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Novices' problems with scientific text

This is the last part in my series on understanding scientific text. In this part, as promised, I am going to talk about the difficulties novices have with scientific texts; what they or their teachers can do about it; and the problems with introductory textbooks.

The big problem for novices is of course that their lack of knowledge doesn’t allow them to make the inferences they need to repair the coherence gaps typically found in such texts. This obviously makes it difficult to construct an adequate situation model. Remember, too, that to achieve integration of two bits of information, you need to have both bits active in working memory at the same time. This, clearly, is more difficult for those for whom all the information is unfamiliar (remember what I said about long-term working memory last month).

But it’s not only a matter a matter of having knowledge of the topic itself. A good reader can compensate for their lack of relevant topic knowledge using their knowledge about the structure of the text genre. For this, the reader needs not only to have knowledge of the various kinds of expository structures, but also of the cues in the text that indicate what type of structure it is. (see my article on Reading scientific text for more on this).

One of the most effective ways of bringing different bits of information together is through the asking of appropriate questions. Searching a text in order to answer questions, for example, is an effective means of improving learning. Answering questions is also an effective means of improving comprehension monitoring (remember that one of the big problems with reading scientific texts is that students tend to be poor at judging how well they have understood what was said).

One of the reasons why children typically have pronounced deficits in their comprehension monitoring skills when dealing with expository texts, is that they have little awareness that expository texts require different explanations than narrative texts. However, these are trainable skills. One study, for example, found that children aged 10-12 could be successfully taught to use “memory questions” and “thinking questions” while studying expository texts.

Moreover, the 1994 study found that when the students were trained to ask questions intended to access prior knowledge/experience and promote connections between the lesson and that knowledge, as well as questions designed to promote connections among the ideas in the lesson, their learning and understanding was better than if they were trained only in questions aimed at promoting connections between the lesson ideas only (or if they weren’t trained in asking questions at all!). In other words, making explicit connections to existing knowledge is really important! You shouldn’t just be content to consider a topic in isolation; it needs to be fitted into your existing framework.

College students, too, demonstrate limited comprehension monitoring, with little of their self-questioning going deeply into the material. So it may be helpful to note Baker’s 7 comprehension aspects that require monitoring:

  1. Your understanding of the individual words
  2. Your understanding of the syntax of groups of words
  3. External consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the knowledge you already have
  4. Internal consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the other information in the text
  5. Propositional cohesiveness — making the connections between adjacent propositions
  6. Structural cohesiveness —integrating all the propositions pertaining to the main theme
  7. Information completeness — how clear and complete the information in the text is

Think of this as a checklist, for analyzing your (or your students’) understanding of the text.

But questions are not always the answer. The problem for undergraduates is that although introductory texts are presumably designed for novices, the students often have to deal not only with unfamiliar content, but also an approach that is unfamiliar. Such a situation may not be the best context for effective familiar strategies such as self-explanation.

It may be that self-explanation is best for texts that in the middle-range for the reader — neither having too little relevant knowledge, or too much.

Introductory texts also are likely to provide only partial explanations of concepts, a problem made worse by the fact that the novice student is unlikely to realize the extent of the incompleteness. Introductory texts also suffer from diffuse goals, an uneasy mix of establishing a basic grounding for more advanced study, and providing the material necessary to pass immediate exams.

A study of scientific text processing by university students in a natural situation found that the students didn’t show any deep processing, but rather two kinds of shallow processing, produced by either using their (limited knowledge of) expository structures, or by representing the information in the text more precisely.

So should beginning students be told to study texts more deeply? The researchers of this study didn’t think so. Because introductory texts suffer from these problems I’ve mentioned, in particular that of incomplete explanations, they don’t lend themselves to deep processing. The researchers suggest that what introductory texts are good for is in providing the extensive practice needed for building up knowledge of expository structures (and hopefully some necessary background knowledge of the topic! Especially technical language).

To that end, they suggest students should be advised to perform a variety of activities on the text that will help them develop their awareness of the balance between schema and textbase, with the aim of developing a large repertory of general and domain-specific schemata. Such activities / strategies include taking notes, rereading, using advance organizers, and generating study questions. This will all help with their later construction of good mental models, which are so crucial for proper understanding.

References: 

  • Baker, L. 1985. Differences in the standards used by college students to evaluate their comprehension of expository prose. Reading Research Quarterly, 20 (3), 297-313.
  • Elshout-Mohr, M. & van Daalen-Kapteijns, M. 2002. Situated regulation of scientific text processing. In Otero, J., León, J.A. & Graesser, A.C. (eds). The psychology of science text comprehension. Pp 223-252. Mahwah, NJ: LEA.
  • King, A. 1994. Guiding Knowledge Construction in the Classroom: Effects of Teaching Children How to Question and How to Explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31 (2), 338-368.

