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Deep(er) processing

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Researchers distinguish between shallow and deep processing in learning. Shallow processing involves trying to remember material through rote memorization, repetition, rereading, and highlighting. These activities re-expose students to the material but lead to superficial learning; you remember bits and pieces of information but lack depth of understanding. Deep(er) processing involves trying to make sense of the material by:

  • connecting new information to what you already know
  • looking for patterns, themes, organizing principles
  • exploring the implications or consequences of the subject matter.

Deep processing activities are associated with better understanding and more durable learning. There are specific techniques such as self-explanation and elaborative interrogation, associated with deep processing. More generally, deep processing occurs when students do such things as:

  • translate new information into one’s own words
  • predict what will happen if . . .
  • create an example to illustrate a concept
  • explain concepts to a classmate
  • draw a diagram to represent an idea
  • apply concepts to a new problem
  • enact and reflect on a skill
  • think of an analogy

Deep processing is complex mental effort that involves manipulating information to achieve depth of understanding. Deeper processing should occur when teachers ask students to analyze and evaluate material, synthesize ideas, use evidence to support a point of view, interpret, explain the similarities and differences between two theories, predict the outcome of an experiment, and so forth. All of these entail complex thinking and deep processing. 


  1. Questions. Use question prompts to stimulate or orient students to deep processing such as, "Suppose ______ had been the case, would the outcome have been the same" (hypothetical); "Which of these are better. Why does it matter?" (Evaluative); "If _____ occurred, what would happen?" (Cause and effect); "What is a new example of _____?" (Example); "What is the difference between _____ and _____?" (Compare and contrast).

  2. Informal writing. Students write responses or reactions to questions in class. Depending on instructors’ goals, these low stakes, ungraded activities may involve complex thinking.

  3. Clicker questions. Pose thought-provoking questions that will generate different answers and ask students to resolve the differences.

  4. Peer instruction. Peer instruction (PI) involves in-class episodes in which the instructor poses a thought-provoking question or problem about the topic at hand and asks students to think of an answer or response. Students then vote for the best answer from among several presented by the instructor (using clickers). The instructor then asks students to talk to one another to compare answers, resolve differences and discrepancies in their answers. PI is a well developed approach that has gained significant attention in higher education. See more about PI under Resources below.

Tips to Implement Deep(er) Processing Effectively

  • Articulate a model for the type of thinking you want students to learn.  Students may be familiar with terms like analyze,evaluatecritique, and predict but may not know how to do the kind of thinking expected. Moreover, these terms have different meanings in different disciplines. Analyzing a poem and analyzing an economic theory are very different activities. Students are more likely to process deeply if the instructor clearly describes the type of thinking expected and provides examples or models of how to engage the material. To the extent possible, define and demonstrate the kind of thinking you want students to engage in.

  • Instructor feedback and guidance can facilitate deeper thinking. It may be impractical to give extensive individual feedback to students. However, instructors can give feedback to the whole class. If students work on a short exercise in class, collect answers and select a few to discuss and evaluate.


Cerbin, W. (2015). Deep(er) processing. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from