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Do you know the complex neuro-psychological process behind how your students (or just about anybody) learns new ideas and information? That’s what the information processing theory seeks to explain. It dives into the intricate mechanism of perceiving, recording, and processing information in our brains and retrieving it when necessary. 

As a creator educator, knowing how humans process information is essential to maximize the impact of your digital products. An understanding of that can help you create content that quickly registers in your students’ mind. As a result, you can create content they can quickly absorb and apply in real life situations.

Read on to learn about the theory, and explore ways to apply it to develop online courses that help your students. Let’s start with a brief look at where it all began.

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Brief history of Information Processing Theory

Back in the 1950s, psychologists realized that computers held the key to understanding how the human mind works. George Armitage Miller and Edward C. Tolman laid down the basics of how humans work with short term memory and learn things. Building on this basic structure, two popular models of information processing theory eventually arose – the Atkinson and Shiffrin Model and the Baddeley and Hitch Model of Working Memory. 

The Atkinson and Shiffrin Model discusses the three stages of information processing, comprising sensory memory, short term memory (working memory), and long term memory. It focuses on the importance of attention and elaborate rehearsal behaviors that lead to information being stored in the long term memory. The Baddeley and Hitch Model of Working Memory builds on these concepts and explains how we process language and spatial patterns.

Too much psychological jargon? Don’t worry! We have combined aspects of all these theories to help you understand exactly how we humans process information.  Let’s begin understanding that by exploring how humans process information in everyday situations, and examining each of these processes in detail. 

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Key concepts of Information Processing Theory

As a creator educator, it’s super helpful for you to understand aspects of information processing. 

Let’s do that with an example:

Suppose, you’re walking on a crowded street and you are exposed to a variety of sights, sounds, and smells. People may also rub against your shoulders if you are unlucky to bump into unruly crowds. To escape this hustle and bustle, you decide to walk into a cafe that you know is calm and quiet. You also remember that they sell the best croissants and coffee in that part of the town. 

This is information processing theory at work, in real life. Let’s see how:

  1. You sense various stimuli (people walking around, someone brushing against your shoulder, a car speeding across the street, etc. – sensation. A stimulus is any external informational or input)
  2. You perceive this place to be crowded (perception is how we interpret what was sensed). 
  3. From your past experiences (long term episodic memory), you associate this situation to be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous (being pushed around – past association)
  4. Hence, you recall a place that had previously given you solace (another chain of association leads to retrieving information about the quiet cafe and its croissants – semantic memory). 
  5. You act on this memory, and walk into the cafe (judging/analyzing and making a decision. Walking towards the cafe is procedural memory). 

Now, let’s move over to exploring each of these cognitive processes in detail, and why they matter to you while creating online courses in short notes. 

  1. First, you sense your environment

Human beings receive information, also known as “stimulus” through the five senses: smell, touch, vision, auditory (hearing), and taste. A sixth sense, which relates to the body’s position, movement, and balancing, called vestibular sense also exists.

Senses and the associated sense organs:

  • Vision – Eyes
  • Audio – Ears
  • Touch – Skin
  • Taste – Tongue
  • Smell – Nose
  • Vestibular sense – Ears and various parts of the nervous system. 

When your sense organs convert real-world information into electrical information, your brain processes them and interprets them as information that you recognise at a conscious level. Interpretation of what is perceived happens due to past associations (similar information stored in your mind, which you are able to recollect and draw a connection). 

Note for creators: Unless you use augmented reality or virtual reality in your lesson content, you will primarily use inputs (stimuli) related to vision (reading text and watching videos) and audio (voice or background music). 

  1. Sensing leads to perception. 

Each of the sense organs responds to various stimuli in the external environment and converts these signals into electrical signals that are perceived in various parts of the brain. The process of sensing takes place in the sense organs, and perception takes place in the brain. People with different perceptual and learning disorders may find it difficult to process information easily. 

Note for creators: If you plan to make your lesson content disabled-friendly, you may want to consider accessible design practices. Examples of accessible design are avoiding uneven spacing of words, breaking long paragraphs into shorter ones, and ensuring enough white space. 

  1. When perceived information is processed (encoded), it enters memory.

Memory is an umbrella term for many different aspects of cognitive functioning. It begins with retaining information for a short while (sensory and working memory) and transferring it into long-term storage through consolidation (encoding). 

