Deep Processing: Definition and 17 Examples

deep processing vs shallow processing, explained below

Deep processing refers to a manner of interacting with information that involves elaborate, thoughtful engagement with the material.

Deep processing can be seen in a range of higher-order thinking scenarios, for example evaluating, analyzing and critiquing of information.

This is a concept in psychology that falls within the broader framework of levels-of-processing theory, initially proposed by Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart in 1972.

This theory suggests that the depth of mental processing impacts the strength of memory formation, with deeper processing leading to stronger, longer-lasting memories than shallow processing.

Deep Processing vs. Shallow Processing

Whereas deep processing is elaborate, shallow processing is minimal.

1. Deep Processing

Deep processing, in essence, means fully understanding and analyzing information on a complex level, rather than simply taking it at face value.

In the context of learning, deep processing could involve:

  1. Understanding the underlying principles or theories behind the information you’re learning, rather than just memorizing facts.
  2. Applying the information to real-world problems or scenarios.
  3. Discussing the material with others to gain different perspectives.
  4. Teaching the information to someone else, which requires a comprehensive understanding of the material.
  5. Reflecting on how the new information changes your understanding of the world.

These activities require a significant cognitive effort, and are considered examples of higher-order thinking.

In essence, deep processing is all about being an active participant in the learning process and making the material meaningful to you in some way. This approach can make the learning experience more engaging and enjoyable, and it can significantly enhance your ability to remember the information.

2. Shallow Processing

Shallow processing can be structural or phonemic.

  • Structural processing (Shallow) involves encoding the physical properties or visual aspects of a stimulus. For example, only encoding the colors or shapes of images in a photo or painting, with no consideration of meaning or artistic objectives. Ekuni et al. (2011) describe this as a form of perceptual processing. Only the physical and sensory characteristics of the stimulus are processed.
  • Phonemic processing (Shallow) involves processing the auditory characteristics of a text such as the sound of the individual phonemes. Determining if the word “ball” rhymes with “bait” is an example of phonemic processing. This determination only requires a very shallow level of analysis.

Shallow processing results in the stimulus quickly fading from working memory and, if stored in long-term memory, the trace is quite weak.

Deep Processing Examples

  • Elaboration: This involves expanding on the information by adding more detail or context. For example, when learning a new concept, you might relate it to something you already know or apply it to a real-world example.
  • Semantic Mapping: This refers to organizing information in a way that highlights the relationships between different concepts. Creating mind maps, concept maps, or flow charts can facilitate deep understanding by showing how various ideas connect and interact.
  • Self-Reflection: After learning new material, take some time to reflect on it. Think about how it aligns with or challenges your existing beliefs, how you can use it in your daily life, or what implications it might have for the world.
  • Interpretation: Instead of just taking in information passively, try to interpret it. This could mean analyzing a text, critiquing a theory, or making predictions based on a set of data. This process requires you to engage deeply with the material.
  • Teaching Others: Explaining a concept to someone else requires a deep understanding of the material. You need to break down complex ideas into understandable parts, anticipate questions, and communicate effectively.
  • Visualization: Creating a mental image of the information can help embed it in your memory. For example, when reading a novel, try to visualize the characters, settings, and events in your mind’s eye.
  • Critical Thinking: This involves analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. Instead of simply accepting what you’re told, question it. Look for evidence, consider alternative viewpoints, and draw your own conclusions.
  • Problem-Solving: Applying what you’ve learned to solve problems can deepen your understanding. This could involve doing math problems, troubleshooting technical issues, or devising strategies to address social issues.
  • Making Connections: Try to link new information to something you already know. This could involve connecting new material to previously learned concepts or relating academic subjects to your personal interests or experiences.
  • Meta-Cognition: This refers to thinking about your own thinking. Consider which strategies are helping you learn effectively and which ones are not. Reflect on how your understanding of a topic is evolving as you learn more.
  • Reading Comprehension: Reading a high-level textbook on physics or chemistry requires deep processing of nearly every word in every sentence. Many of the concepts have to be compared to previously stored concepts to see how they fit, or contradict.  
  • Second Language Fluency: After spending years in a foreign country a person may be able to communicate with the locals fluidly. They can understand jokes and even pick-up on the nuances of local idioms.
  • Synthesizing Facts: Being able to synthesize numerous facts into a cohesive framework of understanding requires substantial deep processing.  
  • Interpreting Graphs: It’s one thing to be able to cite data presented in a graph. However, being able to interpret the meaning of the data, explain how the numbers are interconnected, and influence the big-picture is quite another.
  • Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay: Taking two concepts and writing an essay that identifies their similarities and differences requires very deep processing. It means finding information that pulls-in related concepts and explaining various interconnections.  
  • Listening to Classical Music: For a trained musician, listening to one of Mozart’s masterpieces involves appreciating the complexities of the arrangement and intended interpretations.  
  • Project-Based Learning: Working on a project with other students not only increases student engagement, but it also requires the students to have a deep understanding of the concepts involved in their project and how they are related to each other.

