Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effects of Prior Knowledge and Text Structure on Comprehension Processes during Reading of Scientific Texts

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effects of Prior Knowledge and Text Structure on Comprehension Processes during Reading of Scientific Texts

Article excerpt

The aim of the present study was to investigate the effects of prior knowledge and text structure on cognitive processes during comprehension of scientific texts. To investigate the processes online, we used a think-aloud methodology in Experiment 1 and a reading time methodology in Experiment 2. In both experiments, we obtained offline comprehension measures and measures of individual differences in working memory and need for cognition. Across the two experiments, the results indicated that readers adjust their processing as a function of the interaction between prior knowledge and text structure. In particular, adjustments in the actual processes that take place during reading were observed for readers who had erroneous prior knowledge, but only when they read a text that was structured to explicitly refute this prior knowledge. Furthermore, the results showed that readers' memory for the text was affected by differences in their prior knowledge, independently of text structure. These findings contribute to our understanding of the relation between different factors that are associated with comprehension of scientific texts and have implications for theories of comprehension and conceptual change.

Many factors affect success or failure during comprehension of expository texts. Reader characteristics, text properties, and the instructional context in which reading takes place are just a few of them (Goldman & Bisanz, 2002; Jenkins, 1979; van den Brock, Fletcher, & Risden, 1993; van den Broek & Kremer, 1999). Although these factors have often been studied in isolation, it is their interactions and interdependencies that provide important information about naturalistic text comprehension (Rapp & van den Broek, 2005). In the present study, we focus on two factors: reader characteristics and text properties. The goal is to investigate the possible interactions between readers' prior knowledge and the structure of the text in the comprehension processes that occur during reading of scientific texts.

There is ample evidence that the quantity or amount of readers' prior knowledge influences comprehension of scientific texts (see, e.g., Chi, 1978; Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981). Indeed, mere is a well-documented advantage in comprehension of texts for readers with high knowledge on the topics described by the texts over readers with low knowledge (e.g., Bartlett, 1932; Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Dochy, Segers, & Buehl, 1999; Means & Voss, 1985; Recht & Leslie, 1988). In the present study, we focus on readers' quality of knowledge. Quality refers to the accuracy of one's knowledge and has been investigated mostly with respect to students' inaccurate ideas in science (Kendeou, Rapp, & van den Broek, 2004; Kendeou & van den Broek, 2005). Inaccurate ideas, or misconceptions, have been found to interfere with the acquisition of new, related knowledge from texts (Alvermann, Smith, & Readence, 1985; Diakidoy & Kendeou, 2001; Lipson, 1982; Maria & MacGinitie, 1987; Peeck, van den Bosch, & Kreupeling, 1982). The evidence for interference with learning comes from offline studies-that is, studies in which the end product of reading is assessed by tasks such as recall or question answering, but the presumption is that the interference occurs during the reading process itself. How the processes during reading are influenced by misconceptions has not been studied directly, however, and therefore the details of how misconceptions affect reading are not known.

A second factor that influences comprehension of information in scientific texts is the structure of the text. There are different ways for an author to organize the ideas in texts in general or in scientific texts in particular, resulting in different structures (Graesser, Leon, & Otero, 2002). Meyer and colleagues (Meyer, 1975,1999; Meyer & Freedle, 1984) demonstrated that readers' comprehension is influenced by the text structure used to convey the information. …

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