Many studies of learning have explored two contrasting approaches to processing information, described as top-down and bottom-up. Top-down processing occurs when a student attributes his/her own values, perspective, and personal experiences to information he/she confronts or creates. Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, sticks to the facts or information in a literal manner; the students adds little if anything to that which is present. There are times in school when one approach is better than the other.

Answering a multiple-choice question on a mathematics test, for example, usually requires a bottom-up approach to the information. However, conducting a scientific experiment, writing a short story, or creating a piece of artwork may require more imaginative thinking, thus may be better suited to a top-down approach.

Students with excessive bottom-up processing may reveal difficulty generating original ideas or relating new knowledge to personal experiences, such as when writing essays or during oral examinations. Such students may reveal less success during activities demanding creativity than those that rely on rote memory and attention to fine detail.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their ability to generate ideas through a focus on a top-down approach to processing information.

Helpful Hints

  • Create a safe environment in the classroom that is conducive to risk taking and promotes innovative thinking.  
  • Students with extreme bottom-up processing may need help generating ideas necessary for doing an assignment, such as prompting for selecting a topic, getting started in a brainstorm, deriving the inferences needed to comprehend a passage or problem, etc. Providing a few cues or prompts may give such students the initial support, or scaffolding, they need to succeed in the assignment. For example:
    • Provide the first sentence of a paragraph.
    • Start one or more math problems.
    • Read the first paragraph of text.
    • Have cue cards handy, for example listing the steps of writing a paragraph, etc.  
  • Provide opportunities for students to be active processors and producers of information. For example:
    • Have students restate learned information in another modality, e.g., verbally summarize what was read, draw a semantic map of what was heard, etc.
    • Utilize students’ areas of interest and affinities. They can become “experts” in a field and share that knowledge with the class. Challenge them to find ways to actively involve other students in an affinity related activity.
    • Encourage the recognition of patterns in content areas. In science, examine laws of nature. In math, identify patterns in word problems. In social situations, examine rules of behavior, etc.  
  • Adjusting the amount of information that a student must produce at one time may enhance his/her ability to produce quality work.  
  • Use collaborative activities on longer projects in which students can assume a specific role within the team while benefiting from the contributions of others.  
  • Provide options for assignments and projects in order to promote creativity. For example, a project on space exploration may result in a written report, an oral presentation, the building of a model, or a demonstration.