Origins of Deep Processing and Early Empirical Support

The notion of deep processing was originally proposed by Craik and Lockhart (1972).

Their paper introduced the concept of levels of processing (LOP), which is a model of how stimuli are processed and stored in memory.

LOP postulates that the more meaning extracted from a stimulus, the more ingrained that stimulus will become embedded in memory.

Craik and Tulving (1975) conducted a series of 10 studies that provided empirical support for the model.

For example, participants were presented with 60 words and then induced to process those words at varying depts (i.e., shallow or deep).

  1. Shallow processing was induced by asking questions about typescript (e.g., is the word “HOUSE” written in capital letters?);
  2. Intermediate processing by asking questions about rhymes (e.g., does the word “house” rhyme with pencil?);
  3. Deep processing by asking if the word fit into a specific category or sentence (e.g., does the word “house” fit into this sentence: “The _____ has a beautiful window”).

Next, participants were given different types of tests, either recall or recognition.

The results of the studies led to the general conclusion that:

“…deeper encodings took longer to accomplish and were associated with higher levels of performance on the subsequent memory test” (p. 268).

Below is a table that identifies the key research developments in LOP.

Key Developments in Levels of Processing Theory             

Below is a summary of key developments in levels of processing (LOP) research:

AuthorsKey DevelopmentPublication Year
Craik & LockhartIntroduction of LOP:
1) Shallow processing is perceptual processing of physical properties and sensory characteristics.
2) Deep processing is semantic and involves extraction of meaning.
Craik & TulvingExperimental evidence from 10 studies supporting LOP.1975
Morris, Bransford, & FranksProposed transfer-appropriate processing (TAP):
1) semantic processing is superior to phonological processing, but only when retrieval task involves recalling meaning.
2) phonological processing is superior when retrieval task involves rhyme recognition.
TulvingProposed encoding-specificity principle. The greater the match between encoding cues and recall cues the better the recall. Thus, TAP is not incompatible with LOP.1979
Lockhart & CraikIntroduced concept of “robust encoding.” The more deeply encoded a stimuli becomes, the more cues there are which can be activated during recall.1990
NybergNeuroimaging data supports LOP:
1) sensory regions activated during perception are reactivated during retrieval.
2) frontal and medial-temporal brain activity is related to depth of processing.
Schott et al.fMRI analysis of shallow and deep processing. Results found deep processing involved greater neural connectivity between left hippocampus and ventral prefrontal regions.2013
Based on Ekuni, R., Vaz, L. J., & Bueno, O. F. A. (2011).

Applications of Deep Processing 

1. In Advertising

There are basically two types of commercials: those that are based on deep processing and those that are based on shallow processing.

Advertisers are experts in attitude formation, particularly as it relates to consumer preferences and behavior.

Deep processing commercials present lots of facts about the product or service. The goal is to appeal to consumers that are knowledgeable and will need to be persuaded based on their analysis of the ad’s content.

Shallow processing commercials are designed to persuade consumers through celebrity endorsements, status appeals, or sexuality. Purchase decisions are based on emotions activated during the ad.

These processing channels can be explained with the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion proposed by Petty and Cacioppo (1986).

The ELM states that there are two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral.

