The term ‘cognition’ refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations. Such terms as sensation. perception. imagery. retention. recall. problem-solving. and thinking. among others. refer to hypothetical stages or aspects of cognition.
— Ulric Neisser, 1967


  • Ulric Neisser (1928-2012): a German-born American psychologist and member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has been referred to as the "father of cognitive psychology." Neisser researched and wrote about perception and memory.

  • Richard Shiffrin (1942-): A professor of cognitive science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. Shiffrin has contributed a number of theories of attention and memory to the field of psychology.

  • Richard Atkinson (1929-): An American professor of psychology and academic administrator. He is the former president and regent of the University of California system, and former chancellor of the University of California San Diego.

  • Allan Newell (1927-1992): A researcher in computer science and cognitive psychology at the RAND Corporation and at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, Tepper School of Business, and Department of Psychology. He contributed to the Information Processing Language (1956) and two of the earliest AI programs, the Logic Theory Machine (1956) and the General Problem Solver (1957) 

  • Herbert Simon (1916-2001): An American economist and political scientist whose primary interest was decision-making within organizations and is best known for the theories of "bounded rationality" and "satisficing". He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 and the Turing Award in 1975.


The Classic View

In this view, learning is information acquisition, which portrays learning as adding information into long-term memory as if the learner is an empty vessel that is filled with information given by the teacher (e.g. lecture or slideshow). In this view, information is given to the learner and the learner processes it into their memory. However, this viewpoint does not take into account a learner’s need to assimilate new information with prior knowledge. It, simply, is the way someone thinks about a n old computer receiving and retrieving information.

The Constructivist View

In this view, individual learners’ abilities and prior knowledge are taken into account. This follows more of a knowledge construction (or co-construction) view of learning in which learners build mental representation into working memory through guidance by the teacher or through group interactions.

Implications for Learning

Learners have only a Limited Capacity to process information. When too much is given or given improperly then the learner can become cognitively overloaded. If a learner’s brain consists of a working-memory “container” then it may be overfilled. Sometimes teachers overfill through extraneous information. For instance, some teachers like to put cute cartoons next to their information on slideshows or, perhaps, too much information on a slide. Sometimes learning games on a computer feature too many stimuli at once which distracts students from the learning objectives.

Students also have Dual Channels to receive information (eyes and ears). Either can be overloaded. Effective teachers know how to balance the two and help visuals supplement the audio and vice versa. See the image at the bottom of the page to see how Sensory Memory influences learning under Information Processing.

It is important to note that people are not assembly-line computers (obviously), and our capacity to process information, become overloaded, and the speed at which we learn is different for everyone and depends on a multitude of factors including prior learning experiences, the teacher’s capacity to effectively teach, the environment in which the learning is taking place, etc.

Implications for Instruction

As a teacher, it is important to reduce the possibility that a student may become cognitively overloaded. This can be done by reducing extraneous processing by 1) removing material from a lesson that is irrelevant 2) Highlighting essential material 3) Presenting corresponding pictures and words near each other on the same page or screen.

Teachers needs to also manage essential processing by 1) pretraining and segmenting the lesson. This means teachers need to introduce key terms and concepts prior to the lesson, so the learner does not have decode while receiving the lesson 2) segment the lesson by breaking it up into smaller chunks and 3) Make the lesson more modal (audible) by presenting spoken words rather than printed words with pictures. Actually, the combination of the teacher reading information while the students see the text with a supplemental picture may be the most effective way to provide new information to some learners.

Teachers also need to foster generative processing (i.e. making sense of the new material by mentally reorganizing information and reintegrating it with prior knowledge) by adhering to 1) the Multimedia principle, which states words should be presented alongside pictures 2) the Personalization Principle, which states words should be presented in an informal (more relatable) style rather than a formal style, and 3) the Generative Principle, which states that the learner needs to engage with the activity by summarizing, paraphrasing, or self-explaining, for example.

Implications for Assessment

Under this view, the things people know can be broken into five categories: facts, concepts, procedures, strategies, and beliefs and the goal of assessment is to create valid and reliable instruments for assessing how well learners know those things. Two common tests are Retention Tests and Transfer Tests. Through these tests, the teacher can see if there has been 1) No Learning 2) Rote (mechanical or parrot-like regurgitation of information) Learning or 3) Meaningful Learning. Teachers should strive for Meaningful Learning, which means teachers should use Transfer Tests or other type of assessments that actively engages the learner in the material.


