The Developing Learner

Information Processing Theories

Information Processing is how individuals perceive, analyze, manipulate, use, and remember information. Unlike Piaget’s theory, this approach proposes that cognitive development is ongoing and gradual, not organized into distinct stages. The areas of basic cognitive changes generally occur in five areas:

  • Attention. Improvements are seen in selective attention(the process by which one focuses on one stimulus while tuning out another), as well as divided attention (the ability to pay attention to two or more stimuli at the same time).
  • Memory. Improvements are seen in working memory and long-term memory.
  • Processing SpeedWith maturation, children think more quickly. Processing speed improves sharply between age five and middle adolescence, levels off around age 15, and does not appear to change between late adolescence and adulthood.
  • Organization of Thinking. As children mature, they are more planful, approach problems with strategy, and are flexible in using different strategies in different situations.
  • Metacognition. Older children can think about thinking itself. This often involves monitoring one’s own cognitive activity during the thinking process. Metacognition provides the ability to plan ahead, see the future consequences of an action, and provide alternative explanations of events.


Changes in attention have been described by many as the key to changes in human memory (Nelson & Fivush, 2004; Posner & Rothbart, 2007). However, attention is not a unified function; it is comprised of sub-processes. Our ability to focus on a single task or stimulus while ignoring distracting information is called selective attention. There is a sharp improvement in selective attention from age six into adolescence (Vakil, Blachstein, Sheinman, & Greenstein, 2009). Sustained attention is the ability to stay on task for long periods. The ability to switch our focus between tasks or external stimuli is called divided attention or multitasking, which also improves into adolescence (Carlson, Zelazo, & Faja, 2013).

Video 3.8.1. Attention explains the ways in which we may attend or fail to attend to stimuli.

Selective Attention

The ability with selective attention tasks improves through childhood and into adolescence. While children’s selective attention may be inconsistent during middle childhood, adolescents demonstrate the ability to select and prioritize stimuli for attention reliably. The development of this ability is influenced by the child’s temperament (Rothbart & Rueda, 2005), the complexity of the stimulus or task (Porporino, Shore, Iarocci & Burack, 2004), and may be dependent on whether the stimuli are visual or auditory (Guy, Rogers & Cornish, 2013). Guy et al. (2013) found that children’s ability to attend to visual information selectively outpaced that of auditory stimuli. This change may explain why young children are not able to hear the voice of the teacher over the cacophony of sounds in the typical preschool classroom (Jones, Moore & Amitay, 2015). Jones and his colleagues found that 4 to 7-year-olds could not filter out background noise, especially when its frequencies were close in sound to the target sound. In comparison, teens often performed similarly to adults.

Video 3.8.2. Theories of Selective Attention explains how and why we attend to some stimuli and not others.

Sustained Attention

Most measures of sustained attention typically ask individuals to spend several minutes focusing on one task, while waiting for an infrequent event, while there are multiple distractors for several minutes. Young children can retain their visual and auditory attention for approximately 5 minutes if they are 5 years old, 6 minutes if they are 6 years old, 7 minutes if they are 7 years old, and so on. If a task is interesting or novel, the child may sustain attention substantially longer.  Sustained attention improves to around age 10, then plateaus with only small improvements to adulthood. Common estimates of the attention span of healthy teenagers and adults range from 10 to 20 minutes. There is some debate as to whether attention is consistently sustained or whether people repeatedly choose to re-focus on the same thing (Raichle, 1999) This ability to renew attention permits people to ‘pay attention’ to things that last for more than a few minutes.

For time-on-task measurements, the type of activity used in the test affects the results, as people are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating (Raichle,1999). Attention is also increased if the person can perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task. Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce the time focused on the task. After losing attention from a topic, a person may restore it by resting, doing a different kind of activity, changing mental focus, or deliberately choosing to re-focus on the first topic.

