comprehension

Digital media may be changing how you think

  • Reading from a screen may encourage users to focus on concrete details rather than more abstract thinking.

Four studies involving a total of more than 300 younger adults (20-24) have looked at information processing on different forms of media. They found that digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.

As much as possible, the material was presented on the different media in identical format.

In the first study, 76 students were randomly assigned to complete the Behavior Identification Form on either an iPad or a print-out. The Form assesses an individual's current preference for concrete or abstract thinking. Respondents have to choose one of two descriptions for a particular behavior — e.g., for “making a list”, the choice of description is between “getting organized” or “writing things down”. The form presents 25 items.

There was a marked difference between those filling out the form on the iPad vs on a physical print-out, with non-digital users showing a significantly higher preference for abstract descriptions than digital users (mean of 18.56 vs 13.75).

In the other three studies, the digital format was always a PDF on a laptop. In the first of these, 81 students read a short story by David Sedaris, then answered 24 multichoice questions on it, of which half were abstract and half concrete. Digital readers scored significantly lower on abstract questions (48% vs 66%), and higher on concrete questions (73% vs 58%).

In the next study, 60 students studied a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models for two minutes, before being required to select the superior model. While one model was objectively superior in regard to the attributes and attribute rating, the amount of detail means (as previous research has shown) that those employing a top-down “gist” processing do better than those using a bottom-up, detail-oriented approach. On this problem, 66% of the non-digital readers correctly chose the superior model, compared to 43% of the digital readers.

In the final study, 119 students performed the same task as in the preceding study, but all viewed the table on a laptop. Before viewing the table, however, some were assigned to one of two priming activities: a high-level task aimed at activating more abstract thinking (thinking about why they might pursue a health goal), or a low-level task aimed at activating more concrete thinking (thinking about how to pursue the same goal).

Being primed to think more abstractly did seem to help these digital users, with 48% of this group correctly answering the car judgment problem, compared to only 25% of those given the concrete priming activity, and 30% of the control group.

I note that the performance of the control group is substantially below the performance of the digital users in the previous study, although there was no apparent change in the methodology. However, this was not noted or explained in the paper, so I don't know why this was. It does lead me not to put too much weight on this idea that priming can help.

However, the findings do support the view that reading on digital devices does encourage a more concrete style of thinking, reinforcing the idea that we are inclined to process information more shallowly when we read it from a screen.

Of course, this is, as the researchers point out, not an indictment. Sometimes, this is the best way to approach certain tasks. But what it does suggest is that we need to consider what sort of processing is desirable, and modify our strategy accordingly. For example, you may find it helpful to print out material that requires a high level of abstract thinking, particularly if your degree of expertise in the subject means that it carries a high cognitive load.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/dc-dmm050516.php

Reference: 

Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2016). High-Low Split : Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–5. doi:10.1145/2858036.2858550 http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2858036.2858550

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Effects of diagram orientation on comprehension

November, 2012

The most popular format of the most common type of diagram in biology textbooks is more difficult to understand than formats that use different orientations.

A study into how well students understand specific diagrams reminds us that, while pictures may be worth 1000 words, even small details can make a significant difference to how informative they are.

The study focused on variously formatted cladograms (also known as phylogenetic trees) that are commonly used in high school and college biology textbooks. Such diagrams are hierarchically branching, and are typically used to show the evolutionary history of taxa.

Nineteen college students (most of whom were women), who were majoring in biology, were shown cladograms in sequential pairs and asked whether the second cladogram (a diagonal one) depicted relationships that were the same or different as those depicted in the first cladogram (a rectangular one). Taxa were represented by single letters, which were either in forward or reverse alphabetical order. Each set (diagonal and rectangular) had four variants: up to the right (UR) with forward letters; UR with reverse letters; down to the right (DR), forward letters; DR, reverse. Six topologies were used, creating 24 cladograms in each set. Eye-tracking showed how the students studied the diagrams.

The order of the letters turned out not to matter, but the way the diagrams were oriented made a significant difference to how well students understood them.

In line with our training in reading (left to right), and regardless of orientation, students scanned the diagrams from left to right. The main line of the cladogram (the “backbone”) also provided a strong visual cue to the direction of scanning (upward or downward). In conjunction with the left-right bias, this meant that UR cladograms were processed from bottom to top, while DR cladograms were processed from top to bottom.

Put like that, the results are less surprising. Diagonal cladograms going up to the right were significantly harder for students to match to the rectangular format (63% correct vs 70% for cladograms going down to the right).

Moreover, this was true even for experts. Of the two biology professors included in the study, one showed the same pattern as the students in terms of accuracy, while the other managed the translations accurately enough, but took significantly longer to interpret the UR diagrams than the DR ones.

Unfortunately, the upward orientation is the more widely used (82% of diagonal cladograms in a survey of 27 high school & college biology textbooks; diagonal cladograms comprised 72% of all diagrams).