Sensory memory lasts between half a second to three seconds. If you ignore the sensation, the perception does not enter short-term memory. Researchers have found that short-term memory can hold approximately seven information items for a period between 15 and 30 seconds. With rehearsals, your mind can retain this information, beyond which it decays or is lost. 

During rehearsal, your brain performs a process called encoding, which leads the information to be transferred to long-term memory. Once transferred to long-term storage, you can retrieve the information at any time as long as you do not let it decay or subject it to interference. Long-term memory ranges from remembering something you perceived a few minutes ago to what happened many years ago — dating back to your childhood. 

Note for creators: Rehearsal is usually performed as rote learning in pedagogical contexts. But we know that most students find rote learning basic, and it is not such a great strategy to learn complex ideas and abstract information.

The different kinds of long-term memory are:

  1. Explicit memory – that which is available consciously. If someone asks you what the capital of Great Britain is, you will easily be able to declare it is London. Hence, explicit memories are also called declarative memory. Declarative memory is further divided into:
  • Episodic memory – Memories of specific events that took place in your life, such as visiting a friend’s house during childhood
  • Semantic memory – Being able to remember things that you have learned about the world, such as the date of the declaration of World War 2 (September 1, 1939)
  1. Implicit memory –  It is stored as part of your long-term memory but relates to movement and performance. Examples include being able to swim and remembering how to drive a car even after a long gap, etc. 

Note for creators: Everything you teach in your online courses gets stored as semantic memory, unless your course teaches how to do things (how to play a guitar, how to knit, etc.), in which case, it gets stored as procedural memory. 

  1. Attention helps memory last longer, and learn better

Although our sense organs receive a lot of information, they don’t get registered in our minds unless you pay attention to them. They just get stored as “sensory memory,” after perception, and last only a few seconds (between half a second to three seconds). 

Attention here implies focussing your awareness on a particular stimulus in the presence of other stimuli. An example is when you walk into the cafe of your choice and order the croissant you want, despite the presence of many other things on the menu. 

Attention plays a vital role in learning, whether online or offline. It helps filter out irrelevant stimuli in the background so that information that needs to be learned passes through sensory memory, gets registered in working memory, and with practice, enters long-term memory. 

Reinvoking the example of the crowded street, your brain may have perceived the presence of different people. However, you may not have paid enough attention to remember their faces. As a result, the information related to their individual faces decayed, and is lost forever. 

Where does it all happen in the brain?

As a creator educator, you may wonder how all the learning material you present to your students is processed in their brains. Baddeley and the Hitch Model of Working Memory provides a clear answer to this. 

They’ve explained that the frontal lobe (a part of the brain) acts as the processor where information is encoded and retrieved. Different types of memories are stored in different parts of the brain. According to Baddeley and Hitch:

  • Auditory information (information in the form of sound, mostly recognised as language, music, or different kinds of sounds) is stored in the phonological loop. 
  • Phonological loop consists of a phonological store, where information is held for a short duration, and the articulatory rehearsal process, where the brain rehearses auditory information to be stored for a longer period of time. 
  • Visuospatial sketch pad is the part of the brain which stores spatial and visual information, such as shapes, designs, images, etc. 
  • Episodic buffer is thought to enhance the ability of the mind to encode, store, and retrieve information by connecting various parts of the brain that aid in information processing. 

Let’s now apply what we’ve learned about information processing to online learning environments. 

Make your students pay attention to your online course content

In the context of lesson planning or creating modules, think of it this way. If you do not make your slides or videos attractive enough, your students will ignore them and move to the next one. They look at the slide or video (sensation takes place) but do not perceive it long enough to store it in their short-term memory. Leave alone practicing it to enter long term storage – it just disappears from sensory memory. Hence, sustaining their attention is of primary importance. 

You need to factor in the fact that your student may be daydreaming, distracted, or bored with your content. All these factors interfere with the process of paying attention to what needs to be learned and stored in long term memory.  Consequently, ensuring you create content that sustains your students’ attention is very important. 

Here’s what you can do:

  • Urge them to take a break every ten to fifteen minutes. Studies show human attention diminishes after fifteen minutes
  • So, plan your lessons to be divided into chunks of fifteen minutes or less. You do not have to create video lessons or lectures that last just ten minutes. Instead, you need to provide your students with small activities, games, or chillout sessions. 
  • Create more engaging online learning environments. We will explain why later on.

