Depth of Processing Experiment: How Do You Interact With Information?

Updated on March 21, 2017
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I am a special needs counselor for grade K-5 and I have a bachelor's degree in Applied Psychology. I've worked with children for 5+ years.

How the Experiment Works

Pretend for a minute that you are a teacher who has a student who has asked for your help. This student indicates that they are spending 15-20 hours a week studying for your exams, but no matter how hard they study, they do poorly on your tests.

What should you ask them that might help you identify the problem? Would it help to know how they are studying?

Let us say they tell you they are spending their study time reading and memorizing the words in the margins. Knowing that you ask questions that require a student to apply their knowledge to novel situations, what recommendations might you have for this student and their study habits?

Let us do a quick demonstration and see if it helps you address this student's problem.

In this experiment, you will answer yes/no questions about several words. Think carefully about your answers, as you want to get as many questions correct as possible.

One-third of the questions ask whether the word is in capital or small letters. The next 1/3 asks if the word rhymes with another word, and the final 1/3, asks if the word would fit correctly in a particular sentence.

How the Experiment Was Conducted

The following words were presented in this experiment. For words in the first column (structural processing), you were asked if the words were capitalized or not. You were asked if the words in the second column (phonemic processing) rhymed with another word. Finally, for words in the third column (semantic processing) you were asked if they made sense in the context of a given sentence.

1. Type all the test words that were presented to you, separated by a space. Press the Continue key when you are done.

Here were the words you recalled: claw frog mule jail baby

This experiment is meant to examine the effect of depth of processing on recall or memory. The different questions you answered likely caused you to process the words differently. Answering a question about whether a word fits into a sentence or not requires deeper processing than does determining whether a word is in all caps.

2. What was the independent variable?

An independent variable is a variable you have control over, what you can choose and manipulate.

3. What was the dependent variable?

A dependent variable is what you measure in the experiment and what is affected during the experiment.

4. The original study found that structural processing produced the worst recall and semantic produced the best. Does your data match this finding?

The data matches the hypothesis that structural processing produces the worst recall and semantic produces the best recall.

5: What other factors might have influenced your recall of these words?

Many factors could influence recall such as state of mind, the level of distractions, and/or level of experience with word recall games.

Types of Information Interaction

Depth of processing describes how you interact with the information.

In a structural interaction, you are only focused on the symbols being used to form the words. This would represent a very shallow processing of the information, because you are not really even thinking about what you read.

In the phonemic condition, you only had to think about what the words sounded like, which is a deeper level of processing than just structural. However, you did not have the think of their meaning.

However, in the semantic condition you were asked to think about the meaning of each word in order to decide if it would fit into a sentence. Thinking about the meaning of a word is a much deeper level of processing than thinking about what it sounds like or looks like.

In the original study that this one is patterned after (Craik & Tulving, 1975), it was found that deeper levels of processing leads to higher recall. One might argue that processing words semantically or for their meaning takes more time than processing words for physical or basic sound characteristics and that improved recall is merely due to increased time on task. However, as part of this series of studies, Craik and Tulving (1975) conducted another experiment where the shallow questions presented to subjects were more difficult to perform and more time consuming to perform than the "deeper" meaning task. For example, the subject had to determine the pattern of consonants and vowels in the word. The deeper processing again improved recall even though it took less time than the shallow processing procedure. Therefore, clearly, time on task has nothing to do with the effects of depth of processing.

In more recent studies, it has been shown that the depth of processing of the information influences activity in the brain. In studies using techniques to view functional activity of the brain, it has been shown that more diverse areas of the brain are active when a subject is processing information at greater depths (Nyberg, 2002). Further, this result continues to be seen even as we age (Mandzia, 2004).

It is obvious there are practical implications for depth of processing research for students. Think about how many times you have read a paragraph or page of a textbook, only to look up and think, "I have no idea what I just read." Sometimes this occurs because we literally do not understand the vocabulary of the text. However sometimes this happens because we saw the words structurally and maybe even sounded them out in our head, but we did not think about the meaning of the words as we read them.

Deeper level processing requires that we not just "read" the text by passing our eyes over it, but that we think about the meaning of what we are reading. As you engage in deeper processing, you should start to see results in how much you are learning.

Now, how would you advise the student who came to you at the beginning of this experiment regarding their study habits?

Experiment Results

Number Recalled Correctly
My Results
Global Results

My Reaction to the Depth of Processing Experiment

How do your experiment results relate to what you have learned in this module? What insights did you gain about cognitive processes and associated research methods by participating in this experiment?

When I finished the thirty trials, I was completely surprised to learn that I had to type as many of the words that I could remember from the trials. I was so focused on if the word fit in the sentence and if the word was in all capitals that I did not pay much attention to the words themselves. I correctly remembered 40% of the semantic words, 10% of the phonemic, and 0% of the structural. Overall, I think I did okay on the experiment, but I was left wishing that I had paid more attention to the words themselves.

In relation to this week’s module I learned why I scored the way I did on the experiment. I remembered more sematic words then I did phonemic and structural words because I used elaborative rehearsal. Elaborative rehearsal “involved any rehearsal activity that processes a stimulus into the deeper, more meaningful levels of memory” (Ashcraft & Radvansky, 2014, p. 184). I was convinced that one of the questions would be a trick question so on the sematic words I always read the question out loud and then repeated it again out loud with the word filled in to make it easier for me to tell if the word fit in the sentence. This rehearsal made it easier for me to recall the semantic words. On the phonemic words I used maintenance rehearsal meaning that I repeated the word to see if it rhymed, but I did not deeply process these words. I did not process the structural words at all; I just looked to see if the words used capital letters or lowercase letters. I wonder if this experiment could be further developed in an attempt to create a test to see how well people use elaborative and maintenance rehearsal and if this has any impact on how different people study for tests.


Craik, Fergus I.; Tulving, Endel (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol 104(3), pp. 268-294.

Mandzia, Jennifer L.; Black, Sandra E.; McAndrews, Mary Pat; (2004). fMRI differences in encoding and retrieval of pictures due to encoding strategy in the elderly. Human Brain Mapping, Vol 21(1), pp. 1-14.

Nyberg, L. (2002). Levels of processing: A view from functional brain imaging. Memory, Vol. 10 (5-6), pp. 345-348.

Radvansky, G. A., & Ashcraft, M. H. (2014). Cognition Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Royet, Jean-Piperre; Koenig, Olivier; Paugam-Moisy, Helene (2004). Levels of processing effects on a task of olfactory naming. Perceptual & Motor Skills, Vol 98(1), pp. 197-213.


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