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The Mozart Effect

The more hyped and less plausible passive Mozart Effect

The so-called "Mozart effect" refers to two quite different phenomena. The one that has received the most media play concerns the almost magical (and mythical) effect of Mozart's music on intelligence. It is the result of a misrepresentation of the research results. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's 1993 study found that 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily enhanced performance on three spatial reasoning tasks.

The source of the misunderstanding lay in the fact that spatial reasoning is a component of IQ tests, and the researchers reported an increase of some 8 or 9 points in students' IQ scores after listening to the music. The effect lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.

Even in this limited sense, the effect has not been consistently replicated - indeed, it would be fair to say it has more usually failed to be replicated. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies that have investigated this effect has found that any cognitive improvement "is small and does not reflect any change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, but instead derives entirely from performance on one specific type of cognitive task and has a simple neuropsychological explanation"1.

There does seem to be a case that particular types of music can have an effect on brainwaves - there has been some interesting work done on its possible therapeutic role in reducing epileptic seizures - but the main effect of music seems to be through its effect on arousal.

Most of the research done into the Mozart Effect has continued the example of the original researchers by comparing the effect of listening to Mozart's music with listening to silence or to a relaxation tape. Obviously enough, these various situations would be expected to differentially affect mood and level of arousal (which are known to have a, small and unreliable, effect on cognition). There is evidence that when this effect is controlled for, the Mozart effect (which we may note is also small and unreliable) disappears.

The more plausible active Mozart effect

There is however another Mozart effect that promises to be more useful. This is the possibility that formal training in music yields nonmusical benefits. Once again, the media are keen to hypothesize that this effect is on IQ (what is the media's obsession with IQ?). There does however seem to be growing evidence that musical training benefits other faculties - specifically, verbal memory.

More articles on the Mozart Effect

http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/music.html#mem

http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/mozarteffect2.shtml

http://www.theguardian.com/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,871350,00.html

BBC radio programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/mozarteffect.shtml

about the effect of music training from one of the original "Mozart effect" researchers:

http://www.menc.org/publication/articles/academic/rauscher.htm

References: 

  • Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L, & Ky, K.N. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Schellenberg, E.G. 2001. Music and nonmusical abilities. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 930, 355-71.

Studies that have failed to confirm this finding

  • Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • McCutcheon,L.E. 2000. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychological Reports, 87, 325-30.
  • Newman,J., Rosenbach,J.H., Burns,K.L., Latimer,B.C., Matocha,H.R. & Vogt,E.R. 1995. An experimental test of "the mozart effect": does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 81, 1379-87.
  • Steele, K.M., Bella, S.D., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L.A., Humphrey, G.K., Shannon, R.A., Kirby Jr., J.L. & Olmstead, C.G. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • Steele, K.M., Brown,J.D., Stoecker,J.A. 1999. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 88, 843-8.

Failure to extend finding:

  • Bridgett,D.J. & Cuevas,J. 2000. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 90, 1171-5.
  • Steele,K.M., Ball,T.N. & Runk,R. 1997. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 84, 1179-84.

Success in replicating effect:

  • Rideout,B.E., Dougherty,S. & Wernert,L. 1998. Effect of music on spatial performance: a test of generality. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 86, 512-4.
  • Rideout,B.E. & Taylor,J. 1997. Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music: a replication. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 85, 112-4.

Effect accounted by arousal:

  • Steele,K.M. 2000. Arousal and mood factors in the "Mozart effect". Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 188-90.
  • Thompson,W.F., Schellenberg,E.G. & Husain,G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-51.

1. Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.

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Understanding scientific text

In the last part I talked about retrieval structures and their role in understanding what you’re reading. As promised, this month I’m going to focus on understanding scientific text in particular, and how it differs from narrative text.

First of all, a reminder about situation models. A situation, or mental, model is a retrieval structure you construct from a text, integrating the information in the text with your existing knowledge. Your understanding of a text depends on its coherence; it’s generally agreed that for a text to be coherent it must be possible for a single situation model to be constructed from it (which is not to say a text that is coherent is necessarily coherent for you —that will depend on whether or not you can construct a single mental model from it).

There are important differences in the situation models constructed for narrative and expository text. A situation model for a narrative is likely to refer to the characters in it and their emotional states, the setting, the action and sequence of events. A situation model for a scientific text, on the other hand, is likely to concentrate on the components of a system and their relationships, the events and processes that occur during the working of the system, and the uses of the system.

