Level of processing (An Update)

Level of processing

In this article we will discuss the level of processing. According to Tulving and Craig (2000), memory is a mental process which lets us store information and rely on stored information for present use. It is impossible to imagine a life without memory as is apparent by the life of patients of amnesia. Loss of memory makes us depend on others for the rest of life.  According to psychologists, memory is a dynamics process involving retaining and retrieving information for effective functioning. Specifically cognitive psychologists have to term three processes of memory known as encoding, storage and retrieval. These three functions make up the process of memory. 

  1. Encoding: Encoding is transferring the sensory information into mental representation 
  2. Storage: This information is stored for future use 
  3. Retrieval: Retrieval is the process where a person tends to bring back the stored information to  use in the present situation. 
Level of processing (An Update)

Models of Memory:

Many psychologists have attempted to conceptualize the process of memory and presented models of memory in this attempt. First model was given by William James (1970) in which he proposed two structures of memory that are primary and secondary memory. Primary memory stores the information that is currently in use by individual and secondary memory stores the information for a longer period of time. Currently, two major models of memory in cognitive psychology are the traditional model and level of processing theory. 

Traditional model of Memory:

Traditional model of memory was given by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968). In contrast to William James, Atkinson and Shiffrin presented three structures of memory associated with three processes of memory. It is important to note here, that these structures are hypothetical and not some structure in the brain associated with the processes of memory. These hypothetical structures help one understand how memory works. They also make a distinction between store and memory. Store refers to the structure while memory refers to the information stored in those structures. The three structures in traditional model are as follow:

  1. Sensory store: Sensory store is responsible for the memory of perception at any instance. This has limited capacity and store information for a very brief period of time. 
  2. Short term store: Information from sensory stores moves to the short-term memory. Short-term stores have a capacity of 7 units which can stay there for almost 25 to 30 seconds.
  3. Long Term store: Long term store holds information for indefinite periods of time. Long term stores can hold a very large amount of information based on individuals. 

Level of Processing Theory:

Level of processing theory was a major departure from three store traditional models. Level of processing theory to explain memory was given by Craik and Lockhart (2008). According to level of processing theory memory does not consist of any specific number of stores let alone three as defined by traditional models but there are an infinite number of separate stores which depend on the depth of encoding. These stores vary along a continuous continuum. In other words, level of processing theory explains that there are an infinite number of levels of processing (LOP) on which information can be encoded. Encoding of specific information on a specific level depends on the depth of understanding of that information. Level of processing theory can be understood by follow:

  • There are infinite numbers of level of processing
  • There is no distinct boundary between levels of processing 
  • Information is encoded on one of the infinite number levels of processing 
  • The level of processing on which information is encoded is dependent on the depth of understanding of information 
  • The deeper the understanding of the information, the higher the level of processing 
  • Higher the level of processing, better the storage of information
  • Higher the level of processing of information, higher the chances of retrieval
Level of processing (An Update)

Elaboration in level of processing theory:

As per level of processing theory, Craik and Tulvig identified three different levels of elaboration which can encode information on an infinite number of levels of processing. The three levels identified by them were Physical, phonological and semantic. Each level has deeper elaboration of information as compared to the previous one. Physical processing related to the physical aspects of the information being processed for example pitch of sound or font of word written. Phonological processing associated with sounds related to the information being learned for example music tracks based on Beethoven’s 5th symphony and rhymes of written words. Semantic associated with the meaning of information. 

An experiment was conducted by Craik and Tulvig (2008), where they presented their participants list of words. Each word has specific questions related to it encouraging different understanding. Example of few words and questions are as follow:

Physical               Are all the letters of word capital?             TABLE

Phonological       What rhymes with the following word?           Cat 

Semantic              Is the following word a type of plant?              Rose 

Results of their experiment supported the level of processing theory. The words with semantic elaboration had better recall than words which were processed based on their physical aspects or their phonological aspects. 

Level of processing theory and Non-verbal stimuli:

It has been argued that level of processing theory can be applied not only to verbal but also non-verbal stimuli. As it is explained in the above mentioned example, where a sound stimuli can be processed be at different and resultantly can have different storage and retrieval. In the similar manner visual stimuli can be encouraged to be encoded with different levels of processing. An experiment was conducted by Melinda Burgess and George Weaver (2003), to understand the different levels of processing of visual stimuli. Participants were presented with pictures of faces and different questions were asked related to the picture to induce different levels of processing for each face. Results of the experiment showed that faces which processed at a higher level of understanding were better recalled than others. This again supported the level of processing theory of memory. 

