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How does information make its way to memory? How do people learn? In this lesson, we’ll examine the information processing theory of learning, including the process of memory, cognitive load, chunking, and automaticity.

Information Processing

Joanie is just learning to read, and she’s struggling. She’s a very slow reader, and by the time she finishes a sentence, she can’t remember how it started! Reading, like other types of learning, is about storing information in a person’s mind.

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Specifically, learning involves storing and accessing information in memory.But how, exactly, does this happen? There are many theories. Among them, the information processing theory of learning says that information from the world around us moves from sensory storage to working memory to long-term memory.For example, when Joanie is reading, she is receiving sensory information from the book in front of her: Her eyes are taking in the size and shape of each letter, the letters grouped together to make words, and how it all looks on the page. That’s all in sensory storage.

As she moves her eye across the page, she remembers what she just read a second or two ago. That means that the information is in working memory, or storage of memories that occurred only a few seconds in the past.If things go right, though, Joanie will remember the information in the book longer than just a few seconds. If everything works well, it will move to long-term memory, which is really just memories that are stored for a person to access later.Let’s take a closer look at the information processing theory of learning and how teachers can apply it to help students.

Cognitive Load

When Joanie is learning how to read, it’s very important for information to move from sensory to working memory to long-term memory. Why? Working memory is very limited. Only a few things can be in working memory at a time, and they can only be stored there for a few seconds.

This can cause problems in learning. Take Joanie, for example: If she’s reading a paragraph, she can’t remember every word in that paragraph or even every sentence. She needs to move that information to long-term memory. Otherwise, when she gets to the end of a paragraph, she will have forgotten how the paragraph started!When a student can’t get information from working memory to long-term memory, they can become overloaded.

Cognitive load involves having too much information in working memory and not being able to remember anything.So if Joanie is reading a long, complex paragraph, and she can’t get information to move from working memory to long-term memory, she’s likely to experience cognitive load, which will leave her unable to remember or take in new information.To help Joanie as she learns new things, her teacher can do three things:1. Encourage attention and rehearsalThe more Joanie is able to attend to something, and the more she goes over it in her mind, the more likely it is that the information will move to long-term memory.2.

Only present a few things at a timeIf her teacher tries to teach Joanie a bunch of new material all at once, Joanie is likely to forget most of it. Teaching only a few new things at a time can help Joanie retain the information better because she’s likely to avoid cognitive load.3.

Chunk materialQuick, remember these numbers: 2094857643. Did you remember all of them? Probably not. But if you divide them into a few chunks, like 209, 485, 7643, you’re more likely to remember them. This is the idea behind chunking, or grouping information so that it’s easier to remember and easier to avoid cognitive load. If Joanie’s teacher can group information together to help Joanie remember it, she will be better off.


So, Joanie wants to learn, but sometimes she has trouble. When she’s reading, her working memory can get overloaded, which leads to cognitive load. As we’ve already seen, this is because working memory is very limited. What can Joanie do to help free up space in her working memory and learn more things?Automaticity is the process of making a task automatic.

Think about driving to work or school. The first time you do it, you’re probably paying a lot of attention to every detail of the drive: that strange tree, the pretty yellow house, the stop sign that’s at an angle. But the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. After a while, you could probably drive there in your sleep because you’re so accustomed to doing it.The more automatic a person can make things, the easier it is to learn.

This is because automatic tasks do not take up space in working memory. So, for example, if Joanie is able to automatically recognize that the combination of the letters ‘c,’ ‘a,’ and ‘t’ spell ‘cat,’ then she doesn’t have to waste space in her working memory remembering individual letters. She is automatically recognizing the word and moving on.So what’s the secret to automaticity? The only way to make something automatic is through sustained, regular practice.

So the more Joanie’s teacher can help her practice word recognition, the better she’ll become at it. Likewise, if Joanie is struggling with math, practicing addition or subtraction over and over again will make it more automatic and thus free up space in her working memory.

Lesson Summary

The information processing theory of learning says that information moves from sensory storage to working memory to long-term memory. Because working memory is limited in both the number of things that can be held there and the very short amount of time information can be held there, overtaxing working memory results in cognitive load.Cognitive load can be avoided through attention and rehearsal, which leads to information moving into long-term memory; only presenting a few new things at once; and chunking, which involves putting pieces of information together to help a person remember them. Finally, automaticity involves making something automatic so that it doesn’t tax working memory stores.

Automaticity can be achieved only through sustained, regular practice.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have finished this lesson you should be able to:

  • State the information processing theory
  • Differentiate between working memory and long-term memory
  • Explain the negative effect of too much information
  • Recall and describe three methods to lighten cognitive load
  • Discuss the purpose of automaticity and how it can be achieved

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