Basic information processing strategies to help your students remember better.

Once information is stored in short-term memory, it can either be shifted to long-term memory or get erased. Practice and repetition are the keys to retaining information for a long time in the long-term memory. Hence, it is crucial to develop lesson plans so that your students get ample time to practice and repeat what gets stored in their working memory. This needs to take place within minutes. Therefore, at the end of each short lesson that lasts a few minutes, encourage your students to repeat, practice, or rehearse. Rote learning helps ensure that what they have processed gets stored in long-term memory. 

Once something is stored in long-term memory, it can be retrieved later when prompted. However, the success of memory retrieval depends on how eagerly the student learned something (were they attentive enough, was your course material interesting enough, etc.).

So it is clear from the above explanation that learning mostly takes place due to how we perceive information, and how we associate it with what we already know, and that we must pay attention. 

But is it really that simple? 

Limitations of Information Processing Theory in online learning

Human beings aren’t computers. Although drawing analogies between the human brain and the computer is tempting, they’re not the same. Information Processing Theory doesn’t discuss the role of motivation and emotions in how we perceive information and remember things. Both are essential to learning and recalling what’s been learned. 

The theory assumes that the brain processes information linearly — that information is sensed, perceived, processed (encoded), stored, and then retrieved. This is known as serial processing, which is what computers do. 

However, the brain is capable of parallel processing, which means you can simultaneously process different kinds of information. The multitasking ability of the human brain does not match what a computer can do. So, while the information processing theory accurately describes how we sense, perceive, process, and store information, it ignores emotions and the non-linear manner in which our mind works. 

Moreover, the genesis of this theory goes back to the 1950s, when psychologists were eager to establish psychology as a science. Now we know that human learning and information processing is very complex and involves multiple factors such as social learning, emotions, motivation, and innate desires, etc. 

Your students have feelings, desires, and motivations you may or may not recognize while designing your course content. Hence, it is essential to recognize that you are teaching human students and not computers. The easiest way to fix this problem is by creating online learning environments that are engaging. 

Now, let’s look at how you can add motivation, emotions and social engagement to the mix and leverage information processing theory even better to create that perfect online course. 

Strategies to make information processing theory work better for online learning

  1. Motivate your students to pay attention

Why would someone learn something if they don’t want to? They must have an innate drive or motivation to register for your course, and remain motivated to complete. 

Motivation drives them to pay attention to your course material which results in better information processing (encoding), and superior information retrieval abilities. In other words, if your student is not motivated to learn, even an excellent course may not register in their mind. 

Motivation plays a vital role in information processing as well. One needs to be motivated to pay attention to external stimuli. 

  • Your job as a creator educator is to sustain that motivation. 
  • Always remember, motivation does not exist in a vacuum. One needs to feel appreciated, receive positive feedback, and feel socially accepted to be motivated to continue doing something. Remember your friends motivating you when you were feeling low or needed to be better at something? This applies to learning as well. 

Motivation and interpersonal relationships are connected. Now, let’s explore how this plays out in social information processing theory. 

  1. Encourage social interaction during learning

Despite the fact that one-to-one teaching is effective, humans learn better when they are in a group. This is why traditional learning always takes place in classrooms or groups because learning with others is more enjoyable (and effective). 

Social information processing theory partly explains how people communicate with each other on computer mediated platforms, such as an online learning platform.

Humans also learn by modeling and observation, that is, by imitating what others do. In this case, you, the creator educator, take on the role of a model, and your students imitate your behavior. Albert Bandura, a famous psychologist, noted that learning usually takes place in interpersonal contexts, and that we cannot remove “social” from learning. 

With this in mind, it is essential for you to 

  • Create online group activities
  • Encourage students to interact with each other on forums, and even share their knowledge. 
  • Make collaboration and social media engagement essential parts of your course structure. 
  • Use social tools to exchange ideas, which acts as a form of rehearsal
  • Encourage positive feedback from peers (other students) which acts as a reinforcement. To do this, you can ask your students to evaluate each other’s work positively.
  1. Use goal-specific cognitive strategies

Cognitive strategies are usually task-specific. This means you must encourage your students to work with the material directly. Some of the cognitive strategies that you can apply in online learning are note-taking, repetition, contextual understanding, and mnemonics. (A mnemonic is a tool that allows you to recall or retrieve information from your memory) 

For example: VIBGYOR is an acronym for the seven colors of the rainbow: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Other than acronyms, there are other kinds of mnemonics too, such as flashcards, classifying things into categories, etc., can all help your students to remember what they’ve learned quickly. 