Moreover, scientific discourse is rooted in an understanding of cause-and-effect that differs from our everyday understanding. Our everyday understanding, which is reflected in narrative text, sees cause-and-effect in terms of goal structures. This is indeed the root of our superstitious behavior — we (not necessarily consciously) attribute purposefulness to almost everything! But this approach is something we have to learn not to apply to scientific problems (and it requires a lot of learning!).

This is worth emphasizing: science texts assume a different way of explaining events from the way we are accustomed to use — a way that must be learned.

In general, then, narrative text (and ‘ordinary’ thinking) is associated with goal structures, and scientific text with logical structures. However, it’s not quite as clear-cut a distinction as all that. While the physical sciences certainly focus on logical structure, both the biological sciences and technology often use goal structures to frame their discussions. Nevertheless, as a generalization we may say that logical thinking informs experts in these areas, while goal structures are what novices focus on.

This is consistent with another intriguing finding. In a comparison of two types of text —ones discussing human technology, and ones discussing forces of nature — it was found that technological texts were more easily processed and remembered. Indications were that different situation models were constructed — a goal-oriented representation for the technological text, and a causal chain representation for the force of nature text. The evidence also suggested that people found it much easier to make inferences (whether about agents or objects) when human agents were involved. Having objects as the grammatical subject was clearly more difficult to process.

Construction of the situation model is thus not solely determined by comprehension difficulty (which was the same for both types of text), but is also affected by genre and surface characteristics of the text.

There are several reasons why goal-oriented, human-focused discourse might be more easily processed (understood; remembered) than texts describing inanimate objects linked in a cause-effect chain, and they come down to the degree of similarity to narrative. As a rule of thumb, we may say that to the degree that scientific text resembles a story, the more easily it will be processed.

Whether that is solely a function of familiarity, or reflects something deeper, is still a matter of debate.

Inference making is crucial to comprehension and the construction of a situation, because a text never explains every single word and detail, every logical or causal connection. In the same way that narrative and expository text have different situation models, they also involve a different pattern of inference making. For example, narratives involve a lot of predictive inferences; expository texts typically involve a lot of backward inferences. The number of inferences required may also vary.

One study found that readers made nine times as many inferences in stories as they did in expository texts. This may be because there are more inferences required in narratives — narratives involve the richly complex world of human beings, as opposed to some rigidly specified aspect of it, described according to a strict protocol. But it may also reflect the fact that readers don’t make all (or indeed, anywhere near) the inferences needed in expository text. And indeed, the evidence indicates that students are poor at noticing coherence gaps (which require inferences).

In particular, readers frequently don’t notice that something they’re reading is inconsistent with something they already believe. Moreover, because of the limitations of working memory, only some of the text can be evaluated for coherence at one time (clearly, the greater the expertise in the topic, the more information that can be evaluated at one time — see the previous newsletter’s discussion of long-term working memory). Less skilled (and younger) readers in particular have trouble noticing inconsistencies within the text if they’re not very close to each other.

Let’s return for a moment to this idea of coherence gaps. Such gaps, it’s been theorized, stimulate readers to seek out the necessary connections and inferences. But clearly there’s a particular level that is effective for readers, if they often miss them. This relates to a counter-intuitive finding — that it’s not necessarily always good for the reader if the text is highly coherent. It appears that when the student has high knowledge, and when the task involves deep comprehension, then low coherence is actually better. It seems likely that knowledgeable students reading a highly coherent text will have an “illusion of competence” that keeps them from processing the text properly. This implies that there will be an optimal level of coherence gaps in a text, and this will vary depending on the skills and knowledge base of the reader.

Moreover, the comprehension strategy generally used with simple narratives focuses on referential and causal coherence, but lengthy scientific texts are likely to demand more elaborate strategies. Such strategies are often a problem for novices because they require more knowledge than can be contained in their working memory. Making notes (perhaps in the form of a concept map) while reading can help with this.

Next month I’ll continue this discussion, with more about the difficulties novices have with scientific texts and what they or their teachers can do about it, and the problems with introductory textbooks. In the meantime, the take-home message from this is:

Understanding scientific text is a skill that must be learned;

Scientific text is easier to understand the more closely it resembles narrative text, with a focus on goals and human agents;

How well the text is understood depends on the amount and extent of the coherence gaps in the text relative to the skills and domain knowledge of the reader.

References: 

Otero, J., León, J.A. & Graesser, A.C. (eds). 2002. The psychology of science text comprehension.

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Speed Reading

  • Speed-reading courses generally make extravagant claims that no independent research has justified.
  • However, speed-reading courses can improve your reading skills.
  • Speed-reading courses principally improve reading by teaching you how to efficiently skim.