Divided Attention

Divided attention can be thought of in a couple of ways. We may look at how well people can multitask, performing two or more tasks simultaneously, or how people can alternate attention between two or more tasks. For example, walking and talking to a friend at the same time is multitasking, where trying to text while driving requires us to alternate attention between two tasks quickly.

Young children (age 3-4) have considerable difficulties in dividing their attention between two tasks and often perform at levels equivalent to our closest relative, the chimpanzee. However, by age five, they have surpassed the chimp (Hermann, Misch, Hernandez-Lloreda & Tomasello, 2015; Hermann & Tomasello, 2015). Despite these improvements, 5-year-olds continue to perform below the level of school-age children, adolescents, and adults. These skills continue to develop into adolescence.

Regardless of age, we have a limited capacity for attention, and the division of attention is confined to that limitation. Our ability to effectively multitask or alternate attention is dependent on the automaticity or complexity of the task but is also influenced by conditions like anxiety, arousal, task difficulty, and skills (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Research shows that when dividing attention, people are more apt to make mistakes or perform their tasks more slowly (Matlin, 2013). Attention must be divided among all of the component tasks to perform them.

Classical research on divided attention involved people performing simultaneous tasks, like reading stories while listening and writing something else, or listening to two separate messages through different ears. Subjects were often tested on their ability to learn new information while engaged in multiple tasks. More current research examines the performance of doing two tasks simultaneously (Matlin, 2013), such as driving while performing another task. This research reveals that the human attentional system has limits on what it can process. For example, driving performance is worse while engaged in other tasks; drivers make more mistakes, brake harder and later, get into more accidents, veer into other lanes, and/or are less aware of their surroundings when engaged in the previously discussed tasks (Collet et al., 2009; Salvucci & Taatgen, 2008; Strayer & Drews, 2007).

Video 3.8.3. The Spotlight Model of Attention and Our Ability to Multitask explains how we divide our attention to attend to different tasks or information. 


Memory is an information processing system; therefore, we often compare it to a computer. Memory is the set of processes used to encode, store, and retrieve information over different periods of time.

Figure 3.8.1. Encoding involves the input of information into the memory system. Storage is the retention of encoded information. Retrieval, or getting the information out of memory and back into awareness, is the third function.


We get information into our brains through a process called encoding, which is the input of information into the memory system. Once we receive sensory information from the environment, our brains label or code it. We organize the information with other similar information and connect new concepts to existing concepts. Encoding information occurs through automatic processing and effortful processing.

If someone asks you what you ate for lunch today, more than likely, you could recall this information quite easily. This is known as automatic processing, or the encoding of details like time, space, frequency, and the meaning of words. Automatic processing is usually done without any conscious awareness. Recalling the last time you studied for a test is another example of automatic processing. However, what about the actual test material that you studied? It probably required a lot of work and attention on your part in order to encode that information. This is known as effortful processing.

There are three types of encoding. The encoding of words and their meaning is known as semantic encoding. It was first demonstrated by William Bousfield (1935) in an experiment in which he asked people to memorize words. The 60 words were divided into 4 categories of meaning, although the participants did not know this because the words were randomly presented. When they were asked to remember the words, they tended to recall them in categories, showing that they paid attention to the meanings of the words as they learned them.

Visual encoding is the encoding of images, and acoustic encoding is the encoding of sounds, words in particular. To see how visual encoding works, read over this list of words: car, level, dog, truth, book, value. If you were asked later to recall the words from this list, which ones do you think you’d most likely remember? You would probably have an easier time recalling the words car, dog, and book, and a more difficult time recalling the words level, truth, and value. Why is this? Because you can recall images (mental pictures) more easily than words alone. When you read the words car, dog, and book, you created images of these things in your mind. These are concrete, high-imagery words. On the other hand, abstract words like level, truth, and value are low-imagery words. High-imagery words are encoded both visually and semantically (Paivio, 1986), thus building a more reliable memory.