Level of processing theory and Schizophrenia: 

Patients of schizophrenia face a lot of trouble with remembering certain information and retrieving them. It has been argued that schizophrenics are unable to process the information in a meaningful way. With a better understanding of the level of processing theory, clinicians can help schizophrenics to process information at a deeper level to have better storage and ultimately better retrieval. 

Level of processing (An Update)

Level of processing theory and Self-reference effect: 

It has been proven through experimentation that information which is related to oneself is better remembered and recalled than information which has reference outside oneself. In an experiment by Rogers, Kuiper and Kirker (1977) participants were asked to determine if the words presented to them described them as a person or not. Participants were asked to recall those words later. Results indicated that words which participants considered self-descriptive had the highest recall. The words which were considered not related to them at all or were perceived as strikingly different from themselves had the similar level of recall as self-descriptive words. This came to be known as the self-reference effect. According to Miller (1983) self referencing effect can be explained with the help level of processing theory. Individuals have a very elaborate self-image consisting of its attitude, motivation, emotions and personality thus the information related to self is automatically processed at a higher level than any other information. This higher level of processing results in better storage and better recall. 

Criticism on level of processing theory:

Many experiments have supported the level of processing theory and it has been integrated with many other subfields of psychology. Despite having experimental support, level of processing theory has been criticized in number of ways:

Circular definition of level:

Many researchers have identified that the definition of particular level in level of processing theory is circular. Particular level is considered deep because the information process on that level is retained better but on the other hand proponents of level of processing theory argue that information is considered to retain better if the level is deeper. This argument is considered circular, one argument giving way to another and then coming back to the first one. 

Retention Paradox:

Researchers have also found paradoxes in the retention of information either phonologically and semantically. In some cases information encoded phonologically are retrieved better than information encoded semantically. For example by learning which words rhyme with the stimulus results in better retrieval than by understanding to which category a word belongs to. Different experiments have shown different results which information processing works better. 

Revision of Level of processing theory:

Because of the large amount of criticism on the level of processing theory, it was revised adding more variables. In revised versions the level of processing on which the information is being recorded is not considered much important. Two new variables added to revised version are as follow:

  1. The way information is being processed (Phonologically or semantically)
  2. The way in which information is being retrieved

According to revised version of level of processing theory, the retrieval of information will be better the condition in which information is being encoded and retrieved are similar to each other. It also introduced two strategies for encoding the information which are as follow:

  1. Within Item Elaboration:

In this strategy, information about particular stimuli is encoded based on its characteristics and its features. This is can occur both phonologically (by repeating it again and again) or semantically (by understanding its meaning)

  1. Between Item Elaboration:

Using this strategy, information can be processed by relating it to the information already stored in memory. This again can be done either phonetically or semantically. 

Level of processing (An Update)


Memory is a mental process which has a survival value for individuals. Many models have been given to explain the process of memory among which traditional models of memory and level of processing theory are widely used. According to level of processing theory, there are infinite numbers of levels of processing on which information can be encoded. The level of processing of information is determined by the depth of understanding of information. Deeper the understanding of information, deeper will be the level of processing, storage will be higher and retrieval will be better. 

FAQs about levels of processing

What is the level of processing of memory and how does it work?

Level of processing theory explains the process of memory. According to level of processing theory, there are infinite numbers of levels of processing on which information can be encoded. The level of processing of information is determined by the depth of understanding of information. Deeper the understanding of information, deeper will be the level of processing, storage will be higher and retrieval will be better. 

What is the deepest level of processing of memory?

The shallowest level of processing is physical. It is based on how the stimulus is perceived based on its physical characteristics such as pitch or font. The deepest level of processing is semantic processing, where the information is processed based on its meaning.

What is an example of deep processing?

Deep processing is related to elaborative rehearsal where things are memorized based on their meaning. A person can relate information with others while making meaningful connections between them.


Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2016). Cognitive psychology. Nelson Education.

McLeod, S. A. (2007, December 14). Levels of processing. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/levelsofprocessing.html

Level of processing (An Update)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.