Information Processing When we deal with information, we do so in steps. One way to think of this is to picture the process of acquiring, retaining, and using information as an activity called information processing, which is diagrammed in Figure 6.1. Information comes from the outside world into the sensory registers in the human brain. This input consists of things perceived by our senses. We are not consciously aware of most of the things we perceive; we become aware of them only if we consciously direct our attention to them. When we do focus our attention on them, they are placed in our working memory. Figure 6.1. A model of human information processing. Another name for our working memory is short-term memory. Our working memory has a very limited capacity - we can attend to only about seven items at a time. Therefore, we must take one of the following actions with regard to each piece of information that comes into this short-term storage area: (1) continuously rehearse it, so that it stays there; (2) move it out of this area by shifting it to long-term memory; or (3) move it out of this area by forgetting it. Long-term memory, as its name implies, stores information for a long time. The advantage of long-term memory is that we do not have to constantly rehearse information to keep it in storage there. In addition, there is no restrictive limit on the amount of information we can store in long-term memory. If we move information to long-term memory, it stays there for a long time - perhaps permanently! To make use of this information in long term memory, we must move it back to our working memory, using a process called retrieval. It may be convenient to view information processing as parallel to the way in which an executive manages a business. Information comes into the business across the executive's desk - mail, phone calls, personal interactions, problems, etc. (This is like short-term memory.) Some of this information goes into the waste basket (like being forgotten), and some of it is filed (like being stored in long-term memory). In some cases, when new information arrives, the executive gets old information from a file and integrates the new information with the old before refiling it. (This is like retrieving information from long-term memory to integrate it with new information then storing the new information in long-term memory.) On other occasions the executive may dig out the information in several old files and update the files in some fashion or integrate them in some way to attack a complex problem. The business of human learning operates in much the same manner. Figure 6.1 represents an imperfect model - an oversimplification of human thought processes. We all engage in information processing; but nobody - not even the greatest neurological scientist in the world - fully understands what happens when we do so. It is virtually certain that within the next twenty-five or fifty years somebody will develop a better model to explain human thinking more precisely. Nevertheless, this model does provide useful insights into how to help learners acquire and retain information. It is also important to note that the components of memory undergo considerable development as the child grows into adulthood (Schneider, 1989). Working Memory Contemporary cognitive research, summarized in Salisbury (1990), has stressed the critical importance of the working memory. Working memory is critically important in language development (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1993) and in reading (Breznitz & Share, 1992); and failures in working memory are often responsible for learning disabilities (Hulme & Mackenzie, 1992). Human beings do all their active thinking and problem solving in working memory. The quality of the input into working memory and of the operations that go on there determine the quality of learning and problem solving. There are three critical phases in the effective use of working memory: (1) getting information correctly into this short-term area, (2) handling the information appropriately while it is there, (3) moving information correctly from working memory to long-term storage, and using the information in working memory to generate some kind of output. First, it is necessary to get information correctly into the working memory. As the previous section stated, we move information from the sensory register to the working memory by focusing attention on it. Teachers can facilitate this transfer by doing something to direct attention: for example, by highlighting key words, by pointing to crucial items, or by saying, "Look at this!" or "This is important!" In addition to focusing attention on information in a sensory register, we can bring information into short-term memory through the process of retrieval from long-term memory. This process will be discussed later in this chapter. Second, it is necessary to handle the information appropriately while it is in short-term memory. The two critical limitations on handling information in working memory are the small number of pieces of information it can handle and the short duration of time during which information can remain there. Most adults can retain about seven items of information at a time for just a few seconds. (If you can remember information for longer than twenty seconds, you have probably rapidly - and weakly - encoded it without even realizing it.) There are five main ways to deal with these limitations in the capacity of working memory: 1. Feed into the working memory only small amounts of new information at a time. Learners can do this by focusing their attention effectively. 2. Clear unneeded, old information out of the working memory to make room for the new information. Our brains perform this service for us automatically - almost as soon as we stop focusing attention on the information. 3. "Chunk" several pieces of information together, so that several individual pieces comprise a single chunk. This strategy will be discussed later in this section. 