Now let us turn our attention to acoustic encoding. You are driving in your car, and a song comes on the radio that you have not heard in at least ten years, but you sing along, recalling every word. In the United States, children often learn the alphabet through song, and they learn the number of days in each month through rhyme: Thirty days hath September, / April, June, and November; / All the rest have thirty-one, / Save February, with twenty-eight days clear, / And twenty-nine each leap year.” These lessons are easy to remember because of acoustic encoding. We encode the sounds the words make. This is one of the reasons why much of what we teach young children is done through song, rhyme, and rhythm.

Which of the three types of encoding do you think would give you the best memory of verbal information? Some years ago, psychologists Fergus Craik and Endel Tulving (1975) conducted a series of experiments to find out. Participants were given words along with questions about them. The questions required the participants to process the words at one of the three levels. The visual processing questions included such things as asking the participants about the font of the letters. The acoustic processing questions asked the participants about the sound or rhyming of the words, and the semantic processing questions asked the participants about the meaning of the words. After participants were presented with the words and questions, they were given an unexpected recall or recognition task.

Words that had been encoded semantically were better remembered than those encoded visually or acoustically. Semantic encoding involves a deeper level of processing than shallower visual or acoustic encoding. Craik and Tulving concluded that we process verbal information best through semantic encoding, especially if we apply what is called the self-reference effect. The self-reference effect is the tendency for an individual to have a better memory for information that relates to oneself in comparison to material that has less personal relevance (Rogers, Kuiper & Kirker, 1977). Could semantic encoding be beneficial to you as you attempt to memorize the concepts in this chapter?

Video 3.8.4. Encoding Strategies discusses various encoding techniques that help us store information in memory.


Once the information has been encoded, we have to retain it somehow. Our brains take the encoded information and place it in storage. Storage is the creation of a permanent record of information.

In order for a memory to go into storage (i.e., long-term memory), it has to pass through three distinct stages: Sensory Memory, Short-Term Memory, and finally, Long-Term Memory. These stages were first proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968). Their model of human memory, called Atkinson-Shiffrin (A-S) or three-box model, is based on the belief that we process memories in the same way that a computer processes information.

Figure 3.8.2. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory, information passes through three distinct stages in order for it to be stored in long-term memory.

The three-box is just one model of memory. Others, such as Baddeley and Hitch (1974), have proposed a model where short-term memory itself has different forms. In this model, storing memories in short-term memory is like opening different files on a computer and adding information. The type of short-term memory (or computer file) depends on the type of information received. There are memories in visual-spatial form, as well as memories of spoken or written material, and they are stored in three short-term systems: a visuospatial sketchpad, an episodic buffer, and a phonological loop. According to Baddeley and Hitch, a central executive part of memory supervises or controls the flow of information to and from the three short-term systems.

Video 3.8.5. Information Processing Model: Sensory, Working, and Long Term Memory explains the three-box model of memory.

Sensory Memory

In the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, stimuli from the environment are processed first in sensory memory: storage of brief sensory events, such as sights, sounds, and tastes. It is very brief storage, essentially long enough for the brain to register and start processing the information. Sensory memory can hold visual information for about half second and auditory information for a few seconds.  Unlike other cognitive processes, it seems that sensory memory does not change from infancy (Siegler, 1998). However, without the ability to encode the information, it fades from sensory memory quickly (Papalia et al., 2008). As children and adolescents become more capable of encoding, they can take more advantage of the information available to them in their sensory memory.

We are constantly bombarded with sensory information. We cannot absorb all of it, or even most of it. Moreover, most of it has no impact on our lives. For example, what was your professor wearing during the last class period? As long as the professor was dressed appropriately, it does not matter what she was wearing. Sensory information about sights, sounds, smells, and even textures, which we do not view as valuable information, we discard. If we view something as valuable, the information will move into our short-term memory system.

