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What Is Cognitive Information Processing?

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  • Written By: Emily Daw
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 07 August 2014
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Cognitive information processing is a collection of theories about how the mind learns by taking in, processing and storing information. Most versions of the theory emphasize three components of memory: sensory memory, short-term or "working" memory, and long-term memory. By the latter half of the 20th century, cognitive information processing theories had largely replaced behaviorist theory, but there are some areas of learning that are not adequately explained by either framework.

The Atkinson-Shiffrin model of cognitive information deals with the way sensory input eventually becomes knowledge. At any given moment, a person's mind is bombarded with various stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, etc. The vast majority of these stimuli are stored briefly in sensory memory, but forgotten within a few seconds.

If, however, the person is intentionally paying attention to particular sensory input, it becomes part of short-term memory. Information in short-term memory can be analyzed in relationship to its immediate context and to relevant previous knowledge. If the knowledge properly integrated into other relevant knowledge, it becomes integrated with that information and stored with it in long-term memory.

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This and other variations on cognitive information processing theory see knowledge as being gained and stored in a computer-like network. In contrast, earlier theories of learning like the behaviorist views of B.F. Skinner emphasized the importance of learning by repetition. In Skinner's model, a learner receives positive feedback for remembering information correctly and negative feedback for remembering incorrectly, so learning is reinforced by positive consequences. Concerning the cognitive information processing theory, however, the role of feedback is to aid in understanding information. When people receive negative feedback they learn that something in their understanding of information is incorrect, and they modify their understanding accordingly.

Both theories of learning have direct influence on education. Cognitive information processing theorists emphasize the necessity of actively engaging learners in the information in order for it to become part of long-term memory. Behaviorists emphasize continually reinforcing a learner's knowledge. Taken together, the two models form a large portion of the methods used in modern classrooms.

There are, however, some major shortcomings in cognitive information processing. Some evidence suggests that not all information has to be received and processed consciously in order to be stored. For instance, a person might learn the words to a popular song by hearing it over and over on the radio, without ever intentionally focusing attention on it. Other learned behaviors, such as riding a bike or driving a standard-transmission car, involve a combination of semi-automatic mental and physical processes do not fit neatly into either model.

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