Placing a Text in Context

Article excerpt

Can readers accurately retrieve information about the context in which text comprehension occurs? If so, does their memory for context vary with their level of comprehension? Participants studied ambiguous passages in a high-knowledge or low-knowledge condition. They were then asked to remember the spatial location of individual sentences, the color of a border surrounding the passage, or the color of a shirt worn by the experimenter. Recall protocols were collected after participants answered the context question. Knowledge about the topic of the text facilitated both contextual retrieval and recall. Moreover, contextual retrieval and recall were correlated, primarily in the high-knowledge condition. The results suggest that personal experiences accompanying comprehension are encoded in memory along with text meaning and have implications for theories of source monitoring.

I know the answer to this question. I read it in my text yesterday at the library. I can see the page in my mind.

The experience described above is a familiar one. It involves our ability to retrieve the content of a text and the context in which reading occurred (e.g., time, location). Memory for context is often studied using sourcememory paradigms. Participants are asked to assign a recognized item to a context corresponding to the item's origin in memory (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). For example, participants may be asked whether an item was presented in a particular spatial location, voice, or color. High rates of item memory are usually associated with high rates of context memory (Conway & Dewhurst, 1995; but see Hornstein & Mulligan, 2004).

The association between item memory and context memory is explained in an influential theory of episodic memory called the source monitoring framework (SMF) (Johnson et al., 1993). According to the SMF, an experience comprises many features: perceptual (e.g., color), spatial (e.g., location), semantic (e.g., category membership), and so on. These features can become bound during processing such that they make up a complex mental representation of an event. The extent of this binding determines the likelihood that one memory trace can be distinguished from another.

In most studies of source memory, the content of an item and the context in which it appears are part of the same perceptual event (Mitchell & Johnson, 2009). Consider, for example, an experiment in which participants are asked to remember a list of words in colored font. The content of the word (its meaning) and the color in which it appears (context) are processed simultaneously. If participants are successful in binding the word with its color, retrieval of one feature will facilitate retrieval of the other.

In this article, we ask whether memory for the content of a text is associated with memory for the context in which reading occurred. This question is theoretically interesting, because it highlights an aspect of the SMF that is underspecified. The framework makes straightforward predictions about the association of content and context when context is a feature of the item's presentation, as it is in most studies of source monitoring. Its predictions are less clear, however, when the context is not a feature of the item. For example, a reader might recall ideas from a text and recall that he or she read the text sitting in a blue chair. The blue chair is an aspect of the context, but it is not a feature of the item per se.

Most theories of reading comprehension explain memory for the individual ideas in a text as a by-product of memory for the text as a whole (Kintsch, 1988, 1998). Texts have an embedded structure, such that individual ideas are integrated to form events and events are integrated to form still larger events. Text ideas are well remembered when readers have integrated them into coherent event structures (Zwaan, Magliano, & Graesser, 1995). We ask whether the ability to integrate text ideas influences the reader's ability to retrieve contextual details about the reading episode when the text and the context can be processed simultaneously and when features of the context do not accompany presentation of the text. …