7.6 The Levels of the Memory Processing Model

Jan 14, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch7 Memory Models & Disorders

Memory is a virtual minefield. Why do we remember some things and not others? This lesson reviews the levels of the memory processing model of memory to answer this question.

Human Memory and Forgetting

A person’s memory is a strange thing. Sometimes it seems that we learn something and will never ever forget it. That information is with us for the rest of our lives. Other times, it seems that information is elusive — like we know that we have learned something or know something and should remember it but we just can’t.


This lesson reviews the levels of memory processing model of memory, which identifies three different levels at which we process information when we are initially exposed to it. Depending on the level (or depth) of processing, our access to that information spans from being unable to recall the information all the way to its being readily available to us. In this context, depth refers to meaningfulness.

The levels — structural processing, phonemic processing, and semantic processing — were defined by Robert Lockhart and Fergus Craik in the early 1970s.


Structural Level

The first level is the structural level of processing. It is processing based on appearance only. When we see something out of the corner of our eye, we might only be able to describe the general size and shape of the thing because we processed the image in a shallow way.

A great way to understand (or process more deeply) the concept of structural processing is to experience it for yourself. Without looking, can you remember the first word of the first section of this lesson? What about the first word of this section?

You probably automatically glanced back to look at the words, didn’t you? That’s OK. Articles in language (such as ”a” and ”the”) are words that have no meaning. They do not add any information to what we are reading, thus they elicit only shallow processing. By the time you are a strong reader, the words ”a” and ”the” are barely even read; you simply glance at it, recognize the shape of the word, and move on.

Information processed at a very shallow level is not readily accessible because it has a very weak memory trace.

Phonemic Level

Phonemes refer to sound. Phonemic processing occurs when we pay attention to the sounds of the item we are processing. This could be something in our environment or something we are reading.

For example, rhyming poems can be remembered fairly easily because of the phonemic processing strength afforded by the rhymes. Through paying attention to the sounds of the words, we can narrow down the coming words (such as ”what rhymes with can? Oh, the next line might be pan”).

Notice that now we have vision and hearing involved in the processing of information, the processing has become deeper (thus more readily accessible). The memory trace for information processed at the phonemic level is stronger than that processed at the structural level. However, phonemic processing is also considered a shallow processing level.

Semantic Processing

Semantic processing is the deepest level of processing according to this model. In semantic processing, additional meaning and related information is encoded at the same time. This leads to a very strong memory trace because of deep processing.

This deep processing occurs because of elaboration rehearsal in which the person processing the information uses some memory technique (whether conscious or unconscious) to strengthen the memory trace for the information. Some techniques include using imagery (imagining some distinct image associated with the information), reworking (rewording the information so that it is in your own understanding using your own examples, etc.), and method of loci (associating a location, whether on a page or in a room, to the piece of information so that you can use a mental map to get back to the information in recall).

For an example, think of the common trick people are taught for remembering names at a party or conference. Do you remember? The trick is to say the person’s name more than once while imagining something specific about the person associated with the name. For example, if you meet someone named Elizabeth, you might imagine (using imagery) lizards (phonemic association with the name Elizabeth) crawling in the woman’s hair. Through practicing the name and associating the name with a distinct image, you have used deep processing to encode her name into your long-term memory. The name should be readily available to you whenever you need it.

Increasing the number of sensory systems active at the time of rehearsal also increases the depth of processing. For example, if you say the name Elizabeth while looking at the woman, imagining lizards running over her, and you physically move your hand down your arm virtually wiping the lizards away, you will have activated your tactile sense, your visual sense, and your auditory sense all in the same act of memorizing a person’s name. The more senses you activate when encoding information, the deeper the processing, thus the more readily available that information will be for recall later.


There are three main criticisms of this model of memory:

  1. While it states that the deeper the processing, the better the memory, it does not tell how/why this happens.
  2. The act of deep processing involves effort. Shallow processing does not require effort. No allowance is given in the model to account for the variable of effort in the process of memory.
  3. Human memory is not a physical commodity. The concept of depth is a metaphor at best, and thus is weak in its explanation.

Lesson Summary

Lockhart and Craig developed a model for the processing of memory in the early 1970s. In this model, the researchers distinguish between shallow and deep processing of information. The deeper the processing, the stronger the memory trace (thus the more readily available to memory) for information.

Structural processing involves processing only the visual aspects of an item.

Phonemic processing adds sound to the encoding process.

Semantic processing incorporates meaning into each piece of information through effortful techniques called elaboration rehearsal. Increased sensory input results in deeper processing.

7.7 Baddeley's Model of Working Memory
7.5 Atkinson & Shiffrin's Modal Model of Memory