Levels of Processing Theory

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 three different theories: 

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.”

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 it 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 

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 fits into our everyday lives, at the task at hand, etc. 

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

Craik and Lockhart’s Experiment 

Craik and Lockhart developed this model in 1972. Three years later, they developed a study that would test out this theory. 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.  

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. 

But it’s not perfect. It’s not exactly easy to get an exact measurement on 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 the 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 

Levels of Processing Theory is 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. 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.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.