One study of sensory memory researched the significance of valuable information on short-term memory storage. J. R. Stroop discovered a memory phenomenon in the 1930s: you will name a color more easily if it appears printed in that color, which is called the Stroop effect. In other words, the word “red” will be named more quickly, regardless of the color, the word appears in, than any word that is colored red. Try an experiment: name the colors of the words you are given in Figure 3.8.3. Do not read the words, but say the color the word is printed in. For example, upon seeing the word “yellow” in green print, you should say “green,” not “yellow.” This experiment is fun, but it is not as easy as it seems.

Figure 3.8.3. The Stroop effect describes why it is difficult for us to name a color when the word and the color of the word are different.

Short-Term (Working) Memory

Short-term memory (STM), also called working memory, is a temporary storage system that processes incoming sensory memory. Short-term memory is the bridge between information taken in through sensory memory and the more permanent storage of information in long-term memory. Information that is not moved along from short-term memory to long-term memory will be forgotten. Short-term memory is also called working memory because this is the system where the “work” of memory happens. If you are retrieving information from your long-term memory, you are moving it into your working memory, where you can think about that information.

Think of working memory as the information you have displayed on your computer screen—a document, a spreadsheet, or a web page. Then, the information in this memory system goes to long-term memory (you save it to your hard drive), or it is discarded (you delete a document or close a web browser). This step of rehearsal, the conscious repetition of information to be remembered, to move STM into long-term memory is called memory consolidation.

You may find yourself asking, “How much information can our memory handle at once?” To explore the capacity and duration of your short-term memory, have a partner read the strings of random numbers (Figure 3.8.4) out loud to you, beginning each string by saying, “Ready?” and ending each by saying, “Recall,” at which point you should try to write down the string of numbers from memory.

Figure 3.8.4. Work through this series of numbers using the recall exercise explained above to determine the longest string of digits that you can store.

Note the longest string at which you got the series correct. For most people, this will be close to 7. Recall is somewhat better for random numbers than for random letters (Jacobs, 1887), and also often slightly better for information we hear (acoustic encoding) rather than see (visual encoding) (Anderson, 1969).

Short-term or working memory often requires conscious effort and adequate use of attention to function effectively. As you read earlier, children struggle with many aspects of attention, and this greatly diminishes their ability to juggle several pieces of information in memory consciously. The capacity of working memory is the amount of information someone can hold in consciousness is smaller in young children than in older children and adults. The typical 5-year-old can hold only a four-digit number active. The typical adult and teenager can hold a seven-digit number active in their short-term memory. The capacity of working memory expands during middle and late childhood, and research has suggested that both an increase in processing speed and the ability to inhibit irrelevant information from entering memory are contributing to the greater efficiency of working memory during this age (de Ribaupierre, 2002). Changes in myelination and synaptic pruning in the cortex are likely behind the increase in processing speed and ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli (Kail, McBride-chang, Ferrer, Cho, & Shu, 2013).

Short-term memory can only hold information for a short period of time, without rehearsal. For a typical adolescent or adult, storage lasts about 20-30 seconds. Older children and adults use mental strategies to aid their memory performance. For instance, simple rote rehearsal may be used to commit information to memory. Young children often do not rehearse unless reminded to do so, and when they do rehearse, they often fail to use clustering rehearsal. In clustering rehearsal, the person rehearses previous material while adding additional information. If a list of words is read out loud to you, you are likely to rehearse each word as you hear it along with any previous words you were given. Young children will repeat each word they hear, but often fail to repeat the prior words in the list. In Schneider, Kron-Sperl, and Hunnerkopf’s (2009) longitudinal study of 102 kindergarten children, the majority of children used no strategy to remember information, a finding that was consistent with previous research. As a result, their memory performance was reduced when compared to their abilities as they aged and started to use more effective memory strategies.

