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Effects of Elaborations Included in Textbooks: Large Time Cost, Reduced Attention, and Lower Memory for Main Ideas

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Textbooks currently include many elaborations that describe, illustrate, and explain main ideas, increasing the length of these textbook chapters. The current study investigated if the cost in additional reading time that these elaborations impose is outweighed by benefits to memory for main ideas. Given that elaborations in textbooks sometimes fail to produce memory benefits, the current study also investigated if the reason is that less time is spent reading main ideas sentences in elaborated versus unelaborated texts. In two experiments, participants read a textbook passage with just the main ideas or with these main ideas and elaborations. Two days later, participants completed tests of their memory for the main ideas. Conceptually replicating previous research, elaborations did not provide a memory benefit commensurate with the time cost they imposed. Results also indicated that the lack of benefit is at least partially attributable to less time spent reading main ideas for the elaborated versus unelaborated text. To further investigate why students spent less time on main idea sentences, Experiment 2 provided evidence that this difference may be due to difficulty discriminating main ideas from elaborations while reading. In sum, textbook elaborations may impair memory for main ideas due to less time spent on these main ideas despite the large overall time cost imposed; thus elaborated texts can be less effective than unelaborated texts.

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  1. Note the minor deviation here from our pre-registered analysis plan that involved separate t-tests for each presentation format for consistency between analysis of this measure and the measures of memory.


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The research reported here was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to Nola Daley and by James S. McDonnell Foundation twenty-first Century Science Initiative in Bridging Brain, Mind, and Behavior Collaborative Award.

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Correspondence to Nola Daley.

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Short-answer memory test used in Experiments 1–2

1. Sound waves first enter through what part of the ear?

2. After entering the outer ear, what do sound waves travel through next?

3. After traveling through the auditory canal, sound waves strike what part of the ear?

4. The tympanic membrane does what in response to sound waves?

5. Vibrations from the tympanic membrane are then passed along what parts of the ear?

6. What parts of the ear are located in the middle ear?

7. What role do the ossicles play in hearing?

8. When vibrations reach the last of the ossicles, what does that bone do?

9. Movement of the oval window does what?

10. The movement of fluid in the Cochlea displaces what?

11. What do hair cells do in response to displacement?

12. After hair cells initiate a signal, the signal travels along what pathway?

13. Where does the auditory nerve send the signals initiated by the hair cells?

Performance on the multiple-choice test in Experiment 1

Table 5 Percent correct on the multiple-choice test for each group in experiment 1

Decomposing time spend on main ideas in each experiment

Table 6 Time in seconds on the main ideas for each group in both experiments

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Daley, N., Rawson, K.A. Effects of Elaborations Included in Textbooks: Large Time Cost, Reduced Attention, and Lower Memory for Main Ideas. Educ Psychol Rev 33, 1165–1189 (2021).

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