Speed-reading techniques

Like many memory improvement courses, speed-reading programs tend to make inflated claims. Also like memory programs, most speed-reading programs proffer the same advice. In essence, speed-reading techniques involve the following components:

  • learning to see more in a single eye fixation
  • eliminating subvocalization ("saying" the words in your head as you read them)
  • using your index finger as a visual guide down the page
  • active reading

How reading works

The first thing you need to understand about reading is that it proceeds in jerks. Though we might think our eyes are traveling smoothly along the lines, this is an illusion. What happens is that the eyes gaze steadily for around 240 milliseconds (for a college student; less practiced readers take longer) and then jerk along (during which nothing is registered), then stop again. We "read" during the eye fixations.

Now the duration of these fixations is not hugely different between readers of different abilities - a first-grade child takes about 330 ms, which is not a vast difference when you consider the chasm between a first-grade reader and an educated adult. What does change significantly is the number of fixations. Thus, to read a 100-word passage, our first-grade reader takes some 183 fixations, while our college reader takes only 75. From this, it is calculated that the first-grade reader is taking in 0.55 of a word in each fixation (100/183), while the college reader is grasping 1.33 words in each fixation (100/75). And from this, the reading rate is calculated. [These figures are of course only indicative - different types of reading matter will obviously produce different figures; the degree to which comprehension is emphasized also makes a difference].

This is not, of course, the whole story. We also can pick up some information about letters on either side of the fixation point - about 10 to 11 letter positions right of the fixation point (or left, if you're reading in a script that goes from right to left) for specific letter information, and about 15 positions for information about word length.

It is these facts that set bounds on how fast a person can read. It has been calculated that, even being very generous with the figures (reducing the duration of fixation to 200 ms; using the upper limit of how many letters we can see at one time), the upper limit for reading speed would be about 900 wpm.

How speed-reading works

This, then, is one of the things speed-reading programs aim to tackle - to increase the span of letters you can see in one fixation, and to alter the number of fixations. It is not, however, clear that (a) you can in fact train people to increase this span, or (b) it would be useful to do so.

What research does show, is that speed readers, while they don't change the length of their fixations, do significantly differ from normal readers in the pattern of their jumps. One researcher concluded from the pattern of eye movements, that speed-readers are in fact skimming.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with skimming. Indeed, it is an extremely valuable skill, and if you wish to improve your skill at skimming, then it may well be worthwhile for you to use a speed-reading program to do so. On the other hand, there is no particular evidence that such programs do anything more than modestly improve your skimming skills.

Testing speed-reading skills

One study compared expert speed-readers against other groups of superior readers. While the speed-readers were fastest (444 words per minute - a respectable speed (250 wpm is average) but nowhere near the claims made by many of these programs), their comprehension was relatively low (71%). [1]

Interestingly, the speed-readers' speed was about twice that when they knew their speed was being tested but their comprehension would not be. In other words, like the rest of us, they slowed down markedly when they wanted to understand what they were reading (and what otherwise is the point of reading something?)

Well, actually, there is one circumstance when you read and do not look to understand or retain what you read - which brings us back to skimming.

So, how did our speed-readers compare on skimming skills? Two tasks were used to assess these:

  • to pick the best title to passages presented at rates of 7500, 1500 and 300 wpm
  • to write summaries of 6000-word passages presented at 24000, 6000, 1500 and 375 wpm

The speed readers were in fact no better than the other groups at picking titles, and though they were best at writing summaries when the passages were presented at 1500 wpm, they were no better than the others at the other rates of presentation. In an extra test of recall of important details, the speed readers in fact did worst.

Reading for understanding

Please don't mistake me, I am not condemning speed-reading - merely their often extravagant claims. Learning to skim (if you have not developed this skill on your own, and many have) is clearly worthwhile. Learning not to subvocalize - yes, I think there's value in that too. I cannot speak to any research, but I know from my own experience that when I am reading slowly, either because the material demands the effort or because I wish to make the book last longer, I make myself 'hear' the words in my head. Subvocalization does slow you down - if you wish to read faster that you can speak, you need to discard the habit.

And lastly, active reading. Well, that deserves a whole chapter of its own. So for now, for those who don't know what it means, I shall simply define it. Active reading is about thinking when you read. It is about asking yourself (and the book) questions. It is about anticipating what is going to be said, and relating what you read to what you already know, and making inferences about what you've read. Active reading is about understanding, and thus it is an essential part of reading to remember.

So that too, is a very useful skill.

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 newsletter.

References: 

  • Underwood, G. & Batt, V. 1996. Reading and understanding. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Crowder, R.G. & Wagner, R.K. 1992. The Psychology of Reading. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
  1. Carver, R.P. 1985. How good are some of the world's best readers? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 389-419.

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Notetaking examples

What makes good notes?

