How Can the Information Processing Theory Help Teachers

Image courtesy of Cengage Learning

Image courtesy of Cengage Learning

The information processing theory is an attempt to explain how our brain experiences, processes, and retains information. I’m going to give a very short explanation of the theory, and then look at how it can help us as teachers. For a still brief but more in-depth look at the theory, read this article at education.com.

As you can see in the image above, the information processing theory has three parts, sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory. Sensory memory is used to process all the stimuli we experience, for example what we see, hear or feel. Here stimuli is processed and either filtered out or sent to working memory. For example, right now my air-conditioner is running. Its sound is being processed by my sensory memory, but, when I’m concentrating on writing this article it doesn’t get sent to my working memory. It’s not an important stimuli, so it is filtered out. Information stays in sensory memory for a few seconds at most.

When our sensory memory deems a particular stimulus important, it sends that information to working memory. This is where we assign meanings to things. For example, if the air-conditioner starts to make some odd grinding noise, that information would be sent to my working memory where I would assign meaning to it. Is it broken? Should I turn it off immediately? Both sensory and working memory are limited in how much information they can hold. Because of this, it is important to know about something called chunking. Working memory can only hold 5 to 9 pieces of information at a time. Because of this limitation, it is helpful to group information into chunks. The best example of this is a long string of numbers. If I asked you to remember 10 random numbers, you may struggle a bit, but if you put those numbers into meaningful groups of 3, for example, you could remember them easily.

Long term memory, unlike sensory and working memory, can hold vast amounts of information for long periods of time–forever. The two most important parts of long term memory are encoding and retrieval. Encoding refers to the strategies we use to remember things. For example, when you meet someone and want to remember their name, you might say it over and over again in an attempt to make it “stick” in your long term memory. Retrieval refers to the methods we use to bring information stored in long term memory back to working memory. Imagine if all the information in our heads was in working memory, our consciousness, all the time. We would be flooded with information! We could never process it all.

The above is a very brief explanation of a rather large theory. Again, I suggest you read this article at education.com for more information.

What I want to focus on is how this theory can help us as teachers, and the most important thing to consider here is encoding. Encoding is learning, and, as teachers, we have to focus on this process. For example, how much time do you spend standing in front of the class lecturing? Is listening to a teacher talk an effective way for students to encode a new language into their long term memory? No, it’s not, but there are still a lot of teachers out there who insist on “teaching,” standing and delivering knowledge to students. To become better teachers, we need to look at every lesson plan we make and think about encoding. Is the lesson actually moving information into long term memory, or is it just busy work used to pass the time.

Another important part of long term memory, according to the theory, is organization. Studies have shown that new information that is linked to existing information stored in long term memory is much easier to encode and retrieve. Have you ever made your students memorize long lists of vocabulary words? It’s a common practice, but it is not an efficient way for students to learn. Sure, those students will be able to pass a vocabulary test, but they won’t be able to recall and use those words when they need them because they are not linked to anything useful. When developing language learning lessons, we must always think about organization. Is the information being linked to something useful so it can can be recalled and used later, or is it just isolated information that is, for the most part, a waste of time to memorize since it won’t be recalled.

Obviously, this is a very simple post about a large and complex theory that attempts to make sense of our brains. That being said, we have a lot to think about in terms of practical information–just  in regards to encoding and organizing. As language teachers, we always need to check that we are following best teaching practices, so we don’t waste our students’ time.

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