Shallow Processing: 18 Examples and Definition

deep processing vs shallow processing, explained below

Shallow processing refers to the cognitive processing of a stimulus that only engages lower-order thinking skills. Only superficial elements of the stimulus are attended to, with no elaboration or deeper analysis.

There are two types of shallow processing: structural and phonemic.

  • Structural processing involves encoding only the physical properties or visual aspects of a stimulus. For example, looking at a picture and only encoding the colors or shapes of the images in the picture. This has also been described as perceptual processing, in which the individual perceives the physical and sensory characteristics of the stimulus (Ekuni et al., 2011).
  • Phonemic processing involves processing the auditory characteristics of a text such as the sound of the individual phonemes. For example, determining if the word “tall” rhymes with “fall.” Shallow processing results in the stimulus quickly fading from working memory and does not result in a strong memory trace, or perhaps not memory trace at all.

Shallow Processing vs. Deep Processing

Whereas shallow processing is minimal and stays in working memory, deep processing entails greater elaboration and is stored in long-term memory.

Deep processing involves encoding the meaning of the word, otherwise known as semantic processing. For example, understanding the concept of “gravity.”

Elaborative processing is form of deep processing. This occurs when the stimulus is analyzed in terms of its meaning and associations with other semantic information.

It can involve the comparing and contrasting of meaning. It can also be a form of higher-order thinking that utilizes both working memory and other information stored in long term memory.

Information that is processed at a deep level is easier to retrieve. It has been more strongly stored in LTM and is therefore more accessible.

Case Study: Reading but not Comprehending
How many of us have read a paragraph, or maybe even an entire page, and then all of a sudden realized that we can’t remember a single word? This is because our mind is processing the words at a very perceptual level, while the majority of our conscious awareness is absorbed in a completely different task, such as daydreaming about the weekend.  

Shallow Processing Examples

  1. Repetition: Simply repeating information, like a phone number or a list of terms, without attempting to understand or relate to it.
  2. Copying: Copying text or notes word for word without comprehension or making connections to the content.
  3. Highlighting: Extensively highlighting text without critically thinking about what’s being highlighted and why.
  4. Physical Features: Focusing on the physical characteristics of text, such as font size, color, or layout, rather than the meaning of the words.
  5. Simple Recognition: Recognizing an item or piece of information without understanding its context or significance.
  6. Skimming: Quickly reading through a text without stopping to consider its meaning or relevance.
  7. Rote Memorization: Memorizing information by rote without understanding its context or relevance.
  8. Surface-Level Questions: Asking or answering questions that only require recall of simple facts, rather than deeper understanding.
  9. Fact Listing: Listing facts or figures without understanding their meaning or how they are connected.
  10. Word Association: Associating words or phrases based on sound or spelling, rather than their meanings or context.
  11. Flashcard Review: While flashcards can be useful for simple recall of facts or terms, using them without trying to understand the broader context or connections can be a form of shallow processing.
  12. Listening Without Engagement: Simply hearing a lecture or audio without actively attempting to comprehend or internalize the information.
  13. Reading Without Reflection: Reading a text without pausing to consider its meaning, or how it relates to what you already know.
  14. Note-Taking Without Comprehension: Writing down notes verbatim from a lecture or book without trying to understand the material or rephrase it in your own words.
  15. Physical Actions: Repeating a physical action (like a dance step or a piano key sequence) without understanding the larger routine or piece of music.
  16. Memorizing Definitions: Learning the definitions of words or terms without understanding their application or context.
  17. Alphabetizing: Sorting words or phrases alphabetically, which requires attention to letters but not to the meaning of the words.
  18. Rehearsing Timelines: Memorizing timelines of events without understanding the significance of those events or the causal relationships between them.

Origins of Shallow Processing Theory

The notion of shallow processing, and deep processing, were originally formulated in a research paper published in 1972 by Craik and Lockhart.

This paper introduced the levels of processing (LOP) model of memory.

Levels of processing theory postulates that the more meaning extracted from a stimulus, the more ingrained that stimulus will be embedded in memory.

Craik and Tulving (1975) provided direct empirical support for the model by presenting participants with 60 words and inducing varying depths of processing through different question types:

  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”).

After this encoding phase, participants were administered a recognition or recall test.

The results indicated that:

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

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 Shallow Processing 

1. In Advertising

Advertising professionals are experts in levels of processing and its effect on attitude formation, particularly as it relates to consumer preferences and behavior.

This is why some commercials are designed to persuade consumers not through the presentation of facts regarding product quality, but rather through shallow processing channels involving celebrity endorsements, status appeals, or sexuality.

In these scenarios, purchase decisions are a result of shallow processing based on emotions activated during the ad.

One theoretical framework that incorporates shallow and effortful processing of message appeals is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion, originally devised by Petty and Cacioppo (1986).

The ELM identifies two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral.

  • The central route to persuasion involves the message recipient engaging in a critical analysis of the message’s content, while the peripheral route involves very little cognitive processing. The central route results “…from a person’s careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented…” (p. 125).
  • The peripheral route to 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

A lot of educators are firmly against rote memorization. It represents a shallow level of processing that leads to very little real understanding of the targeted concepts.

In fact, the very lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives is an example of shallow processing: remembering.

blooms taxonomy, explained in the appendix

Remembering, the lowest level shown in the above taxonomy, could look like being able to recite a definition or various dates and facts. This is important, but students are capable of much more. As Bloom’s taxonomy identifies, there are several other educational objectives that require students to engage in substantially deeper and more meaningful processing.

Fortunately, recognizing the limited value of shallow processing has helped educators create a wide range of instructional approaches that encourage deep processing,

These approaches include: project-based learning, experiential learning, role-plays and simulations, and student-centered learning.


Shallow processing refers to thinking about a stimulus in terms of its perceptual properties, such as its size, shape, and color. Processing at this level is very minimal. This is in contrast to deep processing, which involves understanding the meaning of a stimulus in its full complexity.

Understanding these differences led to a framework of memory known as the levels of processing (LOP) model. The model stipulates that the deeper the level of processing, the longer and more strongly ingrained in memory the stimulus becomes.

LOP has implications in understanding how students can benefit from instructional approaches that require deep processing. Students not only retain information longer, but also have a more advanced understanding of educational concepts when engaged in deep processing.

LOP also fits with Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives which suggests that deeper processing leads to enhanced learning outcomes.

These two ideas have helped shape modern classroom practices and made education a more engaging experience for students and teachers alike.


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. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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