Executive Functions

Changes in attention and the working memory system also involve changes in executive function. Executive function (ef) refers to self-regulatory processes, such as the ability to inhibit behavior or cognitive flexibility, that enable adaptive responses to new situations or to reach a specific goal. Executive function skills gradually emerge during early childhood and continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Like many cognitive changes, brain maturation, especially the prefrontal cortex, along with experience, influence the development of executive function skills. A child, whose parents are more warm and responsive, uses scaffolding when the child is trying to solve a problem, and who provides cognitively stimulating environments for the child to show higher executive function skills (Fay-Stammbach, Hawes & Meredith, 2014). For instance, scaffolding was positively correlated with greater cognitive flexibility at age two and inhibitory control at age four (Bibok, Carpendale & Müller, 2009).

STM and Learning

Individuals differ in their memory abilities, and these differences predict academic performance (Prebler, Krajewski, & Hasselhorn, 2013). Children with learning disabilities in math and reading often have difficulties with working memory (Alloway, 2009). They may struggle with following the directions of an assignment. When a task calls for multiple steps, children with poor working memory may miss steps because they may lose track of where they are in the task. Adults working with such children may need to communicate: using more familiar vocabulary, using shorter sentences, repeating task instructions more frequently, and breaking more complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Some studies have also shown that more intensive training in working memory strategies, such as chunking, aids in improving the capacity of working memory in children with poor working memory (Alloway, Bibile, & Lau, 2013).

Long-term Memory

Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, the storage capacity of LTM has no real limits. It encompasses all the things you can remember what happened more than just a few minutes ago to all of the things that you can remember what happened days, weeks, and years ago. In keeping with the computer analogy, the information in your LTM would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It is not there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but you can pull up this information when you want it, at least most of the time. Not all long-term memories are strong memories. Some memories can only be recalled through prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact— “What is the capital of the United States?”—or a procedure—”How do you ride a bike?”—but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant you had dinner when you were on vacation in France last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, who spoke to you about your shared interest in soccer, may help you recall the name of the restaurant.

Long-term memory is divided into two types: explicit and implicit (Figure 3.8.5). Understanding the different types is important because a person’s age or particular types of brain trauma or disorders can leave certain types of LTM intact while having disastrous consequences for other types. Explicit memories, also called declarative memories, are those we consciously try to remember and recall. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. (Note: Sometimes, but not always, the terms explicit memory and declarative memory are used interchangeably.)

Implicit memories, also called non-declarative memories, are memories that are not part of our consciousness. They are memories formed from behaviors. Implicit memory is also called non-declarative memory.

Figure 3.8.5. There are two components of long-term memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory includes episodic and semantic memory. Implicit memory includes procedural memory and things learned through conditioning.

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things. It is the memory for skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, how to swim the crawl (freestyle) stroke. If you are learning how to swim freestyle, you practice the stroke: how to move your arms, how to turn your head to alternate breathing from side to side, and how to kick your legs. You would practice this many times until you become good at it. Once you learn how to swim freestyle and your body knows how to move through the water, you will never forget how to swim freestyle, even if you do not swim for a couple of decades. Similarly, if you present an accomplished guitarist with a guitar, even if he has not played in a long time, he will still be able to play quite well.

Explicit or declarative memory has to do with the storage of facts and events we personally experienced. Explicit (declarative) memory has two parts: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic means having to do with language and knowledge about language. An example would be the question, “what does argumentative mean?” Stored in our semantic memory is knowledge about words, concepts, and language-based knowledge and facts. For example, answers to the following questions are stored in your semantic memory:

  • Who was the first President of the United States?
  • What is democracy?
  • What is the longest river in the world?

Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced. The concept of episodic memory was first proposed about 40 years ago (Tulving, 1972). Since then, Tulving and others have looked at the scientific evidence and reformulated the theory. Currently, scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times, the what, where, and when of an event (Tulving, 2002). It involves recollection of visual imagery as well as the feeling of familiarity (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007).

