Basic information processing accounts of human thinking stresses its goal-oriented nature and describes the mental structures and processes associated with the resolution of problems standing in the way of goal-achievement. Three structures dominate this description: the executive, short-term memory (STM), and long-term memory (LTM). The executive is the primary location of both short- and long-term goals, needs, and aspirations. Information from the external environment is screened by the executive to determine its relevance for goal achievement. Information judged to be irrelevant is given no further attention. If judged to be potentially relevant, information is passed on to STM.
Beyond the limited processing space of STM and its capacity to integrate (chunk) bits of information for treatment as a single piece, little is known about the functioning of STM. Its purpose, however, is to “make sense” of information passed on to it by the executive. It does this by searching through the virtually unlimited storage space of LTM. Structurally, this space is repsented as clusters of related information or knowledge structures many of which are associated in networks, sometimes organized hierarchically. Relatively undemanding forms of sense-making take place when, through simple matching processes, STM locates existing knowledge structures capable of assimilating new information. More demanding forms of sense-making (for instance, problem solving) usually require modification of existing knowledge structures, or the development of new links among such structures, to accommodate novel aspects of information.
Two distinct types of knowledge structures are found in LTM. “Declarative” knowledge structures encompass facts, concepts, principles, and personal theories as well as affective dispositions towards these elements. Understanding develops as STM locates structures of this type that match external stimuli or that can be adapted to serve that purpose. Action, on the other hand, is guided by “procedural” schemata, knowledge structures consisting of routines to follow, steps to take, and the like. Superordinate procedural schemata (sometimes called executive strategies) exist to co-ordinate highly complex sets of actions.
Knowledge structures are sophisticated because they are reorganized to incorporate additional pieces of related information. As the hierarchical associations among such structures increase, increasing associations are made among knowledge structures. Such sophistication is a function of active attempts to make meaningful more and more new information. As this new information is subsumed by existing knowledge structures, the potential for meaningfully processing subsequent information increases. Actions become more skilful (effective) as procedural knowledge structures become potentially more effective in accomplishing their ends, as overt behaviors reflect more accurately the image of skilled performance encapsulated in such structures, and as the use of procedural schemata becomes less conscious and more automatic. High levels of “automaticity” permit effective responses to environmental stimuli (either understanding or performance) without the need for consciously processing such input through STM. This is cognitively undemanding and places little strain on the severely limited information processing space of STM.
This basic information processing account of human cognition has been extended in a number of important ways.
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