To know this, we need to know what note-taking is really about.

Most people think its about recording information, and certainly that is part of its function — but the main value of note-taking as a strategy for remembering information lies elsewhere:

Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful.

Here are some notes on the water cycle:

Hydrological (water) cycle

Precipitation & flow: “whether they are typhoons or Scotch mists, mountain torrents or field ditches or city sewers, they are simply water sinking back to base level, the sea.”

Evaporation = the act of passively presenting water to the atmosphere to be soaked up + vaporized by the sun’s energy.

Transpiration= evaporation thru plants

plant draws water from grd thru roots up to open-pored vessels in leaves, from which it is vaporized.

Condensation: as warm air rises it cools -7C every 1000m until it can’t hold it’s cargo of water vapor any longer condenses into clouds, which cool further, condensing further into rain drops.

warm front: when warm air advances on cold it rises over it.

cold front: when cold air advances on warm + forces it to rise.

In this example, the notes are neat and tidy, with headings and indentations showing a degree of organization. Terms are defined. The notes appear to encapsulate the main ideas. A few abbreviations are used. So far so good — these are all widely cited recommendations for effective note-taking.

Here's a different approach.

(If you click on the links at the bottom, you'll be able to see better images.)

This one’s a picture. What is called in the trade a multimedia summary: a concise summary combining words and pictures. This has an advantage over the first example in that we can actually see the cycle, we can see the connection between the elements of the water cycle.

In the first example (a topical summary), we had the main points, but it didn’t go beyond the information presented in the text. Similarly, the above example (a multimedia summary), shows more connection but less detail, but also doesn’t go beyond the points given.

Now look at this one

There’s no more detail in this one, but it not only connects the ideas, it has taken the information another step. To the principle beneath the connection. To a higher level of abstraction.

You may think of summarizing strategies in terms of a matrix weighing amount of detail against degree of abstraction:

 

 

Degree of Abstraction / “Depth”

 

 

High

Low

Amount of

High

Best

Poor

Detail

Low

Rather vacuous

Really bad

The best type of summary is one that combines a high degree of abstraction with a high amount of detail. Our third water cycle example has a high level of abstraction but little detail — rather vacuous.

This one has the details. It also has a mnemonic, to help prompt my memory for the elements of the cycle and remember their order. This information could equally well have been presented in a linear format.

Together, these two examples combine detail and abstraction to form an effective summary.

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Context & the conditionalization of knowledge

Context is absolutely critical to successful communication. Think of the common experience of being a stranger at a family gathering or a meeting of close friends. Even familiar words and phrases may take on a different or additional meaning, among people who have a shared history. Many jokes and comments will be completely unintelligible, though you all speak the same language.

American anthropologist Edward Hall makes a useful distinction between ‘High context’ and ‘Low context’ communications. Your family gathering would be an example of a high context situation. In this setting, much of the meaning is carried in the speakers, their relationships, their knowledge of each other. In a low context situation, on the other hand, most of the meaning is carried in the actual words.

Part of the problem with email, as we all recognize, is that the context is so lacking, and the burden lies so heavily on the words themselves.

The importance of context for comprehension has, of course, profound implications for learning and memory.

I was reminded of this just the other day. I’m a fan of a TV program called NCIS. I only discovered it, however, at the beginning of the third season. After I’d watched it for some weeks, I purchased the DVDs of the earlier seasons. Most recently, I bought the DVD of season 3, which I had, of course, seen on TV. Watching the first episode of that season, which was the first episode of NCIS I ever saw, I was surprised to hear a line which I had no memory of, that was freighted with significance and led me to a much deeper understanding of the relationship between two of the characters — but which had meant absolutely nothing to me when I originally saw it, ignorant as I was of any of the characters and the back story.

The revelation meant nothing to me as a novice to the program, and so I didn’t remember it, but it meant everything to me as (dare I say it?) an expert.

Context is such a slippery word; so hard to define and pin down. But I think it’s fair to say that the difference between the novice and the expert rests on this concept. When an expert is confronted with a piece of information from her area of expertise, she knows what it means and where it belongs — even if the information is new to her. Because of this, she can acquire new information much more easily than a novice. But this advantage applies only in the expert’s area of expertise.

To take another example from the frivolous world of popular culture, a British study of fans of the long-running radio soap opera The Archers were given one of two imaginary scripts to read. One story was representative of the normal events in The Archers (a visit to a livestock market); the other was atypical (a visit to a boat show). These experts were able to remember many more details of the typical, market story than a group of subjects who knew little about the soap opera, but were no better at remembering details for the atypical story. Most importantly, this occurred even though the two stories shared many parallel features and most of the questions (and answers) used to assess their memory were the same. This indicates the specificity of expert knowledge.

