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.


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