The findings suggest that teachers need to teach their students to go against their own natural inclinations, and regardless of orientation, scan the tree in a downward direction. This strategy applies to rectangular cladograms as well as diagonal ones.

It’s worth emphasizing another aspect of these findings: even the best type of diagonal cladogram was only translated at a relatively poor level of accuracy. Previous research has suggested that the diagonal cladogram is significantly harder to understand than the rectangular format. Note that the only difference between them is the orientation.

All this highlights two points:

Even apparently minor aspects of a diagram can make a significant difference to how easily it’s understood.

Teachers shouldn’t assume that students ‘naturally’ know how to read a diagram.

Reference: 

Novick, L., Stull, A. T., & Catley, K. M. (2012). Reading Phylogenetic Trees: The Effects of Tree Orientation and Text Processing on Comprehension. BioScience, 62(8), 757–764. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.8.8

Catley, K., & Novick, L. (2008). Seeing the wood for the trees: An analysis of evolutionary diagrams in biology textbooks. BioScience, 58(10), 976–987. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1641/B581011
 

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How your hands affect your thinking

October, 2011

Two recent studies in embodied cognition show that hand movements and hand position are associated with less abstract thinking.

I always like studies about embodied cognition — that is, about how what we do physically affects how we think. Here are a couple of new ones.

The first study involved two experiments. In the first, 86 American college students were asked questions about gears in relation to each other. For example, “If five gears are arranged in a line, and you move the first gear clockwise, what will the final gear do?” The participants were videotaped as they talked their way through the problem. But here’s the interesting thing: half the students wore Velcro gloves attached to a board, preventing them from moving their hands. The control half were similarly prevented from moving their feet — giving them the same experience of restriction without the limitation on hand movement.

Those who gestured commonly used perceptual-motor strategies (simulation of gear movements) in solving the puzzles. Those who were prevented from gesturing, as well as those who chose not to gesture, used abstract, mathematical strategies much more often.

The second experiment confirmed the results with 111 British adults.

The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that gestures highlight and structure perceptual-motor information, and thereby make such information more likely to be used in problem solving.

That can be helpful, but not always. Even when we are solving problems that have to do with motion and space, more abstract strategies may sometimes be more efficient, and thus an inability to use the body may force us to come up with better strategies.

The other study is quite different. In this study, college students searched for a single letter embedded within images of fractals and other complex geometrical patterns. Some did this while holding their hands close to the images; others kept their hands in their laps, far from the images. This may sound a little wacky, but previous research has shown that perception and attention are affected by how close our hands are to an object. Items near our hands tend to take priority.

In the first experiment, eight randomly chosen images were periodically repeated 16 times, while the other 128 images were only shown once. The target letter was a gray “T” or “L”; the images were colorful.

As expected, finding the target letter was faster the more times the image had been presented. Hand position didn’t affect learning.

In the second experiment, a new set of students were shown the same shown-once images, while 16 versions of the eight repeated images were created. These versions varied in their color components. In this circumstance, learning was slower when hands were held near the images. That is, people found it harder to recognize the commonalities among identical but differently colored patterns, suggesting they were too focused on the details to see the similarities.

These findings suggest that processing near the hands is biased toward item-specific detail. This is in keeping with earlier suggestions that the improvements in perception and attention near the hands are item-specific. It may indeed be that this increased perceptual focus is at the cost of higher-order function such as memory and learning. This would be consistent with the idea that there are two largely independent visual streams, one of which is mainly concerned with visuospatial operations, and the other of which is primarily for more cognitive operations (such as object identification).

All this may seem somewhat abstruse, but it is worryingly relevant in these days of hand-held technological devices.

The point of both these studies is not that one strategy (whether of hand movements or hand position) is wrong. What you need to take away is the realization that hand movements and hand position can affect the way you approach problems, and the things you perceive. Sometimes you want to take a more physical approach to a problem, or pick out the fine details of a scene or object — in these cases, moving your hands, or holding something in or near your hands, is a good idea. Other times you might want to take a more abstract/generalized approach — in these cases, you might want to step back and keep your body out of it.

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TMS improves language comprehension in Alzheimer's sufferers

August, 2010

A pilot study found two weeks of daily repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the prefrontal lobes improved speech comprehension in those with moderate Alzheimer's.

A pilot study involving 10 patients with moderate Alzheimer's disease, of whom half were randomly assigned to the treatment, has found that two weeks of receiving daily (25 minute) periods of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the prefrontal lobes produced a significant improvement in the patients’ ability to understand spoken language. Correct answers on a comprehension test rose from 66% to over 77%. Two further weeks of the treatment produced no further improvement, but the improvements were still evident eight weeks after the end of the treatment. The effect was limited to this specific cognitive function.

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