Levels of Processing Theory

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Why are some memories more significant than others? This is a big question in the world of psychology and neuroscience. Understanding the way that we process and store memories could reveal important answers about how the brain works, how we form our perception of the world, and how to create a better life for ourselves. But the answers aren’t so simple. Take a look at some different theories:

All of these theories attempt to explain why we remember certain pieces of information and why other information fades away. They are slightly different, and none of them has been deemed the one true explanation of how memory works. For now, let's dive into Craik and Lockhart’s Levels of Processing Theory.

What Is Craik and Lockhart's Levels of Processing Theory?

This theory of memory uses a pyramid to show the “hierarchy” of different levels of processing, from shallow to deep. The shallow processes, including structural processes, are least likely to be remembered long-term, while the deepest processes are more likely to “stick.”

levels of processing theory

Structural Processing

Structural processing occurs when we encode the physical appearance of something. For example, we may notice the color of a written word or whether or not it’s in all capitals. Structural processing (other known as orthographic or visual processing) may include taking a stimulus’ color, size, shape, or physical form.

This type of processing doesn’t require too much deep thought. We simply take the stimulus for what it is. It requires maintenance rehearsal, or repetition, in order to stick in our short-term memory. Maintenance rehearsal doesn’t stick as effectively as elaboration rehearsal, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Phonemic Processing

Phonemic processing is a step higher than structural processing but is still a shallow form of processing information. It occurs when we take in sounds.

Let’s say you are looking at a list of words: play, bottle, door, and chair. I ask you which of these words has two syllables. Or I ask you which one rhymes with “hair.” In order to answer the question correctly, you will have to sound out each of the words in your head and count syllables or compare it to the sound of the word “hair.”

Although phonemic processing is still considered a more shallow form of processing, it often has a higher rate of recall than visual processing. Maintenance rehearsal is also required for the stimuli to stick in your short-term or long-term memory.

Semantic Processing (Deep Processing)

The deepest form of processing is semantic processing. This involves processing information about the meaning of the word.

If structural processing encodes the font color of the word “hair” and phonemic processing encodes the sound of the word, semantic processing encodes what hair is, how it relates to other words around it, etc. Because semantic processing goes deeper than physical appearance or auditory information, we encode it in a different. It involves elaboration rehearsal. During elaboration rehearsal, we may contemplate how the stimuli fit into our everyday lives, at the task at hand, etc.

This more in-depth interaction with the stimuli makes it easier to recall them later.

Factors That Influence Memory Recall

There is more to memory than these processes. Other factors, or modifiers, modify how information fits into the Levels of Processing model and how easily we can recall that information. These modifiers include:

  • Familiarity
  • Transfer-appropriate processing
  • The self-reference effect


If information fits in neatly with other long-term memories, it is more likely to be stored and recalled with ease. Let's say you witness an incident in your family that has happened many times before. Because you already have stored memories with previous incidents, your new memory fits neatly among those memories.

man writing down information to better remember it

Transfer-appropriate processing

Memories of spoken words or written words go through slightly different processes. They require the work of different sensory inputs (auditory vs. visual.) Studies have found that memories are more easily recalled when they are in the same state that they have been collected or encoded. For example, you are more likely to recall visual information if you first encountered that information visually.

This ability to recall information in the state it was first presented to you is a form of state-dependent memory. Studies have shown that the state we are in when we receive information can also make an impact on how we recall that information. A classic example of state-dependent memory is being tipsy and being able to recall information that you received while tipsy! (This is not a recommendation to have a few beers while you study.)

The Self-Reference Effect

When we work with information and relate it beyond the way it is presented, we can recall it more effectively. This is what the Levels of Processing Theory is all about. Working with information and relating it to ourselves is even more effective. This isn't always easy to do. Not all information relates back to our personal lives or how we view ourselves as people. But if you can try to relate information back to yourself, you are more likely to recall that information later.

When Was the Levels of Processing Theory Developed?

Craik and Lockhart developed their model in 1972. Three years later, they developed a study that would test out this theory. Their study helped to prove that their hypothesis could be right and that our memory recall depends on how we interact with information.