  • The central route to persuasion involves deep processing of the ad’s content. The consumer engages in a critical analysis of the ad’s content and persuasion is based on the quality of the ad’s factual content.  With the central route, persuasion results “…from a person’s careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented…” (p. 125).
  • The peripheral route to persuasion however, involves very little processing. Instead, persuasion is based on message cues regarding the product’s quality, such as what a trusted celebrity says about it. With the peripheral route, persuasion results from “…some simple cue in the persuasion context (e.g., an attractive source) that induces change without necessitating scrutiny of the true merits of the information presented” (p. 125).

2. In Education and Bloom’s Taxonomy

Educators have long recognized the value of instructional approaches that activate deep levels of processing. Whereas rote memory tasks ensure facts are committed to long-term storage, they are but the first step in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, shown below:

blooms taxonomy, explained below and in appendix

When examining Bloom’s taxonomy, it is easy to see how each step up the hierarchy involves increasingly greater depths of processing.

Understanding the limited value of shallow processing has also helped spawn a wide range of instructional approaches that move away from the shallow processing of rote learning to methods that encourage deep processing.

Examples of these approaches include: project-based learning, experiential learning, role-plays and simulations, and the general philosophy of student-centered learning.


Deep processing refers to elaborating on the meaning of a stimulus and thinking about how it relates to other stimuli in memory.

This is in contrast to shallow processing, which simply involves a kind of perceptual processing that is limited to the color or shape of a stimulus.

The concept of deep and shallow processing is part of a framework for understanding memory known as the levels of processing (LOP) model. According to the model, the deeper the level of processing, the longer and more strongly ingrained in memory the stimulus becomes.

LOP has had a substantial impact in educational practices. For instance, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives incorporates the idea that some learning outcomes only require a superficial level of understanding.

Higher up outcomes however, require students to have a much deeper grasp of concepts, even to the point of creating new theories or frameworks of understanding.

Teachers have changed their instructional approaches as well. Teacher understand that deep processing leads to deep learning. Examples of educational practices that require deep processing include project-based learning, role-plays and simulations.

Students not only retain information longer and have a more advanced understanding of educational concepts, but they also benefit from a more interesting and dynamic learning experience.


Craik, F.I.M., & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671–684.

Craik, F. I., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(3), 268.

Craik, F. I. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present… and future? Memory, 10(5-6), 305-318.

Ekuni, R., Vaz, L. J., & Bueno, O. F. A. (2011). Levels of processing: The evolution of a framework. Psychology & Neuroscience, 4, 333-339.

Lockhart, R. S., & Craik, F. I. M. (1990). Levels of processing: A retrospective commentary on a framework for memory research. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 44(1), 87-112.

Morris, C. D., Bransford, J. D., & Franks, J. J. (1977). Levels of processing versus transfer-appropriate processing. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16, 519-533.

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

Schott, B. H., Wüstenberg, T., Wimber, M., Fenker, D. B., Zierhut, K. C., Seidenbecher, C. I., … & Richardson‐Klavehn, A. (2013). The relationship between level of processing and hippocampal–cortical functional connectivity during episodic memory formation in humans. Human Brain Mapping, 34(2), 407-424.

Tulving, E., (1979). Relation between encoding specificity and levels of processing. In L. S. Cermak & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Levels of processing in human memory (pp. 405-428). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Petty, R.E. and Cacioppo, J.T. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123-205.

Sekerina, I. A., & Brooks, P. J. (2006). Pervasiveness of shallow processing. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27(1), 84-88.

Appendix: Bloom’s Taxonomy

Level (Shallow to Deep)DescriptionExamples
RememberRetain and recall informationReiterate, memorize, duplicate, repeat, identify
UnderstandGrasp the meaning of somethingExplain, paraphrase, report, describe, summarize
ApplyUse existing knowledge in new contextsPractice, calculate, implement, operate, use, illustrate
AnalyzeExplore relationships, causes, and connectionsCompare, contrast, categorize, organize, distinguish
EvaluateMake judgments based on sound analysisAssess, judge, defend, prioritize, critique, recommend
CreateUse existing information to make something newInvent, develop, design, compose, generate, construct
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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