Information Processing Theory (IPT)

Three instructional applications of the information processing theory (IPT) are outlined by Schunk (2016): advance organizers, the conditions of learning, and cognitive load.  Advance organizers present general information at the beginning of a lesson in order to direct attention to important concepts and emphasize connections, both between the new concepts to be learned and the new concepts’ relationship to prior knowledge.  Advance organizers are driven by Ausubel’s theory of meaningful reception learning, which posits that learning is most meaningful, and therefore most effective, when it has a systematic relation to information in a learner’s long-term memory.  Advance organizers can either be expository, introducing new information needed for learning, or comparative, linking new material to information already in a student’s long-term memory (Schunk, 2016, p. 196).

 A practical classroom usage of advance organizers is the KWL chart, which is a graphic organizer that links what students know, what they want to know, and what they learn throughout the process.  Within my freshmen classes, we utilize this tool to enhance reading comprehension and cement specific literary concepts.  When students begin the lesson by considering information with which they are already familiar, it fosters a comfortable environment that leads to increased focus and interest.

 While advance organizers are focused on preparation for learning, applications based on Gagne’s conditions of learning principles also focus on the process of acquiring new information.  This theory involves the learning outcome goals, of which there are five types (intellectual skills, verbal information, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes), as well as the learning events or important factors in achieving the learning outcomes.  These learning events come in two forms: internal and external conditions.  Internal conditions represent a learner’s current capabilities, or the information already in their long-term memory.  All of the information processing applications focus on how new information is added to long-term memory.  The external conditions needed for a learning outcome might vary depending on the desired learning outcome and each learner’s internal conditions.  An application of internal conditions would be learning hierarchies, which are organized sets of the skills needed to acquire a target skill.  These hierarchies are devised by asking what prerequisites are needed for the target skill and then what prerequisites are needed for those prerequisites, all the way down to the learner’s current skills.  Thus, there is a scaffolded plan for building the learner’s skills up to the target skill.  External conditions are instruction which includes nine phases of learning grouped into three categories. First, preparation for learning primes the areas of long-term memory relevant to the topic being studied, similarly to advanced organizers.  Second, acquisition presents the new information and transfers it to the long-term memory.  Finally, transfer of learning phases train the learner to retrieve the newly acquired information and apply it to different domains (Schunk, 2016, pp. 197-201).

Cognitive load focuses on the limits placed on information processing by a learner’s working memory and takes these limitations into account for instruction design.  There are two types of cognitive load: intrinsic cognitive load, which stems from the difficulty of acquiring the new knowledge itself, and extrinsic cognitive load, which is caused by unnecessary distractions or other difficulties unrelated to the knowledge.  There are three types of cognitive processing demands: essential, extraneous, and generative.  Essential and extraneous processing are similar to intrinsic and extrinsic load, respectively, while generative processing is a higher-level functioning that organizers and contextualizes information relative to prior knowledge.  Clearly, it is desirable to minimize extraneous load, a task which could be furthered by the use of scaffolding techniques that build up to complex topics from simple ones and prior knowledge.  This is similar to the use of learning hierarchies suggested by the conditions of learning framework (Schunk, 2016, pp. 201-202).

Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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