A component of episodic memory is autobiographical memory, or our personal narrative. Adolescents and adults rarely remember events from the first few years of life. We refer to this normal experience as infantile amnesia. In other words, we lack autobiographical memories from our experiences as an infant, toddler, and very young preschooler. Several factors contribute to the emergence of autobiographical memory, including brain maturation, improvements in language, opportunities to talk about experiences with parents and others, the development of the theory of mind, and a representation of “self” (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Two-year-olds do remember fragments of personal experiences, but these are rarely coherent accounts of past events (Nelson & Ross, 1980). Between 2 and 2 ½ years of age, children can provide more information about past experiences. However, these recollections require considerable prodding by adults (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Over the next few years, children will form more detailed autobiographical memories and engage in more reflection on the past.


So you have worked hard to encode (via effortful processing) and store some important information for your upcoming final exam. How do you get that information back out of storage when you need it? The act of getting information out of memory storage and back into conscious awareness is known as retrieval. This process would be similar to finding and opening a paper you had previously saved on your computer’s hard drive. Now it is back on your desktop, and you can work with it again. Our ability to retrieve information from long-term memory is vital to our everyday functioning. You must be able to retrieve information from memory in order to do everything from knowing how to brush your hair and teeth, to driving to work, to knowing how to perform your job once you get there.

Video 3.8.6. Retrieval Cues discusses how cues prompt memory retrieval.

There are three ways to retrieve information from long-term memory storage systems: recall, recognition, and relearning. Recall is what we most often think about when we talk about memory retrieval: it means you can access information without cues. For example, you would use recall for an essay test. Recognition happens when you identify information that you have previously learned after re-encountering it. It involves a process of comparison. When you take a multiple-choice test, you are relying on recognition to help you choose the correct answer. Here is another example. Let us say you graduated from high school ten years ago, and you have returned to your hometown for your 10-year reunion. You may not be able to recall all of your classmates, but you recognize many of them based on their yearbook photos.

Video 3.8.7. Free Recall, Cued Recall, and Recognition discusses the various ways in which information can be retrieved from long term memory.

The third form of retrieval is relearning, and it is just as it sounds. It involves learning information that you previously learned. Whitney took Spanish in high school, but after high school, she did not have the opportunity to speak Spanish. Whitney is now 31, and her company has offered her an opportunity to work in their Mexico City office. In order to prepare herself, she enrolls in a Spanish course at the local community center. She is surprised at how quickly she can pick up the language after not speaking it for 13 years; this is an example of relearning.

Organization of Thinking

During middle childhood and adolescence, young people can learn and remember more due to improvements in the way they attend to and store information. As people learn more about the world, they develop more categories for concepts and learn more efficient strategies for storing and retrieving information. One significant reason is that they continue to have more experiences on which to tie new information. In other words, their knowledge base, knowledge in particular areas that makes learning new information easier, expands (Berger, 2014).

Cognitive control

As noted earlier, executive functions, such as attention, increases in working memory, and cognitive flexibility, have been steadily improving since early childhood. Studies have found that executive function is very competent in adolescence. However, self-regulation, or the ability to control impulses, may still fail. A failure in self-regulation is especially true when there is high stress or high demand on mental functions (Luciano & Collins, 2012). While high stress or demand may tax even an adult’s self-regulatory abilities, neurological changes in the adolescent brain may make teens particularly prone to more risky decision-making under these conditions.

Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning emerges in childhood and is a type of reasoning that is sometimes characterized as “bottom-up- processing” in which specific observations, or specific comments from those in authority, may be used to draw general conclusions. However, in inductive reasoning, the veracity of the information that created the general conclusion does not guarantee the accuracy of that conclusion. For instance, a child who has only observed thunder on summer days may conclude that it only thunders in the summer. In contrast, deductive reasoning, sometimes called “top-down-processing,” emerges in adolescence. This type of reasoning starts with some overarching principle and, based on this, propose specific conclusions. Deductive reasoning guarantees an accurate conclusion if the premises on which it is based are accurate.

Figure 3.8.6. Models of inductive and deductive reasoning.