Craik and Lockhart’s Experiment

Do we recall words better when we contemplate their meaning, rather than just take in the physical and auditory properties of the word?

The psychologists gave participants a series of 60 words. With each word, they asked one question that would involve structural, phenomic, or semantic processing. They might ask, “Is the word in capital letters or small letters?” or “Does the word make sense in this sentence?”

Later, the participants were given a list of 180 words. They were asked whether or not each word was one of the 60 words from earlier.

What words were participants more likely to remember? You guessed. They were more likely to remember the words in which they answered questions involving semantic processing. They were least likely to remember the words in which they answered questions involving structural processing.

How Do the Levels of Processing Theory Compare To Other Models?


All three models mentioned at the beginning of this page came out around the same time. Atkinson and Shiffrin first published their Multi-Store Model of Memory in 1968. Craik and Lockhart’s Levels of Processing Theory was developed as a response to this theory and was introduced to the world of psychology in 1972. Baddley and Hitch also developed a response to the Multi-Store Model of Memory in 1974.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Levels of Processing Theory

Remember, this is just one model of memory. When compared to the Multi-Store Model of Memory, for example, it has some good points and some drawbacks.

One strength is the presence of elaboration rehearsal. The Atkinson-Shiffrin model only involves maintenance rehearsal or repetition. The Levels of Processing Theory shows the importance of elaborating on a word and “playing with it” more than just looking at it or hearing it. By putting the word into context, it’s easier to store in long-term memory.

Another advantage of this model is that it explains why some stimuli are easier to remember than others. Some other models leave psychologists with questions about why some things are more likely to be recalled.

Criticisms of the Levels of Processing Theory

No theory is perfect. We still have many questions about memory. The Levels of Processing Theory attempts to answer some of these questions, but other questions are still left unanswered.

When it comes to studying the levels of processing theory, it’s not exactly easy to get an exact measurement of the depth of these processes. In 1973, Craik defined depth as “the meaningfulness extracted from the stimulus rather than in terms of the number of analyses performed upon it.” But how do you know a word is more meaningful than another word? How can you measure that on a scale? How does this play into tapping into the levels of processing theory in the classroom or while you're studying?

Other critiques of this model say that there isn’t much focus on retrieval strategies. Could it be the way we recall words, rather than how we process them, that makes a difference? Could it be both?

How to Use Levels of Processing Theory to Remember More Information

The Levels of Processing Theory are often painted as a vague description of how we process information, but it still provides useful insight into effective study strategies.

Let’s say you have to memorize a list of terms for a test. It may be helpful to repeat the words over and over again until the word sticks. At least, that's what the Multi-Store Model of Memory might suggest. Or, you could spend that time putting the definitions into your own words. This may be a more effective way to make these words stick.

Example of Using Models of Memory to Store Information

As you're studying, try both and see what works best for you. Here's what that might look like:

You're trying to memorize important dates in history. One of these dates is when Columbus arrived in the Americas. Next, you want to remember when the Revolutionary War began and ended. And you also want to memorize when World War I began and ended. There are three ways that you can approach these dates.

Let's start with the Revolutionary War. You can simply write down "1775-1783" on a few Post-it notes and place them around your house. You will see the dates throughout the day, over and over again. This repetition should, according to the Multi-Store Model of Memory, make the information stick.

Or, you can take some time to write down the dates of World War I (1914-1918) and write about that time frame. You may notice that the war lasted for four years. World War I took place right before the 1920s began and two years after the Titanic sank. Maybe your grandparents were born around that time. It doesn't matter what content you use to put 1914-1918 into context, it just matters that this content helps you see the dates of World War I in a new way.

man writing down information to remember it

Finally, you probably know that Columbus arrived in the Americas because "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Rhymes, acronyms, and other memory tricks are easy to repeat and put the information in a different context.

Try all of these methods out the next time you're studying for a test. What works best? How quickly do you find that you remember the information you need to know?

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, January). Levels of Processing Theory. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/levels-of-processing-theory/.

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