Part of the advantage experts have is thought to rest on the ‘conditionalization’ of knowledge. That is, experts’ knowledge includes a specification of the contexts in which it is relevant.

It is surprising to many, this idea that it is not necessarily a lack of knowledge that is the problem — that people often have relevant knowledge and don’t apply it. In reading, for example, readers often don’t make inferences that they are perfectly capable of making, on the knowledge they have, unless the inferences are absolutely demanded to make sense of the text.

Another example comes from the making of analogies. I discuss this in my workbook on taking notes. Here’s a brief extract:

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Rutherford’s comparison of the atom to the solar system gave us a means to understand the atom. The story goes that Newton ‘discovered’ gravity when an apple fell on his head — because of the comparison he made, realizing that the motion of an apple falling from a tree was in some sense like the motion of the planets. These are comparisons called analogies, and analogy has been shown to be a powerful tool for learning.

But the problem with analogies is that we have trouble coming up with them.

Generally, when we make analogies, we use an example we know well to help us understand something we don’t understand very well. This means that we need to retrieve from memory an appropriate example. But this is clearly a difficult task; people frequently fail to make appropriate connections — even, surprisingly, when an appropriate connection has recently come their way. In a study where people were given a problem to solve after reading a story in which an analogous problem was solved, 80% didn’t think of using the story to solve the problem until the analogy was pointed out to them.

It’s thought that retrieving an appropriate analogy is so difficult because of the way we file information in memory. Certainly similarity is an important attribute in our filed memories, but it’s not the same sort of similarity that governs analogies. The similarity that helps us retrieve memories is a surface similarity — a similarity of features and context. But analogies run on a deeper similarity — a similarity of structure, of relations between objects. This will only be encoded if you have multiple examples (at least more than one) and make an explicit effort to note such relations.

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The conditionalization of knowledge is of course related to the problem of transfer. Transfer refers to the ability to extend (transfer) learning from one situation to another (read more about it here) . Transfer is frequently used as a measure of successful learning. It’s all very well to know that 399-(399*0.1) = 359.1, but how far can you be said to understand it — how much use is it — if you can’t work out how much a $3.99 item will cost you if you have a 10% discount? (In fact, the asymmetry generally works the other way: many people are skilled at working out such purchase calculations, but fall apart when the problem is transferred to a purely numerical problem).

Transfer is affected by the context in which the information was originally acquired — obviously transfer is particularly problematic if you learn the material in a single context — and this is partly where the experts achieve their conditionalization: because, spending so much time with their subject they are more likely to come across the same information in a variety of contexts. But the more important source is probably the level of abstraction at which experts can operate (see my article on transfer for examples of how transfer is facilitated if the information is framed at a higher level of abstraction).

In those with existing expertise, an abstract framework is already in place. When an expert is confronted by new information, they automatically try and fit it into their existing framework. Whether it is consistent or inconsistent with what is already known doesn’t really matter — either way it will be more memorable than information that makes no deep or important connections to familiar material.

Let’s return to this idea of high and low context. Hall was talking about communications, in the context of different cultures (interestingly, he found cultures varied in the degree to which they were context-bound), but the basic concept is a useful one in other contexts. It is helpful to consider, when approaching a topic, either as student or teacher, the degree to which understanding requires implicit knowledge. A high context topic might be thought of as one that assumes a lot of prior knowledge, that assumes a knowledge of deeper structure, that is difficult to explain in words alone. A low context topic might be thought of as one that can be clearly and simply expressed, that can largely stand alone. Learning the basics of a language — how to conjugate a verb; some simple words and phrases — might be thought of as a low context topic, although clearly mastery of a language requires the complex and diverse building up of experiences that signifies a high context topic (and also clearly, some languages will be more ‘high context’ than others).

There is nothing particularly profound about this distinction, but an awareness of the ‘contextual degree’ of a topic or situation, is helpful for students, teachers, and anyone involved in trying to communicate with another human being (or indeed, computer!). It’s also helpful to be aware that high context situations require much more expertise than low context ones.

This article first appeared as "Context, communication & learning" in the Memory Key Newsletter for April 2007

References: 

Reeve, D.K. & Aggleton, J.P. 1998. On the specificity of expert knowledge about a soap opera: an everyday story of farming folk. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12 (1), 35-42.

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Asking better questions

Questions — especially why questions — help us make connections to existing anchor points — facts we know well. But some questions are better than others.

To decide whether a question is effective, ask:

  • does it make the information more meaningful?
  • does it make the information more comprehensible?
  • does it increase the number of meaningful connections?

