Information processing theory

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The information processing theories approach to the study of cognitive development evolved out of the American experimental tradition in psychology. Developmental psychologists who adopt the information-processing perspective account for mental development in terms of maturational changes in basic components of a child’s mind. The theory is based on the idea that humans process the information they receive, rather than merely responding to stimuli. This perspective equates the mind to a computer, which is responsible for analyzing information from the environment. According to the standard information-processing model for mental development, the mind’s machinery includes attention mechanisms for bringing information in, working memory for actively manipulating information, and long-term memory for passively holding information so that it can be used in the future.[1] This theory addresses how as children grow, their brains likewise mature, leading to advances in their ability to process and respond to the information they received through their senses. The theory emphasizes a continuous pattern of development, in contrast with Cognitive Developmental theorists such as Jean Piaget that thought development occurred in stages at a time.

Basic Breakdown[edit]

The information processing theory in basic form is that the human brain is compared to a computer or basic processor. It is known that the brain works in a set sequence, as does a computer. The sequence goes, "receives input, processes the information, and deliver output".

Information is taken in through the senses, the information is then put through the short-term memory. The information is then encoded to the long term memory, where the information is then stored. The information can be retrieved when necessary. [1] (Image shown)

The information processing approach is based on a number of assumptions, including information made available by the environment is processed by a series of processing systems (e.g. attention, perception, short-term memory),these processing systems transform or alter the information in systematic ways, the aim of research is to specify the processes and structures that underlie cognitive performance, and information processing in humans resembles that in computers.[2]

The information processing theory using "chunking" to put the information into short term memory. Miller said it was known that the human brain can only chunk into the brain with 7 parts, plus or minus two. Seven in the big number to remember. (This is why a phone number is seven digits)

[2] (Video that elaborates on the basic breakdown of the Information Processing Theory)


Information processing as a model for human thinking and learning is part of the resurgence of cognitive perspectives of learning. The cognitive perspective asserts that complex mental states affect human learning and behavior that such mental states can be scientifically investigated. Computers, which process information, include internal states that affect processing. Computers, therefore, provided a model for possible human mental states that provided researchers with clues and direction for understanding human thinking and learning as information processing. Overall, information-processing models helped reestablish mental processes that cannot be directly observed as a legitimate area of scientific research.

Major Theorists[edit]

The main two theorists associated with the Cognitive Information Processing Theory are Atkinson and Shiffrin. In 1968 these two proposed a multi-stage theory of memory. They explained that from the time information is received by the processing system, it goes through different stages to be fully stored. They broke this down to sensory memory, short term memory, and long term memory (Atkinson).

John William Atkinson John (Jack) William Atkinson was born on December 31st, 1923. Atkinson served in the military during World War II. After the war, Atkinson went to Wesleyan University and received his undergraduate psychology degree. He then attended the University of Michigan and was awarded his Psychological Doctorate. He also spent time as a teacher. Atkinson was an American Psychologist who focused his research on human motivation, achievement, and behavior. Atkinson is the father of motivation as a field of study in Psychology. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, along with two fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. These awards are only a select few out of the numerous awards, honorary doctorates, and fellowships he had throughout his lifetime. John William Atkinson passed away on October 27th, 2003.[citation needed]

Richard Shiffrin Richard Shiffrin was born on March 13th, 1942 in New Haven, Connecticut. He is currently a professor of cognitive science in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. He co-authored the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory in 1968, who at the time was his academic advisor at Stanford University. Shiffrin has won five major awards throughout his life so far: 1995 Fellow of the National Academy of Science; 1996 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 1996 Fellow of the American Psychological Society; 2002 Rumelhart Prize; 2005 Fellow of the American Philosophical Society.[citation needed]

Atkinson and Shiffrin Model[edit]

The Atkinson and Shiffrin Model was proposed in 1968 by John William Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin. This model illustrates their theory of the human memory. These two theorists used this model to show that the human memory can be broken in to three sub-sections: Sensory Memory, Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory.

Sensory Memory The sensory memory is responsible for holding onto information that we receive through our senses. For example, if we hear a bird chirp, we know that it is a bird because that information is held in our sensory memory.

Short-Term Memory Short-term memory lasts for about 30 seconds. Short term memory retains information that we only need for a short period of time such as remembering a phone number that needs to be dialed.

Long Term Memory The long-term memory has an unlimited amount of space. In our long term memory, there can be memory stored in there from the beginning of our life time. Our long term memory is what we tap into when we recall an event that happened when we were younger.

Humans as Information Processing Systems[edit]

Within this model, humans are routinely compared to computers. This comparison is used as a means of better understanding the way information is processed and stored in the human mind. Therefore, when analyzing what actually develops within this model, the more specific comparison is between the human brain and computers. Computers were introduced to the study of development and provided a new way of studying intelligence (Lachman, 1979) and added further legitimacy to the scientific study of the mind (Goodwin, 2005, p. 411). Information is taken in (or input). Information is encoded to give meaning and compared with stored information. If a person is working on a task, this is where the working memory is enacted. An example of that for a computer is the CPU. In both cases, information is encoded, given meaning, and combined with the previously stored information to enact the task. The latter step is where the information is stored where it can later be retrieved when needed. For computers, this would be akin to saving information on a hard drive, where you would then upload the saved data when working on a future task (using your working memory as in step 2).