4. Efficiently and rapidly shuttle information into and out of working memory. This requires retrieval, which is discussed in conjunction with long-term memory later in this chapter. 5. Use additional devices to supplement human memory. For example, if we record a phone number on a piece of paper, we don't have to store it in memory. If a teacher projects a map or a diagram on a screen, then it takes little effort for the learners to bring it into working memory - they can just look at any part of the image in front of them. The strategy of "chunking" requires further explanation. It involves combining separate pieces of information into a single, more complex piece of information, so that we can store more items. For example, it would be very difficult to try to retain in working memory the following series of numbers: 1-9-0-0-3-3-7-7-9-2-4 The difficulty arises because there are eleven items (digits) in this series. (The numbers are also meaningless - and this problem will be discussed later.) By chunking, we could convert this to six items (one- or two-digit numbers): 19 - 00 - 33 - 77 - 92 - 4 If you really wanted to do so, you could memorize this list of six items. This series can be chunked further by converting it to the following format: 1-900-337-7924 You can now recognize this as an ordinary "900" telephone number. Most people would chunk this as four pieces of information: "1-900", "337", "79", and "24." Since telephone dialing systems display both numbers and letters, we can replace some of the numbers with letters to get the following: 1-900 ED PSYCH This is a mythical number for a tutoring service for aspiring educational psychologists. It now consists of two chunks of information: "900 number" and "Educational Psychology." Without looking back at this number, you would easily be able to retain it in working memory long enough to write it down. Of course, since the information is now meaningful, it may be easier to just move it to long-term memory and not bother to write it down at all. (Remember: This is a phony number. Do not waste your time calling it. If you need help with your educational psychology, read this book or the accompanying workbook.) If you think about it for a moment, chunking really involves an interaction of long-term and working memory. We were able to chunk only because we have perceived meaning (that is, we have made connections that made sense) among some of the numbers. This simple concept of chunking lies at the basis of effective thought; it is a key component in the process of language and effective thinking. Language is really nothing more than a sophisticated form of chunking. What if we had to say, "I brought into my working memory through the things near the top of my head an image of a small animal moving several feet off the ground into a large plant that extended about several feet from the ground into the air," instead of "I saw the bird fly into the tree"? By knowing the concepts "seeing," "bird," "flying," and "tree," I can chunk the information so that I can easily handle it in my working memory. And as long as you share the same language system with me, you can chunk the information in the same way and easily fit it into your own working memory. Another way to deal with more than seven items at a time is to move some items into and out of the working storage area very rapidly. We do this so frequently and so automatically that we don't even realize we are doing it. In order for this shuttling process to work effectively, the process of storing and retrieving particular information in long-term memory must have become thoroughly familiar - so familiar that it can be performed without requiring any effort at all on the part of working memory. Psychologists use the term automaticity to refer to the ability to chunk or to move information between long-term and working memory so rapidly and efficiently that the processes require practically no attention on the part of the learner. Automaticity is absolutely essential to human learning and information processing: without it, a huge bottleneck occurs that inhibits learning. The main process by which learners develop automaticity is called overlearning. The importance of overlearning as part of the retrieval phase of learning was discussed in chapter 3 of this book. By the way, what was that phony long-distance telephone number for tutoring assistance in educational psychology? There are three problems that can occur with information in the working memory: Getting information correctly into this short-term area. This problem is solved by maintaining a continuing, appropriate focus to monitor sensory activities and to retrieve relevant information from long-term memory. The learner can achieve this focus by having relevant information active in the working memory and easily accessible in long-term storage. 1. Handling the information appropriately while it is in working memory. Information will fade from the working memory unless it is continually rehearsed. Rehearsal refers not only to the rote recital of information, but to any strategy that involves constant focus on the information - for example, using the information for a constructive purpose. To support information in working memory, it is often useful to employ supplementary strategies, such as notes and diagrams, to which the learner can refer before deciding what to transfer to long-term storage. 2. Moving information correctly from working memory to long-term storage. This problem is solved by encoding the information. Encoding occurs most efficiently when the learner actively works with the information in ways that relate it to other information already in long-term memory. What to Do to Help the Learner Transfer Information Correctly From the Sensory Register to the Working Memory 1. Point out specifically the important elements in the presentation. 2. Minimize factors that will interfere with attention. 