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Adapted from the Atkinson & Shriffrin (1968) model of memory

Adapted from the Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) model of memory

Information Processing Theory is a theory from cognitive psychology that suggests information is processed in three stages. In order to remember and recall information, one must ensure that information successfully navigates through three memory stores called sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory is like a temporary storage where information that is attended to will be passed on for further processing. Sensory memory has unlimited storage, but here is the catch – it only holds stimuli for approximately 2-5s. Thousands of inputs are entering sensory memory, but if that information is not further processed it will be lost. So what information gets processed? The information that gets processed is information that we pay attention to. This happens in (roughly) two ways: We pay attention (automatically) to what is familiar to us, or we have to consciously orientate our attention to stimuli. The first scenario allows information to be processed easily as it is instantly recognised from information in our long-term memory store (this is why prior knowledge helps us learn new information). The second scenario requires educators to cue learner’s attention to the important aspects of the material they are learning. You can read more about cuing attention here.

Key points:

  • Link new information to existing information.
  • Cue learners by explicitly saying ‘this is important’ ‘you will need to know this to be able to do x’
  • Present information in varied ways and contexts to increase the chances of activating prior knowledge
  • Students with little prior knowledge in a subject may need more exposure to the material.

Working memory

Information that is processed then transfers to working memory. Working memory has limited capacity and duration, holding just 7 + – 2 items for only 30s (or up to 2 min if engaging in rehearsal). We can think of working memory as a place where what we are currently thinking about is stored – when we stop thinking about that information it disappears from working memory. Working memory is receiving information from sensory memory and long-term memory (this is why prior knowledge is so important – the more you know the more information you have to associate with incoming information). Information that is recognised or can be linked to something already in your long-term memory gets processed quickly without much ‘work’. New information needs to be worked on to get it into long-term memory. A key factor in getting information into long-term memory is reducing the cognitive load. Information needs to be chunked into smaller manageable bits. Try remembering the following letters: E A D K M R E as compared with MAKER ED. You can see that if we rearrange the words and chunk them, it becomes effortless. Mind maps can be used to group or organise similar information together. Mind maps work because they create a more complex meaningful unit and they also help with recall of information as they make links between words and concepts.

Key points:

  • Too much information at once overloads WM resulting in information loss.
  • Break large concepts into smaller digestible ones that make up the whole.
  • Use concept maps or organisers
  • Try not to be verbose, only give the fewest words in instructions. Simpler lesson plans are best, introducing 1-2 concepts at a time.
  • Present new information in the context of prior knowledge.


 Long-term memory

Information then makes its way into long-term memory storage. Long- term memory is both unlimited in amount it can hold and duration. It’s suggested that we don’t lose information that is successfully stored in LTM, rather we can’t recall it successfully. The best way to successfully encode information into LTM is to make the information meaningful to the learner. This can be done in three ways:

  1. Organise information in a way that connects with existing information. Using conceptual models that explicitly show the connections between material being taught and how that relates to information previously taught.
  2. Elaborate on the information. This can be done by using analogies to help learners connect the information to something familiar. Another way is to have students come up with their own examples from their own lives.
  3. Increase the level of active processing a learner has to do. Getting students to compare and contrast information gets students to draw on multiple sources of information and think deeper about the material. Sometimes when we have to learn new material that is difficult to link to existing knowledge we can use mnemonics to create a link. Two good strategies to use are the peg word method and method of loci. Also have students come up with their own questions about the material that other students can then answer. The PQ4R method is also a simple way to get students to be more active in their reading process

Key points:

  • Encoding is important to ensure information gets into and stays in long-term memory
  • Connect what you don’t know with what you do know.
  • If you are not actively processing information chances are you are not encoding it.

Last word: Whilst students will have similar limitations on their memory system, there will be a lot of variation in levels of prior knowledge between students. With the shift to personalising learning, one of the best things we can do is get to know what our students know and what they don’t know. But this is more (much more) than what they can produce on a test – it involves all the knowledge and interests a leaner has in their lives including sociocultural values and knowledge of past and present.



Eysenck, M.W., & Keane, M.T. (2010). Cognitive Psychology – A Student’s Handbook (6th ed). New York. Psychology Press.

Mayer, R.E., Heiser, J., & Lonn, S. (2001). Cognitive Constraints On Multimedia Learning: When Presenting More Material Results In Less Understanding. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 93, (1), 187-198.

Shunk, D.H. (2008). Learning Theories – An Educational perspective. (5th ed.). New Jersey. Prentice Hall.

Slavin, R. E. (2012). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice. (10th ed.) Chapter 6.