Reading Scientific Text

There are many memory strategies that can be effective in improving your recall of text. However, recent research shows that it is simplistic to think that you can improve your remembering by applying any of these strategies to any text. Different strategies are effective with different types of text.

One basic classification of text structure would distinguish between narrative text and expository text. We are all familiar with narrative text (story-telling), and are skilled in using this type of structure. Perhaps for this reason, narrative text tends to be much easier for us to understand and remember. Most study texts, however, are expository texts.

Unfortunately, many students (perhaps most) tend to be blind to the more subtle distinctions between different types of expository structure, and tend to treat all expository text as a list of facts. Building an effective mental model of the text (and thus improving your understanding and recall) is easier, however, if you understand the type of structure you're dealing with, and what strategy is best suited to deal with it.

Identifying structure

Five common types of structure used in scientific texts are:

  • Generalization: the extension or clarification of main ideas through explanations or examples
  • Enumeration: listing of facts
  • Sequence: a connecting series of events or steps
  • Classification: grouping items into classes
  • Comparison / contrast: examining the relationships between two or more things

Let's look at these in a little more detail.

Generalization

In generalization, a paragraph always has a main idea. Other sentences in the paragraph either clarify the main idea by giving examples or illustrations, or extend the main idea by explaining it in more detail. Here's an example:

Enumeration

Enumeration passages may be a bulleted or numbered list, or a list of items in paragraph form, for example:

Sequence

A sequence describes a series of steps in a process. For example:

Classification

In classification, items are grouped into categories. For example:

Comparison / contrast

This type of text looks at relationships between items. In comparison, both similarities and differences are studied. In contrast, only the differences are noted. For example:

[examples taken from Cook & Mayer 1988]

A study [1] involving undergraduate students inexperienced in reading science texts (although skilled readers otherwise) found that even a small amount of training substantially improved the students' ability to classify the type of structure and use it appropriately.

Let's look briefly at the training procedures used:

Training for generalization

This involved the following steps:

  • identify the main idea
  • list and define the key words
  • restate the main idea in your own words
  • look for evidence to support the main idea
    • what kind of support is there for the main idea?
    • are there examples, illustrations?
    • do they extend or clarify the main idea?

Training for enumeration

This involved the following steps:

  • name the topic
  • identify the subtopics
  • organize and list the details within each subtopic, in your own words

Training for sequence

This involved the following steps:

  • identify the topic
  • name each step and outline the details within each
  • briefly discuss what's different from one step to another

[Only these three structures were covered in training]

Most effective text structures

Obviously, the type of structure is constrained by the material covered. We can, however, make the general statement that text that encourages the student to make connections is most helpful in terms of both understanding and memory.

In light of this, compare/contrast would seem to be the most helpful type of text. Another text structure that is clearly of a similar type has also been found to be particularly effective: refutational text. In a refutational text, a common misconception is directly addressed (and refuted). Obviously, this is only effective when there is a common misconception that stands in the way of the reader's understanding -- but it's surprising how often this is the case! Incompatible knowledge is at least as bad as a lack of knowledge in hindering the learning of new information, and it really does need to be directly addressed.

Refutational text is however, not usually enough on its own. While helpful, it is more effective if combined with other, supportive, strategies. One such strategy is elaborative interrogation, which involves (basically) the student asking herself why such a fact is true.

Unfortunately, however, text structures that encourage connection building are not the most common type of structure in scientific texts. Indeed, it has been argued that "the presentation of information in science textbooks is more likely to resemble that of a series of facts [and thus] presents an additional challenge that may thwart readers' efforts to organize text ideas relative to each other".

Most effective strategies

The fundamental rule (that memory and understanding are facilitated by any making of connections) also points to the strategies that are most effective.

As a general rule, strategies that involve elaborating the connections between concepts in a text are the most effective, but it is also true that the specifics of such strategies vary according to the text structure (and other variables, such as the level of difficulty).

Let's look at how such a linking strategy might be expressed in the context of our five structures.

Generalization

Restatement in your own words -- paraphrasing -- is a useful strategy not simply because it requires you to actively engage with the material, but also because it encourages you to connect the information to be learned with the information you already have in your head. We can, however, take this further in the last stage, when we look for the evidence supporting the main idea, if we don't simply restrict ourselves to the material before us, but actively search our minds for our own supporting evidence.

Enumeration

This text structure is probably the hardest to engage with. You may be able to find a connective thread running through the listed items, or be able to group the listed items in some manner, but this structure is the one most likely to require mnemonic assistance (see verbal mnemonics and list-learning mnemonics).

Sequence

With this text structure, items are listed, but there is a connecting thread — a very powerful one. Causal connections are ones we are particularly disposed to pay attention to and remember; they are the backbone of narrative text. So, sequence has a strong factor going for it.

Illustrations particularly lend themselves to this type of structure, and research has shown that memory and comprehension is greatly helped when pictures portraying a series of steps, in a cause-and-effect chain, are closely integrated with explanatory text. The closeness is vital — a study that used computerized instruction found dramatic improvement in memory when the narration was synchronous with the animation, for example, but there was no improvement when the narration was presented either before or after the text. If you are presented with an illustration that is provided with companion text, but is not closely integrated with it, you will probably find it helpful to integrate it with the text yourself.

Classification

Classification is frequently as simple as grouping items. However, while this is in itself a useful strategy that helps memory, it will be more effective if the connections between and within groups are strong and clear. Connections within groups generally emphasize similarities, while connections between groups emphasize both similarities (between closely connected groups) and differences. Ordering groups in a hierarchical system is probably the type of arrangement most familiar to students, but don't restrict yourself to it. Remember, the important thing is that the arrangement has meaning for you, and that the connections emphasize the similarities and differences.

Compare / contrast

This type of structure lends itself, of course, to making connections. Your main strategy is probably therefore to simply organize the material in such a way as to make those connections clear and explicit.

References: 
  1. Cook, L.K. & Mayer, R.E. 1988. Teaching readers about the structure of scientific text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 448-54.
  2. Castaneda, S., Lopez, M. & Romero, M. 1987. The role of five induced learning strategies in scientific text comprehension. The Journal of Experimental Education, 55(3), 125–131.
  3. Diakidoy, I.N., Kendeou, P. & Ioannides, C. 2002. Reading about energy: The effects of text structure in science learning and conceptual change. http://www.edmeasurement.net/aera/papers/KENDEOU.PDF

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