Human information processing

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  • Human information processing theory deals with how people receive, store, integrate, retrieve, and use information.

See also:

A short history

Since the first computers, psychologists have drawn parallels between computers and human thought. At its core are memory models. The memory model which dominated the 1970’s and 80’s is the three component information processing system of Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968, 1971) insprired by a typicial computer hardware architecture:

  • Sensory Memory (STSS): Analogous to input devices such as a keyboard or more sophisticated devices like a voice recognition system
  • Short Term Memory (STM) or working memory: Analogous to the CPU and it's random-access memory (RAM)
  • Long Term Memory (LTM) : Analogous to a storage device like a hard disk

Today exist various variants of the Atkinson-Schiffrin model, e.g. Mayer's model of multimedia learning which presented below.

An important question raised by many research concerns the power of working memory. It is generally believed that human working memory is very limited, we can only keep in mind a few things at a time. Miller's (1956) famous "The magical number seven plus or minus two" paper layed the groundwork.

Principles of the information processing approach

According to Huitt (2003), there are a few basic principles that most cognitive psychologists agree with:

  • The mental system has limited capacities, i.e. bottlenecks in the flow and processing of information, occur at very specific points
  • A control mechanism is required to oversee the encoding, transformation, processing, storage, retrieval and utilization of information. This control mechanism requires itself processing power and that varies in function of the difficulty of the task.
  • There is a two-way flow of information. Sensory input is combined with information stored in memory in order to construct meaning.
  • The human organism has been genetically prepared to process and organize information in specific ways.

Cognitive theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML)

According to Moreno and Duran (2004), CTML consists of the following main ideas (Mayer, 2001):

  1. dual coding - in which the representation and processing of information concerning verbal and nonverbal materials are handled cognitively by separate subsystems (Clark & Paivio, 1991; Paivio, 1986)
  2. dual processing - in which working memory includes independent auditory and visual working memories (Baddeley, 1992)
  3. limited capacity - in which the processing capacities of learners are severely limited (Chandler & Sweller, 1991). See cognitive load.
  4. active learning - in which meaningful learning occurs when learners select, organize, and build coherent connections of new information with prior knowledge (Mayer, 2001; Mayer & Moreno, 2003; Mayer & Wittrock, 1996).

One of the most widespread theories of multimedia learning is described by Mayer . The model is based on well known cognitive sciences theories: The limited capacity of short term memory, described with the three stages of human memory . Sensory memory, short-tem memory and long-term memory being the three stages information passes through in order to be remembered. Later, Baddeley & Hitch defined their multi-component model of working memory. In particular, they showed that phonological and visuo-spatial information are stored in short-term memory by different processes with different resources. The dual coding theory formulated by Pavio also supports the separated processing of verbal and non-verbal (or visual) information. Hence, a word encoded in a verbal way will be better recalled if also encoded in a visual form. Mayer also describes a principle of active information processing , stating that learning is more efficient if reinforced by a real cognitive investment and work. A conscious activity from the learner, such as voluntary attention shifts to important elements or mental organization. In the end, Mayer's theory of multimedia learning is close from Attkinson & Shiffrin model, with three phases of information processing: selection, organisation and integration to a prior mental model. Mayer insists on the fact that these phases are not a fixed order, but more an iterative process.


See the multimedia presentation article for an application of this model.

Schnotz and Bannert's provided an elaborated model of how verbal-symbolic and depictive information are conjointly and interactively processed in order to form a mental model, which eventually may affect conceptual organization. They define the final organisation of knowledge in two parts. On one hand, a propositional representation gathers together semantic elements, in a symbolic structure. On the other hand, a mental model is formed from perceptive and visual organisation of the different elements in an analogical form, but also from semantic elements. Both representations are strongly related and have similar structures.

The selection of pertinent information uses top-down processing. Previous knowledge guides the gathering of information. In the absence of a pertinent mental model to guide visual exploration, other selection processes will be used. Lowe showed that novices learners were mostly relying on perceptive salience to extract information form a meteorological map.

Knowledge organisation is both based on bottom-up and top-down processing. Perceptive organisation of the elements as well as anterior knowledge are used in order to build a mental model linked with a propositional representation. Of course, these selective and organisational functions stand on working memory.



  • Atkinson, R., & Shiffrin, R. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In K Spence & J Spence (Eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 2). New York: Academic Press.
  • Baddeley, A. (1992, January 31). Working memory. Science, 255, 556-559.
  • Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working Memory. In G. A. Bower (Ed.), Recent advances in learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90). New York: Academic Press.
  • Bransford John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, HTML and HTML
  • Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8, 293-332.
  • Clark, J. M., & Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review, 3, 149-210.
  • Hill, J.R. & Hannafin, M.J. (1997). Cognitive strategies and learning from the World Wide Web. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(4), 37-64. (Access restricted) (Note: This could be discussed as a section presenting an example of modern research).
  • Huitt, W. (2003). The information processing approach to cognition. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. HTML (Retrieved DSchneider)
  • Lindsay, P. H. and D. A. Norman. Human Information Processing. Academic press, New York, 1977.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97 HTML
  • Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, R. E., Mautone, P. D., & Prothero, W. (2002). Pictorial aids for learning by doing in a multimedia geology simulation game. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 171-185.
  • Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52.
  • Mayer, R. E., & Wittrock, M. C. (1996). Problem-solving transfer. In R. Calfee & R. Berliner (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 47-62). New York: Macmillan.
  • Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
  • Moreno, Roxana & Richard Duran (2004). Do Multiple Representations Need Explanations? The Role of Verbal Guidance and Individual Differences in Multimedia Mathematics LearningJournal of Educational Psychology, 2004, Vol. 96, No. 3, 492-503
  • Rebetez, Cyril (2006). Control and collaboration in multimedia learning: Is there a split-interaction? MA Thesis, Diplôme d'études approfondies en psychologie cognitive expérimentale, Université de Genève. PDF