Consider our facts about blood:

  • arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood that is rich in oxygen from the heart.
  • veins are thinner, less elastic, and carry blood rich in carbon dioxide back to the heart.

We could, as is often advised, simply turn these into why questions. And we can answer these on the basis of the connections we’ve already made:

Why are arteries elastic?

Because they need to accommodate changes in pressure

Why are arteries thick?

Because they need to accommodate high pressure

Why do arteries carry blood away from the heart?

Because blood coming from the heart comes out at high pressure and in spurts of variable pressure

Why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen?

Because the blood coming from the heart is rich in oxygen

Why are veins less elastic?

Because the blood flows continuously and evenly

Why are veins less thick?

Because the blood flows at a lower pressure

Why do veins carry blood to the heart?

Because blood going to the heart flows continuously and evenly

Why do veins carry blood that is rich in CO2?

Because the blood going to the heart is rich in CO2

What’s missing? Connections between these facts. The facts have become more meaningful, but to be really understood you need to make the connections between the facts explicit.

Look again at our original questions. See how they relate the facts to each other? They don’t ask: why are arteries elastic? They ask: Why do arteries need to be more elastic than veins? They don’t ask: why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen? They ask: why do vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be rich in oxygen?

By answering these questions, we have built up an understanding of the facts that ties them together in a multi-connected cluster:

pictorial representation of this information

For simplicity, I’ve just focused on the arteries. See how the four facts about arteries are connected together. Meaningfully connected. In a perfect world we’d be able to close the circle with a direct connection between the facts “Arteries carry blood rich in oxygen” and “Arteries are thick”, but as far as I know, the only connection between them is indirect, through the fact that “Arteries carry blood from the heart”.

So … the world isn’t perfect, and information doesn’t come in neatly wrapped bundles where every fact connects directly to every other fact. But the more connections you can make between related facts — the stronger a cluster you can make — the more deeply you will understand the information, and the more accessible it will be. That is, you will remember it more easily and for longer.

If it’s well enough connected

If it’s connected to strong anchor points

You will simply 'know' it.

You’re never going to forget that you breathe in oxygen and that your heart pumps out blood. These are strong anchor points. If the facts about arteries are strongly connected to these anchor points, you will never forget them either.

Asking questions is one of the best ways of making connections,

but

Bad questions can be worse than no questions at all.

Rote questions that direct your attention to unimportant details are better not asked.

Effective questions prepare you to pay attention to the important details in the text.

The best questions not only direct your attention appropriately, but also require you to integrate the details in the text. Ask yourself:

  • Is this helping me to select the important information?
  • Is it helping me make connections?

When the subject is new to you

When you don’t have enough prior knowledge about a subject to ask effective questions, you are better off forming connections using mnemonics — either through verbal elaboration, as in our sentence about “Art (ery) being thick around the middle so he wore trousers with an elastic waistband” or by creating interactive images.

However, mnemonics such as these — while perfectly effective — are only good for rote learning. Sometimes that’s all you want, of course. But if you’re going to be learning more information that relates to these facts, then you’re making a rod for your own back.

When you learn something by rote, it never gets easier. When you learn by building connections, every new fact is acquired more easily. And it’s progressive. An expert on a subject can hear a new fact in her area of expertise, and it’s there. Remembered. Without effort. Because she’s an expert. And what makes her an expert? Simply the fact that she’s built up a network of information that is so tightly connected, and that has so many strong anchor points, that the information is always retrievable.

Why questions, like any questions, are only effective to the extent that they direct attention to appropriate information.

Research confirms that it is better to search for consistent relations than inconsistent ones. In many cases your background knowledge may include information that is consistent with the new information, and information that is inconsistent.

By asking “Why is this true?” you focus on the consistent information.

 

References: 

  • Woloshyn, V.E., Willoughby, T., Wood, E., & Pressley, M. 1990. Elaborative interrogation facilitates adult learning of factual paragraphs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 513-524.
  • Pressley, M. & El-Dinary, P.B. 1992. Memory strategy instruction that promotes good information processing. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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Retrieval practice & the keyword mnemonic

Retrieval practice, as its name suggests, is a simple strategy that involves retrieving the target information one or more times prior to testing. It is not the same as repetition or rehearsal! The idea is not to simply repeat the correct information, but to try and retrieve it. Feedback as to the correct answer may or may not follow.

The keyword mnemonic is the most studied mnemonic strategy, and of proven effectiveness in learning vocabulary, most particularly when measured against rote repetition or “use your own methods”, but also when compared with the popular context method (students experience the word to be learned in several different meaningful contexts; they may or may not have to guess the meaning from the context). It has also effectively been used to learn artists’ styles, taxonomic information, attribute information, and the main points in text passages.