Cognitive processes[edit]

Cognitive processes include perception, recognition, imagining, remembering, thinking, judging, reasoning, problem solving, conceptualizing, and planning. These cognitive processes can emerge from human language, thought, imagery, and symbols.

In addition to these specific cognitive processes, many cognitive psychologists study language-acquisition, altered states of mind and consciousness, visual perception, auditory perception, short-term memory, long-term memory, storage, retrieval, perceptions of thought and much more.

Cognitive processes emerge through senses, thoughts, and experiences. The first step is aroused by paying attention, by paying attention, it allows processing of the information given. Cognitive processing cannot occur without learning, they work hand in hand to fully grasp the information.cognitive process

Nature versus nurture[edit]

Nature versus nurture refers to the theory about how people are influenced. The nature mentality is around the idea that we are influenced by our genetics. This involves all of our physical characteristics and our personality. On the other hand, nurture revolves around the idea that we are influenced by the environment and our experiences. Some believe that we are the way we are due to how we were raised, in what type of environment we were raised in and our early childhood experiences. This theory views humans as actively inputting, retrieving, processing, and storing information. Context, social content, and social influences on processing are simply viewed as information. Nature provides the hardware of cognitive processing and Information Processing theory explains cognitive functioning based on that hardware. Individuals innately vary in some cognitive abilities, such a memory span, but human cognitive systems function similarly based on a set of memory stores that store information and control processes determine how information is processed. The “Nurture” component provides information input (stimuli) that is processed resulting in behavior and learning. Changes in the contents of the long-term memory store (knowledge) are learning. Prior knowledge affects future processing and thus affects future behavior and learning.

Quantitative versus qualitative[edit]

Information processing theory combines elements of both quantitative and qualitative development. Qualitative development occurs through the emergence of new strategies for information storage and retrieval, developing representational abilities (such as the utilization of language to represent concepts), or obtaining problem-solving rules (Miller, 2011). Increases in the knowledge base or the ability to remember more items in working memory are examples of quantitative changes, as well as increases in the strength of connected cognitive associations (Miller, 2011). The qualitative and quantitative components often interact together to develop new and more efficient strategies within the processing system.

Current areas of research[edit]

Information Processing Theory is currently being utilized in the study of computer or artificial intelligence. This theory has also been applied to systems beyond the individual, including families and business organizations. For example, Ariel (1987)[3] applied Information Processing Theory to family systems, with sensing, attending, and encoding of stimuli occurring either within individuals or within the family system itself. Unlike traditional systems theory, where the family system tends to maintain stasis and resists incoming stimuli which would violate the system's rules, the Information Processing family develops individual and mutual schemes which influence what and how information is attended to and processed. Dysfunctions can occur both at the individual level as well as within the family system itself, creating more targets for therapeutic change. Rogers, P. R. et al (1999) utilized Information Processing Theory to describe business organizational behavior, as well as to present a model describing how effective and ineffective business strategies are developed. In their study, components of organizations that "sense" market information are identified as well as how organizations attend to this information; which gatekeepers determine what information is relevant/important for the organization, how this is organized into the existing culture (organizational schemas), and whether or not the organization has effective or ineffective processes for their long-term strategy. Cognitive psychologist, Kahnemen and Grabe, noted that learners has some control over this process. Selective attention is a term used to describe the ability of humans to select and process certain information while simultaneously ignoring others. This is influenced by many things including:

  • What the information being processed means to the individual
  • The complexity of the stimuli (based partially on background knowledge)
  • Ability to control attention (varies based on age, hyperactivity, etc.)

Implications inside the Classroom[edit]

The Information Processing Theory outlines a way of learning that can be used by teachers inside of the classroom. Some examples of classroom implications of the Information Processing Theory include:

  • Use mnemonics to aid students in retaining information for later use, as well as strengthening the students’ remembering skills.

Example: While teaching the order of operations in mathematics, use the mnemonic “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally” to symbolize the six steps.

  • When teaching a specific lesson, use many different teaching styles and tools.

Example: In social studies, if the lesson is on the Rwandan Genocide, lecture on the topic using many pictures, watch the movie Hotel Rwanda, and have a class discussion about the topic and the film.

  • Pair students together to review the material covered.

Example: When teaching a more abstract lesson, place students into pairs and have each student teach their partner the material covered to further embed the information into the long-term memory.

  • Break down lessons into smaller more manageable parts.

Example: When teaching an intricate math equation, walk the students through an example step-by-step. After each step, pause for questions to ensure everyone understands.

  • Assess the extent of the prior knowledge students have about the upcoming material.

Example: After each test, have a Pre-Test about the next chapter to get an understanding of how much prior knowledge the students have.

  • Give students feedback on each assignment as a reinforcement.

Example: When returning a graded paper ensure there are both positive and negative comments on each paper. This will assist the students in bettering their future work, as well as keep them motivated in their studies.

  • Connect new lessons back to old lessons and real-life scenarios.

Example: When teaching a lesson about the Industrial Revolution, tie it back to your own town and buildings or areas that exist because of that time period.

  • Allow for over-learning

Play games like trivial pursuit and jeopardy to encourage extra learning, especially as a review, within the classroom.


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