  1. Encourage high-level information processing with metacognitive strategies

Some researchers have also suggested that there is something called “metacognition,” which means “thinking about thinking.” In practice, when you rehearse, try to remember what you have forgotten, or engage in techniques that actively help others to learn or remember (such as teaching with a purpose), you are engaging in a form of metacognition. 

Back in 1987, A.L. Brown initiated discussion around metacognition strategies in the context of learning. Over the years, it has developed quite a bit. 

In the context of online courses, here are some of the best metacognitive strategies:

  • Advance organizers: Encourage your students to think about your lesson plan by sharing course calendars in advance. This helps your students to foresee what to expect and connect it with information they already know. 
  • Self-planning: Urge your students to plan their assignments, and how they will structure them. This gives them extra room to “think about what they are learning” – metacognition. 
  • Self-monitoring: Student self-rating scales are an excellent way to understand where your students need help. Create online forms that help students to monitor their learning at the end of every lesson/week, as per your convenience. 
  • Self-evaluation: This could be at regular intervals or at the end of the course. As online courses are mostly taken up by self-motivated individuals, it is important that they see results. 

In addition to self-evaluation, you can use associations to help students learn and remember what they learn. To make this process more effective, you must know what your students already know. So,

  • Before enrolling someone into a course, assess their level of knowledge to ascertain if they are a good fit. 
  • If they are not, and you are launching a course for beginners, make sure that you create your content so that they can relate what you teach to something they already know. This means you will have to help them in the encoding process.

You may need to use methods like chunking, imagery, and elaboration.

  • Break your modules into smaller chunks, and use engaging polls, Q&As, online debates, and peer support to keep your students engaged. 
  • Encourage your students to form associations with their previous knowledge by presenting content in a way that is easy to visualize. This helps with using imagery to learn and remember.
  • Finally, your online course must encourage the student to engage with the material actively. This process, also known as elaboration, is essential to keep learners engaged and form associations with existing knowledge to learn something new. 

Although these are all cognitive and metacognitive strategies, you cannot ignore the importance of emotions, motivation, and social learning theories.

  1. Add social engagement and emotions to the mix

Most of your students sign up for your course because they cannot physically attend classes for different reasons. Online learning environments offer an alternative to in-person learning and provide better engagement in many cases. But it’s important to make your online learning environment lively and engaging. The key is to use socio-affective strategies, which involve interpersonal communication and emotions. Please note “affect” means feelings. 

Here’s how to do that:

  • Be relatable for your students to learn through modeling. Generate feelings of curiosity, excitement, satisfaction, contentment, joy, surprise, etc. It is pretty easy to provoke these emotions in your students.
  • Gamification can help your students feel satisfied and content when they achieve certain levels of completion. 
  • Giving them badges, certificates, or other forms of positive reinforcement can help you install joy. 
  • If you offer a surprise discount for a well-performing student, you combine joy with surprise, which makes them more motivated to learn.
  • You can use polling and create tests and games at the end of every 15 minutes to keep your students engaged and help them share what they have learned on forums. 
  • As youngsters are more familiar with using social media, it makes sense to incorporate social media in learning as well. 

Humanize information processing theory to create relatable online courses

Information processing theory helps us to understand how we store and learn new information in our minds, using our sense organs and the brain. Although this model is accurate in terms of how sensation & perception, and memory work, it does not explain social learning and the roles of motivation and emotions. 

Moreover, the human mind is incredibly complex and cannot be reduced to how the computer functions. As creator educators, it is crucial to keep your students’ innate desires and feelings in mind. By creating an engaging online learning environment and considering human limitations, you can develop a successful online course that leaves a lasting impression on your students. 

Thinkific gives you various tools to create course content that is engaging and social. It helps you create course content rooted in information processing models yet recognizes that your students are thinking and feeling human beings, who like to interact with one another while learning. It offers powerful social engagement features which make it easy for you to create group learning modules and encourage lively discussions among your students. 

By humanizing online learning, Thinkific helps you connect with your students intellectually in an engaging manner. To learn more about how Thinkific can help you create course modules rooted in psychological science, contact us today.

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