhood. Now is the phone number easier to remember? Of course it is. The integration of prior knowledge (the house number) with new information (the phone number) improves the memorability of the phone number.


How long does information hang around in working memory? If it is being rehearsed, information will be active until rehearsal of that information ceases. But if no particular processing strategy (e.g., maintenance or elaborative rehearsal) is being applied to the information, it will vanish from working memory within 5-20 seconds. The reason for that broad estimate is that the information could die a slower death if no new information is imported into working memory to consume whatever limited space is available. Neglected information will not survive long in a busy working memory.

As a teacher, it is tempting to conclude that your students will understand and remember simple information (like a brief fact or quick directions) that you have just told them. However, consider the situation in which a student, Karla, is still trying to understand a previously explained concept. Karla's working memory is operating at full capacity with attempts to process earlier information and thus cannot successfully deal with the simple instruction or fact that you have now stated. Working memory is altogether too limited to thoroughly process rapidly delivered information.


The concept of attention is one's focus on a given portion of all possible stimuli. This is also the layman's understanding of the term “attention,” so you are already familiar with this idea. Whatever you are thinking about (i.e., whatever is currently in working memory) is what you are paying attention to. We sometimes use the phrase “selective attention” to indicate that we must select a limited amount of information to process, and ignore the remainder of the incoming information streams.

Demonstration Activity

Notice how selective attention is necessary to focus on the target voice and number in this activity:

Practice and Automaticity

The longer a piece of information is effectively processed (e.g., through elaborative rehearsal), the more we understand it and the more likely we will be to remember it at a later time. In layman's terms, this is called practice. In the classroom, first-graders will need to practice their reading skills more than sixth-graders because the sixth-graders have “put in their time” already and have spent a considerable number of hours practicing their reading to the point where it is now automatic. When a skill (such as reading) has been automatized, it requires fewer working-memory resources and thus consumes less space in working memory; this has the benefit of freeing up the remaining space in working memory for other thoughts. For example, how burdensome is it for you to figure out how to pronounce the word “conundrum” compared to the time it would take a first-grader? Because you can easily process this word, you can simultaneously consider the ideas “conundrum” and “Aunt Mary's wallet is missing from her purse, and we didn't see anyone enter or exit the room.” A first-grader would be capable of comparing these ideas but would require much more time to arrive at a complete understanding of the intersection between these two ideas than you would need, because you have already automatized much of the requisite processing.

In summary, then, practice speeds up processing because it automatizes critical skills.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is just what it sounds like: an area that stores information permanently. To arrive in long-term memory, information must have been sufficiently processed in working memory. Stated another way, working memory is the exclusive route to long-term memory. How does information become “sufficiently processed” in working memory? By considering both the amount of time spent and the quality of processing encountered there. We will discuss different qualities of information processing later. For now, keep in mind that the amount of time one spends thinking about a topic (e.g., preparing for an exam) does not necessarily predict one's memory for that material at a future point in time.

Duration and Capacity

As far as we know, information is maintained in long-term memory indefinitely; there are no known expiration dates here. Additionally, there is no known limit to the amount of knowledge that can be stored in long-term memory. No one can credibly make the excuse that they don't have room to store any more information!

Now perhaps you can begin to see why it is important for teachers to understand human cognitive architecture. Without fully appreciating the capabilities and limitations of the information-processing system, teachers could easily have unrealistic expectations for their students—and that is not good for anybody.


  1. Atkinson, Richard C. and Shiffrin, Richard M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In The psychology of learning and motivation. (Vol. 2, pp. 89-195). New York: Academic Press.
  2. Miller, George A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
  3. Sweller, John and Chandler, Paul. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction, 12, 185-233.
  4. van Merrienboer, Jeroen J. G. and Sweller, John. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17, 147-177.

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