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.