There are two main ways that we process and organize information: simultaneous and successive. Simultaneous and successive processing are ways in which the brain processes or organizes information. Generally, the stimuli we encounter are packaged in either a simultaneous array or in a particular serial order in which the exact order must be preserved. Stimuli that present in a simultaneous array may also be described as being presented in a spatial arrangement. In fact, visual, spatial and simultaneous are used more or less synonymously when applied to processing and ordering. As well, successive and sequential are used synonymously when used to describe ordered processing.
Simultaneous processing is the mental process we use to integrate separate bits of information or stimuli into a whole. Processing a person’s face, maps and graphs, having a good sense of direction, and being able to see how puzzle pieces fit together are examples of simultaneous processing.
Successive processing is what we use to linearly organize bits of information into a chainlike progression. The order of words in sentences, mathematical procedures, multi-step directions, a series of digits such as a phone number and musical notes in a tune are examples of stimuli that need to be processed successively.
While many of us may have a preference for one type of processing over the other, being better at one does not necessarily mean being poor at the other. Also, some people may be excellent at both types of organization, while others may have challenges with both.
Individual task demands often dictate a stronger need for either simultaneous or successive processing. For example, solving an algebra problem requires successive processing of specific steps, and an exact ordering of those steps. Reaching your hand into a bag and feeling the shape of an object such as an apple without looking at it and then naming the object uses simultaneous processing. The features of the apple – its shape, smoothness and firmness – are processed at the same time rather than in a sequence. Still other tasks may call on both simultaneous and successive processing, usually with one of the two taking a lead position.
An awareness of simultaneous and successive processing in designing instruction and interventions for students is very important because different types of information are learned more effectively using specific formats. In addition, some students are better at processing one type of information than the other, and will benefit from specific strategies to improve their weaker processing skills.
People with simultaneous processing and organization challenges may have trouble knowing left from right. They may be clumsy because they do not have a good sense of where they are in relation to the objects around them. Until they become very familiar with it, they may also have trouble finding their way around school or a shopping mall. They may have a poor sense of direction and get lost easily. They may have trouble understanding directions that use words like north, south, east, west, behind or in front of.
In school, a student with weak simultaneous processing and ordering skills may have trouble arranging his work on paper, such as lining up columns of numbers in math problems. The student may also have trouble understanding simultaneous concepts in math such as fractions, triangles and perimeter. They often have problems with geometry. It may be hard for students with simultaneous problems to understand maps, charts, graphs and diagrams. They may find geography challenging.
While a person might not have all of these problems, but he may have one or more of them. For example, a person may be a great athlete – he understands where his body is in relation to space (like Shaquille O’Neal) – but be terrible at reading charts and graphs, drawing or remembering what a word looks like when it is spelled right. A person may be a great artist, but he may get turned around or lost at the shopping mall.
Challenges with successive processing and ordering can show up in the early years of school. They may have difficulty learning how to tell time and sometimes mix up words such as yesterday and tomorrow or before and after. Memorizing things that come in order like the days of the week or months of the year may also present problems. Without a good understanding of time, a student may find it difficult to follow a schedule or finish work when it is due. It is not unusual for a student with poor successive skills to be late for class, miss appointments, and forget when long-term assignments are due.
Addition and multiplication facts in math are based on successive processing and ordering skills. Without good sequencing skills, a student may find it difficult to recognize and remember math facts. Later in math he may find it difficult to follow the steps for solving an equation in algebra or a proof in geometry. As a student with sequencing problems gets older, he may find it more and more difficult to arrange ideas or information in a logical order for papers and reports. His message is likely to get lost when his story has no particular order and bounces from one topic to another.
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