Results from using the keyword method have been quite dramatic. For example, in a classic study from the researchers that developed this strategy (Atkinson & Raugh 1975), over a third of the 120 words were remembered more than 80% of the time in the keyword condition, compared to only one item in the control condition (glaz for eye — a mnemonic link so obvious I am sure most of the control participants used it). Moreover, only seven words were remembered less than half the time in the keyword condition, compared to 70 in the control (“use your own method”) condition! Overall, the keyword group recalled 72% of the words when they were tested on the day following the three study days (40 words were studied each day), compared to 46% by the control group. When they were (without warning) tested again six weeks later, the keyword group remembered 43% compared to the control group’s 28%.

As you see, the benefits of the method are quite clear.

Which demonstrates how impressive it is that in a study that compared the two, retrieval practice resulted in the same, and in some cases, better performance than the keyword method.

In this 2007 study1, two lab experiments involving university students compared the learning of German words using either the keyword mnemonic, retrieval practice, or rote repetition, and found no difference in performance between the two experimental groups, and both significantly better than rote repetition. This was followed by an experiment involving 56 secondary school pupils, comparing the learning of German words learned in four different ways (that is, all the pupils were given the same instruction; groups of words were presented in different ways).

In the first section of the instruction booklet, each English word with its German translation was presented with an elaborating sentence (for example, “The German for SHARP is SCHARF, scharf also means hot (as in spicy).”; “The German for LIGHTHOUSE is LEUCHTTURM, Leuchtturm consists of the two words for shine and tower.”) — this was the elaboration strategy. In the next section (retrieval practice), the English and German words were read out when first presented, and on the following pages the students were required to retrieve the German word on seeing the English word. There were filler pages in between each retrieval attempt on the expanding schedule of 1-3-5-7 (that is, one intervening filler item before the first attempt, three items before the second attempt, and so on). In the third, keyword, section, the English and German words were presented with a description of a suggested image (e.g., “The German for SHARP is SCHARF. Imagine cutting a German flag with SHARP scissors.” “The German for LIGHTHOUSE is LEUCHTTURM. Imagine people LOITERING near a lighthouse.”). In the last section, a strategy combining both the keyword and retrieval practice was employed.

The time allowed for each page was controlled, and was only a few seconds.

There were two tests: recalling the English meaning on seeing the German words, and giving the German words when presented with the English meaning. The tests were given twice — immediately, and one week later. For the easier task (giving the English in response to the German), words learned using the elaboration strategy were significantly more poorly remembered, and results from the other three strategies were not significantly different in the immediate test, but after a week, the words learned by the combined method were significantly better remembered than those learned by the others. Words learned by the retrieval practice strategy were slightly, but not quite significantly, better remembered than those learned by the keyword method.

For the harder task (remembering the German), the difference between retrieval practice and keyword mnemonic reached statistical significance.

The big advantage of retrieval practice is of course that it is a very simple, easily learned technique. It also requires much less cognitive effort than the keyword mnemonic, which puts off many people because of the difficulty of finding good keywords, and the effort (which is greater for some than for others) of creating images.

There are two aspects of the retrieval practice strategy, as it was used here, that should be noted. One is the basic principle that retrieval is always better than rehearsal, because retrieval is the task you should be practicing for, and because rehearsal gives you no feedback as to how well you have learned, and retrieval does. That is why testing is so valuable — more valuable as a learning tool than as an assessment tool. Testing teaches; even pretesting (before the student even knows the information to be learned) improves learning. (Two studies on this are reported in a Scientific American article at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=getting-it-wrong )

The second aspect is that the retrieval occurred on a distributed schedule.

I have talked before about the importance of spacing your learning (rehearsal; practice). So now I’ll just add one thing, from a recent (2009) study2.

Interleaving practice is a related strategy that has (mostly in the area of motor skills, but of wider applicability) been shown to improve learning. With interleaved practice, a lesson is followed by practice problems relating to many earlier lessons, ordered so that no consecutive problems are of the same type. As is readily apparent, interleaving naturally involves distributed practice, so it’s not clear whether interleaving is on its own, separate from the effects of distribution, of benefit. This new study managed to disentangle interleaving from spacing, and found that, even when spacing was held constant, interleaving more than doubled test scores (77% vs 38%).

However, and this is perhaps the really interesting part, it did so having impaired performance during practice. That is, not unexpectedly, performance was poorer during the learning period, when practice was interleaved.

And here we bring in a concept that is also of relevance in discussing the value of testing for learning: the idea of desirable difficulty (a term devised by Robert Bjork and colleagues).

In these days of trying not damage students’ self-esteem by having them experience failure, it is well to remember this concept.

(I have summarized this material in a 7-minute video.)

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