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Elaborations in Expository Text Impose a Substantial Time Cost but Do Not Enhance Learning

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Abstract

Textbook passages commonly include elaborations (details supporting main ideas) with the assumption that elaborations will improve learning of the main ideas. However, elaborations increase text length, which subsequently increases the reading time of that text. These observations lead to the two focal questions of interest in the current study: What is the time cost imposed by including elaborations within textbooks? Does the benefit of elaborations for enhancing memory for main ideas outweigh this time cost? In three experiments, students studied elaborated versus unelaborated versions of psychology textbook passages. Two days later, students completed final tests, including cued recall for main ideas and comprehension tests. In all experiments, we found a substantial cost in terms of increased reading time for the elaborated text but no evidence of increased memory for main ideas to offset this cost. To facilitate further interpretation of the similar test performance observed for elaborated versus unelaborated texts, experiment 2 ruled out functional floor or ceiling effects and established that both text versions enhanced learning (but did so to a similar extent). These results indicate that elaborations embedded within textbook passages may not facilitate learning and that unelaborated texts may be more efficient than elaborated texts.

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Notes

  1. We limit our discussion to studies comparing elaborated versus unelaborated texts. Other studies have manipulated text length by including more versus less information at the same level (e.g., Hidi and Baird 1988; Mayer and Jackson 2005; Rothkopf and Billington 1983; Van Dam & Brinkerink-Carlier, 1984; Van Dam et al. 1986), which do not directly inform the focal questions of interest here.

  2. Given that this study was the first to investigate the effect of elaborations on the learning of main ideas with an educationally representative methodology, we implemented a strong manipulation (full elaboration vs. no elaboration). As Shadish et al. (2002) recommend, “full-dose treatment versus no treatment … is especially valuable early in a research program when it is important to test whether large effects can be found under circumstances most favorable to its emergence” (p. 50).

  3. Given the literature on the testing effect, we chose to use a delayed test only because administering an immediate test prior to the delayed test would influence performance on the delayed test (e.g., Roediger III and Karpicke 2006).

  4. We also examined correlations between self-reported prior exposure and performance and the interactions between prior exposure and text version. However, variability in the levels of normative prior exposure reported was low in both studies, and given the lack of a consistent pattern of associations, we did not include these analyses here.

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Funding

The research reported here was supported by a James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative in Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior Collaborative Award.

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Correspondence to Nola Daley.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Appendix

Appendix

Memory Texts and Tests Used in Experiment 1 and Experiment 2

Elaborated Text

Short-term memory (STM) is a temporary storage system that processes incoming sensory memory; sometimes, it is called working memory. Short-term memory takes information from sensory memory and sometimes connects that memory to something already in long-term memory. Short-term memory storage lasts about 20 s. George Miller, in his research on the capacity of memory, found that most people can retain about seven items in STM. Some remember 5, some 9, so he called the capacity of STM 7 plus or minus 2. Think of short-term memory as the information you have displayed on your computer screen a document, a spreadsheet, or a web page. Then, information in short-term memory goes to long-term memory (you save it to your hard drive), or it is discarded (you delete a document or close a web browser).

Through rehearsal, or the conscious repetition of to be remembered information, memories in STM move into long-term memory. This process is called memory consolidation. Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, the storage capacity of LTM has no limits. It encompasses all the things you can remember that happened more than just a few minutes ago to all of the things that you can remember that happened days, weeks, and years ago. In keeping with the computer analogy, the information in your LTM would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It is not there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but you can pull up this information when you want it, at least most of the time. Not all long-term memories are strong memories. Some memories can only be recalled through prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact (“What is the capital of the United States?”) or a procedure (“How do you ride a bike?”), but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant you had dinner when you were on vacation in France last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, who spoke to you about your shared interest in soccer, may help you recall the name of the restaurant.

Long-term memory is divided into two types: implicit and explicit. Understanding the different types is important because a person’s age or particular types of brain trauma or disorders can leave certain types of LTM intact while having disastrous consequences for other types. Implicit memories are memories that are not part of our consciousness. They are memories formed from behaviors. Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things. It is the memory for skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, how to swim the crawl (freestyle) stroke. If you are learning how to swim freestyle, you practice the stroke: how to move your arms, how to turn your head to alternate breathing from side to side, and how to kick your legs. You would practice this many times until you become good at it. Once you learn how to swim freestyle and your body knows how to move through the water, you will never forget how to swim freestyle, even if you do not swim for a couple of decades. Similarly, if you present an accomplished guitarist with a guitar, even if he has not played in a long time, he will still be able to play quite well.

Explicit memories are those we consciously try to remember and recall. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. Explicit memory has to do with the storage of facts and events we personally experienced. Explicit memory has two parts: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic means having to do with language and knowledge about language. An example would be the question “what does argumentative mean?” Stored in our semantic memory is knowledge about words, concepts, language-based knowledge, and facts. For example, answers to the following questions are stored in your semantic memory: Who was the first President of the USA? What is democracy? What is the longest river in the world? Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced. Currently, scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times, the what, where, and when of an event. It involves recollection of visual imagery as well as the feeling of familiarity.

