Reflections on Information Processing Theory

This week I’ve been reading and viewing and processing information processing theory. Originating in the 1950s, at the dawn of computing technologies, information processing theory proposes that we can understand human cognition, the way the human mind works, by understanding how computers process information. The basic idea is that people take specific information inputs and process them while in short-term memory (STM), or working memory, in such a way that they can be moved and retrieved (output) from long-term memory (LTM) at some later time.

Understanding information processing theory helps me understand the various cognitive difficulties incoming undergrads often face when confronted with university-level work. Many students admit they never had to do much more than memorize facts in order to receive satisfactory grades in high school. Most are familiar with a behaviorist-based instruction model wherein students are conditioned to respond to a familiar question (stimulus) with a “correct” answer (behavior) to produce the A grade (reward).

Knowing more about information processing theory and metacognition helps me understand the various elaboration processes necessary for students to build deeper connections and more lasting knowledge. For example, a student complaining about not doing well in any of her classes would benefit from a conversation about the specific study methods she’s currently using and an introduction to metacognitive strategies (like creating visual note maps or reflecting on how two seemingly unrelated concepts are connected) might enhance her learning.

Thinking about the limitations of information processing theory in working with my advisees, I come back to the fact that they are human beings and not machines. The usefulness of a purely cognitivist approach breaks down when confronted with complex questions like “What should I major in?” or “How can I lead a meaningful life?” These questions require more than retrieving and outputting some information stored in long term memory. Individuals can only solve such complex and personal questions/problems through a dynamic process of reflecting for creating new possibilities, connections, and directions in their particular sociocultural reality.

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