3. Repeat the presentation more than a single time. It's actually unlikely that any information will be transferred perfectly on a single occasion, and redundancy will reduce errors. (Repetition is also useful for other reasons.) 4. Check to verify whether the information has been attended to and transferred correctly. 1. What to Do to Help the learner accurately retain the information in working memory as long as it is needed to work with it. Keep the number of pieces of information small enough to work with. Either present information in small segments or employ chunking to convert larger amounts into smaller number of pieces of information. 1. Keep attention constantly focused on the information under consideration. For example, if the information is projected onto a screen or written on a page in front of the student, this minimizes the demand on working memory. 2. Rehearse the information often while the student is working on it. Rephrase key points often enough to keep them active in working memory. 3. Allow the learner to have access to the information whenever it is needed. If the information is not in long-term memory or cannot be retrieved, it is foolish to deny the learner access to this information. 4. Move the information to long-term memory as soon as possible, and help the learner retrieve the information to working memory whenever it is needed. Help the learner retrieve the information easily so that it is almost as good as present in working memory. Chapter 3 used the term selective perception to refer to the conscious focus of attention on the essential features of an instructional presentation. This focus is essential if effective thinking and learning are to occur. Repeated practice is an effective technique for enhancing the effectiveness of short-term memory. Repeated practice is likely to result in overlearning, and learners can make their working memories more efficient by making basic skills and information so familiar (automatic) that they require only minimal attention from the working memory. The Play's the Thing! Imagine a situation in which a student is studying Shakespeare. Assume that the student is reading a book in which the author is trying to argue that Hamlet's tragic flaw is not procrastination but rather impulsiveness. Any student who has efficiently stored the proper information in long-term memory can easily read and understand the following sentence: "Thus, when Romeo at the climax kills Tibalt, his tragic flaw of rashness is clear." (Grebanier, 1960, page 189). The student can keep this information (about a different play) in working memory while reflecting on the author's next point: Hamlet likewise rashly killed Polonius. The student can then mull over the author's main point and come to a conclusion like this: "Omigosh! Hamlet's not procrastinating at all. His whole problem is that he's impulsive!" (Note that at this point, Romeo is probably gone from the student's working memory.) If convinced of this new insight, the student could move this new piece of information to long-term memory. More likely, the student would need more convincing and would move more information into and out of working memory to further clarify this issue. This whole thought process is going to work only if the student had been able to efficiently chunk key concepts like "Romeo," "Tybalt," "tragic flaw," "rashness," "procrastination," "Hamlet," and "Polonius." What Teachers Can Do to Improve Information Processing Focus specific attention on important concepts. Strategies to accomplish this include both physical techniques (e.g., underlining important ideas, writing them on the chalkboard, flashing them on the computer screen, saying them more slowly or loudly) and psychological techniques (e.g., arousing curiosity by posing an interesting problem). 1. Give students the opportunity to overlearn basic skills. Strategies to accomplish this include practicing them in a gamelike atmosphere and seeing to it that the skills are practiced repeatedly as parts of subsequent lessons once they have been initially mastered. 2. Provide opportunities for meaningful practice. Help the learners see the connection between what they are currently learning and what they already know. 3. Provide opportunities for distributed review and practice. By using a wide variety of examples, you can facilitate both retention and transfer of information and skills. 4. Assign homework and other supplementary activities that will put into practice the preceding guidelines. 5. Be aware of occasions when current information is likely to be confused with previous or future information, and take steps to prevent proactive and retroactive interference. 6. Anticipate what misconceptions are likely to occur and ask questions to probe for them. Then help students overcome these incorrect understandings. 7. Prompt students to go beyond rote memorization. Reduce the incentives to memorize trivia and increase the incentives to integrate and recall useful information. The following are examples of ways to move toward meaningful rather than rote recall of information: o Ask questions during class that require the application rather than recitation of principles. (When you do this, you'll have to wait longer for an answer, since it's a more complex task.) o Allow students to use concept maps, diagrams, outlines, or other notes when taking tests. o Don't ask trivial questions that can easily (or only!) be answered by rote memorization. o Give credit for "wrong" answers that are accompanied by truly plausible explanations. 8. Once students have completed a unit of instruction, review that material at a later time. You can accomplish this by using review questions on subsequent tests, but you can also accomplish it by seeing to it that the prior subject matter is discussed again and integrated into subsequent units. 9. In general, follow the guidelines in the "What to Do" lists accompanying each step of information processing in this chapter. What Parents Can Do to Improve Information Processing In most circumstances, it is not safe to assume that students and teachers will spontaneously follow the guidelines described for them in the accompanying lists. Parents should supplement or support the efforts of teachers and encourage their children to follow these guidelines. 