Intuitive versus Analytic Thinking

Cognitive psychologists often refer to intuitive and analytic thought as the Dual-Process Model, the notion that humans have two distinct networks for processing information (Albert & Steinberg, 2011). Intuitive thought is automatic, unconscious, and fast (Kahneman, 2011), and it is more experiential and emotional. In contrast, Analytic thought is deliberate, conscious, and rational. While these systems interact, they are distinct (Kuhn, 2013). Intuitive thought is easier and more commonly used in everyday life. It is also more commonly used by children and teens than by adults (Klaczynski, 2001). The quickness of adolescent thought, along with the maturation of the limbic system, may make teens more prone to emotional, intuitive thinking than adults.

Critical Thinking

According to Bruning et al. (2004), there is a debate in U.S. education as to whether schools should teach students what to think or how to think. Critical thinking, or a detailed examination of beliefs, courses of action, and evidence, involves teaching children how to think. The purpose of critical thinking is to evaluate information in ways that help us make informed decisions. Critical thinking involves better understanding a problem through gathering, evaluating, and selecting information, and also by considering many possible solutions. Ennis (1987) identified several skills useful in critical thinking. These include: Analyzing arguments, clarifying information, judging the credibility of a source, making value judgments, and deciding on an action. Metacognition is essential to critical thinking because it allows us to reflect on the information as we make decisions.


As children mature through middle and late childhood and into adolescence, they have a better understanding of how well they are performing a task and the level of difficulty of a task. As they become more realistic about their abilities, they can adapt studying strategies to meet those needs. Young children spend as much time on an unimportant aspect of a problem as they do on the main point, while older children start to learn to prioritize and gauge what is significant and what is not. As a result, they develop metacognition. Metacognition refers to the knowledge we have about our thinking and our ability to use this awareness to regulate our cognitive processes (Bruning, Schraw, Norby, & Ronning, 2004).

Bjorklund (2005) describes a developmental progression in the acquisition and use of memory strategies. Such strategies are often lacking in younger children but increase in frequency as children progress through elementary school. Examples of memory strategies include rehearsing information you wish to recall, visualizing and organizing information, creating rhymes, such as “i” before “e” except after “c,” or inventing acronyms, such as “ROYGBIV” to remember the colors of the rainbow. Schneider, Kron-Sperl, and hünnerkopf (2009) reported a steady increase in the use of memory strategies from ages six to ten in their longitudinal study (see table 3.8.1). Moreover, by age ten, many children were using two or more memory strategies to help them recall information. Schneider and colleagues found that there were considerable individual differences at each age in the use of strategies and that children who utilized more strategies had better memory performance than their same-aged peers.

Table 3.8.1. Percentage of children who did not use any memory strategies by age.

A person may experience three deficiencies in their use of memory strategies. A mediation deficiency occurs when a person does not grasp the strategy being taught, and thus, does not benefit from its use. If you do not understand why using an acronym might be helpful, or how to create an acronym, the strategy is not likely to help you. In a production deficiency, the person does not spontaneously use a memory strategy and has to be prompted to do so. In this case, the person knows the strategy and is more than capable of using it, but they fail to “produce” the strategy on their own. For example, a child might know how to make a list but may fail to do this to help them remember what to bring on a family vacation. A utilization deficiency refers to a person using an appropriate strategy, but it fails to aid their performance. Utilization deficiency is common in the early stages of learning a new memory strategy (Schneider & Pressley, 1997; miller, 2000). Until the use of the strategy becomes automatic, it may slow down the learning process, as space is taken up in memory by the strategy itself. Initially, children may get frustrated because their memory performance may seem worse when they try to use the new strategy. Once children become more adept at using the strategy, their memory performance will improve. Sodian and Schneider (1999) found that new memory strategies acquired before age 8 often show utilization deficiencies, with there being a gradual improvement in the child’s use of the strategy. In contrast, strategies acquired after this age often followed an “all-or-nothing” principle in which improvement was not gradual, but abrupt.


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