Information processing models are important to our understanding of cognition and, therefore, education. These models explain how people absorb and retain information and address the role of memory in learning. Information processing theories are based on four general principles agreed on by cognitive scientists (Huitt, 2003, p. 2). The first is that the mental processing system has a limited capacity. In other words, there are certain limitations to how much information can be processed and stored at one time and how fast information can be processed and stored. The second general principle is that the mental processing system includes some kind of mechanism that controls information processing. This control mechanism uses some mental capacity, thus decreasing the total mental capacity at any given moment. The third principle is that information flows two ways, making mental processing dynamic. Specifically, information can be absorbed from the environment (bottom-up processing) or retrieved from the memory (top-down processing). The fourth principle is that humans are biologically inclined to process information in particular ways. For example, language develops in the same ways and around the same ages across cultures.

Important Concepts

There are several concepts related to information processing theories that should be understood by educators hoping to apply these theories in the classroom.


First is the concept of memory, which can be considered the sum of all mental experiences and perceptions (Lutz & Huitt, 2003, p. 1). Memory allows a person to interpret and respond to the environment. Most cognitive scientists agree that there are several types of memory, including short-term memory and long-term memory.

Short-Term Memory:

According to the most widely accepted information processing model, the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, short-term memory (also known as working memory) holds a limited amount of information for a short time (around 12 seconds) before the information is discarded or transferred into long-term memory. However, working memory plays an essential part in the mental process because it is active. Working memory is where a person consciously operates on information. In other words, information is organized, connected to prior knowledge, and elaborated on in working memory. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of information processing, information enters the working memory from either of two sources—sensory memory or long-term memory.

Sensory Memory:

The sensory memory, or sensory register, receives information from the environment through the senses and holds it for a very short time (approximately ½ second for visual information and three seconds for auditory information). Sensory memory is thought to convert a wide array of sensory stimuli into electrical energy, which can be understood by the brain. Information in the sensory memory must be attended to or else decays almost immediately.

Long-Term Memory:

The long-term memory holds a person’s knowledge, skills, and perceptions and has an extremely large, possibly limitless, capacity. The long-term memory is thought to store information permanently; however, this information can be retrieved and adapted in the working memory. The long-term memory involves three types of memory storage: declarative (semantic), episodic, and procedural. Declarative memory stores general information, facts, and knowledge, episodic memory stores personal experiences, and procedural memory stores skills and abilities (e.g. driving).