Preparing readers for texts… my first CogSci colloquium

3 Feb

I attended my first colloquium hosted by the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota. (Information about the weekly series is available on CogSci’s web site.) Today’s presenter was Michael Mensink, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology. He presented the results of research (by him and his colleagues) into the ways that the attention of students reading texts can be focused by certain kinds of “prereading questions.” The research is reported in Mensink’s forthcoming dissertation and the following article:

  • Peshkam, A., Mensink, M. C., Putnam, A. L., & Rapp, D. N. (n.d.). Warning readers to avoid irrelevant information: When being vague might be valuable. Contemporary Educational Psychology, In Press, Corrected Proof. DOI: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2010.10.006

It follows on previous research reported here:

  • McCrudden, M. T., & Schraw, G. (2007). Relevance and goal-focusing in text processing. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 113-139.

I don’t intend to do the research justice with my summary. Instead, I just want to discuss a few details and note some things I found interesting. Mr. Mensick’s own abstract of his talk appears here (look under February 3).

At the center of the research is the issue of “seductive details” — these sentences contain “interesting content but [are only] tangentially related to the overall topic of the passage.” For example, a text about the affects of space travel on human physiology might refer to the effects of zero gravity on the human body. At that point, the text might include the following seductive detail: “Michael Jackson was inspired by the effects of zero gravity on walking when he created his popular ‘moonwalk’.” (This example is fictional; Peshkam p. 4.) This seductive detail would be intended to capture reader interest, but it does not communicate any essential fact about gravity’s effect on human bodies. For instructional purposes, we might want the student to focus on and be able to recall the physiological information, not so much the Michael Jackson information.

There has been previous research on using prereading questions to focus reader attention on relevant segments of the text. For example, I expect many of us have told students something along the lines of: “As you read the text, focus on the following questions….” These researchers sought to determine whether prereading questions or instructions could steer readers away from irrelevant segments (such as seductive details). A couple of the results, in extremely simplified form:

  1. It is possible to focus readers on relevant details using prereading questions or instructions.
  2. It is very difficult to focus readers away from irrelevant segments, such as seductive details.

Mr. Mensink and the audience discussed the dilemma of the authors of textbooks: Text book publishers WANT the seductive details, because they sell textbooks. Their expectation is that a meteorology textbook that not only describes tornado formation but also points out the story of a particular man who survived being thrown 350 meters by a tornado is a more interesting read for the students. But the research suggests that such interesting details may diminish the extent to which readers retain and recall the salient information for instructional purposes.

So, why did I find this interesting? For a start, maintaining reader interest is an important role of the author, and rhetoric should rightly focus on it. Technical communications need to maintain the interest of the reader and also convey information that the reader will retain (at least for a while). My first interest in this research, then, is how how securing and maintaining reader interest and conveying salient information might interfere with each other.

But more interesting to me is the lack of attention to rhetorical situation in the texts the researchers construct for their experiments. In other words, the research does not construct or analyze the texts rhetorically, other than to categorize sentences as being relevant for the identified reader perspective, base text (background material), or seductive details.

Finally, I was seduced by the concept of the seductive detail. Is it possible to intermingle “relevant” content with seductive details in such a way as to (a) make the result defy categorization as one or the other and (b) enhance retention and recall of the “relevant” content because of its association with the seductive?

I don’t have any conclusions, even draft ones, to offer at this point. I just want to get these thoughts down to aid future consideration of the topics and to share them with others.

-Brian

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2 Responses to “Preparing readers for texts… my first CogSci colloquium”

  1. writ8540 February 9, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Very interesting. Are seductive details always mutually exclusive from prereading instructions? Why can’t prereading instructions include and even direct students toward seductive details for purposes of learning (if relevant)?

  2. Brian Larson February 9, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Lee-Ann,
    In fact, in one version of the researcher’s experiment, they warned students that certain seductive details would appear in the text but that the students should ignore them. This seems a little bit to me like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant.” The results were as you would expect: telling students to ignore the seductive details in the text only focused them on them.

    Still, your question seems to me to work in two other ways:
    1. One, which I mentioned above, is whether seductive details can be intertwined with relevant content to enhance recall of relevant content.

    2. The other, perhaps more relevant for Writing Studies, would be to draw readers’ attention to the seductive details as part of a (literacy?) exercise, to get the readers to think about how the authors are attempting to capture and hold their attention.

    -Brian

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