1. Provide young children with rich but not overwhelming sensory experiences that they can relate to what they learn in school. 2. If medical problems (such as the attention deficit disorder described in Chapter 9) interfere with a child's information processing, work with doctors and teachers to solve these problems. 3. In general, follow the guidelines in the "What to Do" lists accompanying each step of information processing in this chapter. What Students Can Do to Improve Information Processing Learn to monitor your own thinking processes. It is not necessary (or even advisable) to do this all the time, but by noticing how it feels to pay attention or what goes on in your head when you think about something, you can learn to process information more efficiently. 1. Try to pay attention to only a few things at a time. 2. Practice ignoring things that you don't want to pay attention to, as well as attending to those things that you do want to pay attention to. Sometimes not paying attention to irrelevant events and information is more important than paying attention to relevant information. 3. If you find it necessary to deal with several new pieces of information at one time, try to combine them into a smaller number of items. You can often do this by "chunking" - that is, by grouping similar pieces of information together while you study them. 4. If you find it necessary to deal with several new pieces of information at one time, use notes, pictures, or diagrams to help you keep the information actively available in your mind. 5. Become as active as you can be in the learning process. By becoming more active, you will automatically find more ways to connect the new information with what you already know. The following are some good ways to become active while you learn: o Underline selectively while you study. o Draw diagrams while you study. o Outline important ideas while you study. o Ask yourself questions before you read part of a textbook, and then see if you can answer them after reading that part of the book. o Look for ways to apply what you are studying in one class to issues in another class or to problems outside the school setting. 6. Study with a friend. Explain your ideas to your friend and listen to your friend's ideas. Tell one another what you think is right or wrong about the summaries or applications. 7. Remember that all the ideas in the previous list can backfire. For example, if you underline too much, you may stop thinking about what you are doing. If you study with a friend, you may let the friend do all the thinking. When applying these strategies, remember that it is crucial that you become an active thinker. 8. Try to make sure you understand the information clearly and correctly before you practice it. (Otherwise, you may have to unlearn the wrong information before you can learn the correct information.) Some good ways to make sure you understand are to ask yourself questions, to summarize information for a friend and see if the friend agrees with you, and to ask the teacher questions. 9. Once you think you have learned something, practice it even a little longer than you think necessary to master it. 10. Find out what skills are basic - that is, what skills will be important to help you understand later information. Practice these until they become "second nature" to you. 11. Don't study at the same time things that you are likely to confuse with one another. 12. When you learn something new that resembles something you already know, focus your attention briefly on both the aspects that are similar and the aspects that are different. Be sure you can tell them apart. 13. In general, follow the guidelines in the "What to Do" lists accompanying each step of information processing in this chapter. Summary This chapter has described how learners receive, store, integrate, retrieve, and use information. Learning certainly consists of more than merely recalling information. However, recalling previous information is essential to and facilitates higher order skills. In addition, recall of information is often an important end in itself. Information perceived in the environment enters the learner's awareness through a sensory register. By focusing attention on this input, the learner is able to transfer the information to working memory, a short-term storage area where all of the learner's active thinking takes place. Unless the information in working memory is constantly rehearsed or unless it is transferred to long-term memory, this information will be forgotten. Information can be transferred to long-term memory through encoding or elaboration - terms that refer to the process by which the learner actively interacts with the information and makes connections between the new information and information that is already stored in long-term memory. Once information is in long-term memory, it stays there, even when the learner stops paying constant attention to it. The learner can later bring this information back to working memory for further use through the process of retrieval. Forgetting occurs either when information fails to move into long-term memory or when the learner is unable to retrieve information from long-term memory. The major factors that cause forgetting are fading (the disuse of information), interference (when one piece of information becomes confused with another), and distortion (which combines fading and interference). This chapter has discussed strategies for strengthening memory and the overall processing of information and for minimizing forgetting. By following these guidelines, teachers, learners, and others involved in the instructional process can help students learn and process information as effectively as possible.
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