Research into Information Processing has given us a better understanding of the kinds of knowledge and prerequisites that is essential to good learning and teaching. Without having these foundational elements, learning and teaching become much more difficult and can have snowballing effects later on.

1) To read, students need to know how to decode words and understand all the sounds (apx. 42) in the English language.

2) To read better, students need to be able to connect the material with existing knowledge.

3) To write better, students need to be able to plan ahead by organizing and outlining.

4) To solve math problems, students must have a good number-sense and be able to mentally create a number line.

5) To learn science, it helps that students have existing preconceptions (assumptions) about how things work because when material directly confronts a learner’s preconceptions, they tend to learn more deeply.

6) To be effective learners, students need to self-regulate and take responsibility for their own learning.


The Information Processing view is not concerned with the ‘Why?’ people learn nor what motivates learners to engage in those processes that may result in information becoming a part of a learner’s long-term memory. It also is not concerned with individual differences nor the social and cultural context of the learning environment. The concept of Information Processing has evolved over the decades, so future researchers may be able to create new frameworks that account for those limitations.


  • Information Process: A theory of learning that views the human mind works by forming mental representation of information and applying mental processes to them. Through our senses, we experience information and very briefly hold an exact copy in our sensory memory. Some of that information is then placed into our working (short term) memory and then, through active processes, into our long-term memory. The process is often compared to how a computer operates with information put into the computer’s storage which can later be retrieved. (See an enhanced model developed by Mayer, Heiser, and Lonn, 2001, at the bottom of this page.)

  • Sensory Memory: An unlimited capacity mental storage that can hold the exact copy of the information for a very brief period of time.

  • Working Memory: A limited mental storage space that can hold sensory information for a short period of time. Some theorists say, for example, that it can hold up to seven items at once before it is overloaded.

  • Long-Term Memory: An unlimited mental storage space that is filled when learner’s engage in active learning and organizing processes such as selecting relevant material and integrating it with existing knowledge.

  • Response Strengthening View: Strengthening and weakening associations (information) through the use of rewards and punishments (e.g. teacher says ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ after a response is given); trial-and-error learning.

  • Information Acquisition View: Adding information into long-term memory as if the learner is an empty vessel that is filled with information given by the teacher (e.g. lecture or slideshow)

  • Knowledge Construction View: Building a mental representation into working memory through guidance by the teacher (e.g. guided discovery learning)

  • Knowledge Co-construction View: Building a mental representation into working memory through interactions with a group (e.g. discussion; Socratic Seminar)

  • Extraneous Processing: Thinking that does not support the instructional objective. Extra or poorly designed things put into instructional materials that are ineffective or distract.

  • Essential Processing: Thinking that is required if a learner wants to put information into working memory.

  • Generative Processing: Making sense of the new material by mentally reorganizing information and reintegrating it with prior knowledge. Depends on learner motivation.

  • Instruction: The teacher’s manipulation of the learner’s environment to foster learning.

  • Active Processing Principle: Engaging learners in appropriate cognitive processes during learning.

  • Limited Capacity Principle: Overloading a learner with extraneous information or too much information at once. We can only work with so much at once before we reach our capacity, which is different for everyone.

  • Knowledge-Driven Principle: Taking into account a student’s prior knowledge

  • Dual Channels Principle: The availability of a learner’s auditory (ears) and visual (eyes) channels for learning.

  • Pretraining Principle: Making sure the learner is familiar with key terms before the lesson is presented, so the learner can prime the working memory beforehand so the learner doesn’t have to decode words at the same time new information is introduced - which could lead to overload.

  • Modality Principle: Presenting spoken words rather than printed words with pictures.

  • Retention Test: Focuses on what the learner can remember from a lesson by recalling and reorganizing information.

  • Transfer Test: Focuses on the learner’s ability to use the information in a new way.

From de Sousa, Luiza, Richter, Barry, & Nel, Carisma. (2017). The effect of multimedia use on the teaching and learning of Social Sciences at tertiary level: a case study. Yesterday and Today, (17), 1-22.