Number. 19 © CDTL 2003
Processing Information vs. Retaining Information
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences / Associate Director, CDTL

Many students behave as if they are like tape recorders and can somehow absorb knowledge simply by being able to hear or see it and record it. However, the fact is that you are not a tape recorder. Tape recorders cannot do anything to the recorded information except to retain it and play it back; but you can ‘process’ the information as you desire. If you behave as a recorder, new information will not be integrated with your prior knowledge and understanding; the information remains isolated, cannot be used effectively in new tasks and does not transfer readily to new situations. Consequently, students are active processors of information who are trying to make sense of the presented material. Hence, it is essential for you to develop expertise in processing information in different subject domains.

How should you process information? There are three processes that you should be aware of. The first process involves focusing attention in the short-term memory on relevant pieces of information received and sifting out relevant from irrelevant information. This involves selecting information from the sensory input (e.g. reading, hearing) and adding that information to the short-term memory (Meyer, 1984; Sternberg, 1985). The second process involves organising, or building connections among, the selected pieces of information into a coherent whole within the short-term memory (Meyer, 1984; Sternberg, 1985). The third process involves integrating, or building external connections between, the organised new knowledge and organised existing knowledge in the long-term memory (Meyer, 1984; Sternberg, 1985).

Knowledge widens and deepens as students continue to build links between new information and experiences and their existing knowledge base. The nature of these links can take a variety of forms, such as adding to, modifying, or reorganising existing knowledge or skills (Lambert & McCombs, 1995). How these links are made or develop may vary in different subject areas, and among students with varying talents, interests and abilities.

The word ‘knowledge’ actually means ‘to have sport with ideas’. A knowledgeable person is someone who can play with ideas, not just someone who can retain facts, recall information or simply repeat a task. To play with ideas means holding information in the short-term and long-term memory and processing them by comparing and contrasting, attributing, classifying, sequencing, prioritising, evaluating, determining cause and effect, analysing for bias and drawing conclusions. Through these series of thinking activities, new ideas can be created through inventing, inferring, generalising, predicting, hypothesising and making analogies.
Therefore, if you wish to be a knowledgeable person, you should not practise retaining information, but instead, process information. When you put effort into processing information, you will become capable of a metacognitive or executive level of thinking that includes self-awareness, self-inquiry (self-dialogue), self-monitoring and self-regulation of the processes and contents of thoughts, knowledge structures and memories. In essence, you become a thinker capable of solving problems, creating ideas and making decisions.

References

Lambert, N.M. & McCombs, B.L. (1995). ‘Introduction’. In Lambert, N.M. & McMcombs, B.L. (Eds.). How Students Learn: Reforming Schools Through Learner-centered Education. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1–22.

Mayer, R.E. (1984). ‘Aids to Text Comprehension’. Educational Psychologist, 19, 30–42.

Sternberg, R.J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

 
 
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