Levels of Processing Theory

The levels of processing theory is a model used to describe the development of memory, contrasting with the two-process or “multi-level” theory and the “working memory” models. The levels of processing model holds that the “level of processing” that an individual uses to process incoming data determines how deeply the information is encoded into memory. In comparison to the “multi-level” theory, the levels of processing model holds that there is only a single store of memory, without the process of transferring information between short and long-term memory, but that information may be encoded in a more detailed manner depending how the information is received and processed.


The levels of processing model was developed by cognitive psychologist Fergus Craik and his colleague Robert Lockhart, and first explored in a paper published in 1972 in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. Craik and Lockhart were motivated by problems with the “two-system” memory model, which describes memory as an interplay between separate systems for short- and long-term memory storage. Craik and Lockhart theorized that the length of time a person stores memory might be better explained by examining the type of processing used on incoming data.

Craik and Lockhart proposed a difference between shallow processing, which does not involve any exploration of meaning, and deep processing, which involves processing meaning and therefore leads to longer-term comprehension. Craik and Tuving used linguistic tools to measure and demonstrate the levels of processing by asking subjects to remember lists of words after being asked questions about the words. Questions about simple physical properties, such as “does the word contain the letter ‘a,’” produced shallow processing and lower recall, whereas questions like “does the word fit into this sentence” involved semantic processing and resulted in better recall.

As far as cognition is concerned, the levels of processing theory seems logical. People have better recall when the facts they are asked to remember fit with things that they already know about, thereby causing them to consider the further implications of the new knowledge they've acquired. Another key concept in the levels of processing approach is “elaboration,” which is defined as continually processing information on a deep level, thereby further aiding in committing the information to long-term recall.

Elaborative rehearsal is the process of relating new material to information that is already stored through deep processing. Elaborative rehearsal has been repeatedly demonstrated to be an effective method of enhancing recall. Simple repetition of information is called “maintenance rehearsal,” and results in low-levels of recall, such as repeating a phone number after learning it. Elaborative rehearsal, by contrast, involves creating associations with stored memory, such as associating the numbers in a phone number with important dates or other numbers that are familiar and already committed to memory.

The levels of processing theory was never intended to be a comprehensive theory of memory, but rather was designed to provide a framework for viewing the relationship between processing and the formation of memory. One of the strengths of the levels of processing model is that it is dynamic, focusing on methods of handling incoming information rather than on interaction between theoretical storage mechanisms that passively hold information.

—Micah Issitt

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Craik, Fergus I. M., and Robert. S. Lockhart. “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1972, 11, 671–84. Print.

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