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Processing Measures: Types & Interpretation

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will look at different types of theories to explain how we process information. These models look at how we use senses, memory, attention, and recall as a measurement of processing.

How Brains Learn

We like to think we know about how the brain processes information, but mostly researchers and neuroscientists are making their best guesses based on the available evidence. There are a few things we can know with certainty, but mostly what we think we know are just theories that often contradict (equally plausible) theories posited by others. Let's take a look at some of the ways we try to measure how our brains interpret information.

Sensory Processing

Information comes in to the brain from sense perceptions such as hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. Senses are measured with hearing tests or eye exams. The sense of touch can be assessed in students by looking at fine and gross motor skills. Sometimes sense perception difficulties can occur in conditions like autism or other physical disabilities. When someone has physiological issues that impact sensory processing, this may result in difficulty in learning.

Information enters the brain by way of the senses
image of the senses

When teachers present information, students perceive it with their senses. For example, they hear a new vocabulary word and see it in print. The sense of touch can be accessed if the word is a verb, (i.e., they can perform the action) and if it is a noun, they could feel or hold the object. Engaging taste and smell are less relevant in teaching, but smell has a powerful connection to memory. If a teacher wanted to reinforce learning, they could enhance this potential with using a particular scent in the room (i.e., use the same air freshener during practice and during the test).

Selective Attention

The ability to focus one's attention on specific sense perceptions can indicate a form of cognitive processing. Differentiating what is and isn't important is key to identifying which of those senses are relevant to one's needs in the moment. The senses are working to take in and sort out all the various stimuli the world presents in a given environment.

Some students struggle with this selective attention and are unable to focus on necessary perceptions. For example, students who have a form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other neurological conditions may have difficulty concentrating and focusing when there is background noise. The eyes and ears are competing for space in the mind.

For example, textbook pages can be filled with all kinds of information, displayed in multiple ways. Students use selective attention to filter information on a textbook page by picking out things like bold terms, headings, or illustrations. Someone with ADD might see the whole textbook page as a lot of mixed information and need aids, like paper, to actually block distracting text or images.

Memory Processing

After an instructor presents the information, what happens to that information in the brain? Once the sense perceptions have been prioritized for intake, the mind then has to decide what to remember and what to forget. It is impossible to retain every memory of every stimulus the brain receives in a given moment. Sometimes aging, brain injury, trauma experiences or other neurological issues can impact memory. There are several competing theories about how this process of memory retention works.

Multi-Store Model (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968)

The multi-store model proposes a means by which memories received are stored. First, short term memory (STM) of a sense perception is held for a few seconds while attempting to determine its relevance. If information in the short term memory stores is deemed worthy (the teacher says this will be on the test) and adequately reinforced (the teacher emphasizes the information with authentic practice), it is then moved to long term memory (LTM), where it is presumed to be retained for later recall (passing the test).

While this interpretation of memory generated important research, it has been criticized for being too simplistic and focusing on only the structure, rather than the process, of retaining information. What teachers really need to know is how to facilitate moving that information from short term to long term.

Levels of Processing Model (Craik and Lockhart, 1972)

While the multi-store model emphasizes the structures used for memory storage, the levels of processing model emphasizes the process of retaining information. In shallow processing, sense perceptions are processed with sight (structural processing) or with sound (phonemic processing). Shallow processing uses maintenance rehearsal through repetition and is only retained in the short term. With deep processing, information is processed semantically, looking at the meaning of a concept and its results in longer term retention. Deep processing can be enhanced with elaborate rehearsal, like analysis or connecting to background knowledge.

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