The act of getting information out of memory storage and back into conscious awareness is known as retrieval. This would be similar to finding and opening a paper you had previously saved on your computer’s hard drive. Now it’s back on your desktop, and you can work with it again. Our ability to retrieve information from long-term memory is vital to our everyday functioning. You must be able to retrieve information from memory in order to do everything from knowing how to brush your hair and teeth, to driving to work, to knowing how to perform your job once you get there.

There are three ways you can retrieve information out of your long-term memory storage system: recall, recognition, and relearning. Recall is what we most often think about when we talk about memory retrieval: it means you can access information without cues. For example, you would use recall for an essay test. Recognition happens when you identify information that you have previously learned after encountering it again. It involves a process of comparison. When you take a multiple-choice test, you are relying on recognition to help you choose the correct answer. Here is another example. Let us say you graduated from high school 10 years ago, and you have returned to your hometown for your 10-year reunion. You may not be able to recall all of your classmates, but you recognize many of them based on their yearbook photos. The third form of retrieval is relearning, and it is just what it sounds like. It involves learning information that you previously learned. Whitney took Spanish in high school, but after high school she did not have the opportunity to speak Spanish. Whitney is now 31, and her company has offered her an opportunity to work in their Mexico City office. In order to prepare herself, she enrolls in a Spanish course at the local community center. She’s surprised at how quickly she’s able to pick up the language after not speaking it for 13 years; this is an example of relearning.

Unelaborated Text

Short-term memory (STM) is a temporary storage system that processes incoming sensory memory; sometimes it is called working memory. Short-term memory storage lasts about 20 s. Through rehearsal, or the conscious repetition of to be remembered information, memories in STM move into long-term memory. This process is called memory consolidation. Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, the storage capacity of LTM has no limits.

Long-term memory is divided into two types: implicit and explicit. Implicit memories are memories that are not part of our consciousness. Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things.

Explicit memories are those we consciously try to remember and recall. Explicit memory has to do with the storage of facts and events we personally experienced. Explicit memory has two parts: semantic memory and episodic memory. Stored in our semantic memory is knowledge about words, concepts, language-based knowledge, and facts. Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced. The act of getting information out of memory storage and back into conscious awareness is known as retrieval.

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Cued Recall Memory Test

  1. 1.

    What is short-term memory?

  2. 2.

    How long does short-term memory last?

  3. 3.

    What is rehearsal?

  4. 4.

    What is long-term memory?

  5. 5.

    What is the storage capacity of long-term memory?

  6. 6.

    What are implicit memories?

  7. 7.

    What is procedural memory?

  8. 8.

    What are explicit memories?

  9. 9.

    Explicit memory has to do with what?

  10. 10.

    What is stored in semantic memory?

  11. 11.

    What is episodic memory?

  12. 12.

    What is retrieval?

Multiple choice comprehension test (correct answers are marked with an asterisk; questions marked with ** were only included in experiment 2):

1. If you are shown a list of names and then the next day you are asked to recall them, you would need to retrieve them from:

  1. a.

    Sensory memory

  2. b.

    Short-term memory

  3. c.

    *Long-term memory

  4. d.

    Encoding memory

2. All of the following would be considered declarative memories EXCEPT:

  1. a.

    The low-level clouds that look like sheets floating in the air are called stratus clouds

  2. b.

    *Knowing how to drive a car with a standard transmission

  3. c.

    Four inches of snow contains the same amount of water as .4 inches of rain

  4. d.

    Knowing that your boyfriend got you an iPod for your last birthday

3. Right after a friend introduces you to a group of people at a party, the name of the last couple people would like still be in:

  1. a.

    Sensory memory

  2. b.

    *Short-term memory

  3. c.

    Long-term memory

  4. d.

    Procedural memory

4. By analogy, which of the following is most similar to retrieval?

  1. a.

    Trying to decide what to wear to a party later that evening

  2. b.

    Writing down information that you instructor says during her lecture

  3. c.

    Reading an interesting newspaper article

  4. d.

    *Looking up the phone number for a restaurant in the phone book

5. When you consciously try to recall the information from the text you saw last week, you are relying on?

  1. a.

    Implicit

  2. b.

    *Explicit

  3. c.

    Sensory

  4. d.

    Procedural

** 6. Which of the following does NOT involve memory, as defined in the text?

  1. a.

    recognizing an old friend from elementary school

  2. b.

    deciding what to buy your brother for his birthday

  3. c.

    mowing the lawn

  4. d.

    *all of the above involve memory in some form

** 7. By analogy, which of the following is most similar to encoding?

  1. a.

    Trying to decide what to wear to a party later that evening

  2. b.

    Listening carefully for the sound of the doorbell while waiting for a friend to arrive

  3. c.

    *Writing down information that your instructor says during her lecture

  4. d.

    Reading an interesting newspaper article

Short Answer Comprehension Test

  1. 1.

    When you recall the meaning of the word college, you are relying on what kind of memory?

  2. 2.

    When you rollerblade, you are relying on what kind of memory?

  3. 3.

    When you recall your first day of college, you are relying on what kind of memory?

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Daley, N., Rawson, K.A. Elaborations in Expository Text Impose a Substantial Time Cost but Do Not Enhance Learning. Educ Psychol Rev 31, 197–222 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-018-9451-9

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