What predicts adult readers’ understanding of STEM texts?

Abstract

The current study examined the relations among key variables that underlie reading comprehension of expository science texts in a diverse population of adult native English readers. Using Mechanical Turk to sample a range of adult readers, the study also examined the effect of text presentation on readers’ comprehension and knowledge structure established after reading. In Study 1, ratings of situational interest, select reading background variables, and select measures of readers’ knowledge structure accounted for significant variance in comprehension. In Study 2, the knowledge structure metrics of primacy, recency, and node degree as well as several text ratings were found to be comparable across text presentation formats. Participants who read the text sentence-by-sentence obtained higher scores on measures of comprehension and provided higher ratings of situational interest than those who received the whole paragraph text at once. Knowledge structure measures for the sentence-by-sentence and paragraph formats were similar (68% overlap). We discuss implications for future research examining factors that underlie the successful comprehension of science texts.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We chose not to examine ‘deep cohesion’ of these science texts because it has been shown to provide an incomplete analysis of the causal and intentional connectives among science texts.

  2. 2.

    Specific items from the Perceived Interest and Sources of Interest Questionnaires were selected and administered because of time constraints.

  3. 3.

    Prior knowledge ratings were examined separately from the other sources of situational interest based on Schraw et al. (1995).

  4. 4.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1533625). Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Ping Li.

Appendices

Appendix 1: The GPS text

Global Positioning System (GPS) is a system that helps us navigate. GPS is a system of 24 or more satellites in space. These satellites orbit at about 12,000 miles above the Earth. Different satellites orbit the Earth in different locations. They circle the Earth along 1 of 6 orbits continuously. They send information to a GPS receiver on Earth. The information is transmitted across space via radio signals. Radio signals travel through space like sound waves through a canyon. Imagine you and your friend are at different sides of a canyon. You shout to your friend and she hears you after a short delay. This delay is the time that sound waves need to reach the other side. Similarly, the satellite in space sends a radio signal at one time. After a delay the radio signal arrives at the GPS receiver on Earth. The receiver records the precise time when the radio signal arrives. It then calculates the difference between these two times. This time difference is the travel time of the radio signal. The GPS uses this travel time to figure out how far the satellite is. It uses the formula “distance = time (T) × rate of transmission (C)”. T is the travel time of the radio signal. C is the speed of light, more than 186,000 miles per second. T × C calculates the distance between the receiver and each satellite. Different satellites have different distances from the receiver. This information helps the receiver determine its location on Earth. The precise location is calculated based on geometry of distances. A GPS device that you carry in your car is a small receiver. Radio signals from the satellites are updated as the device moves. At least 4 satellites are involved to pinpoint the device’s location. GPS devices provide maps and directions that help people travel.

Appendix 2: Example Items from the Reading Background Questionnaire (RBQ)

1. Other than books on paper, do you read materials on other media/platforms? (Check all that apply, and indicate roughly how many hours per day on average.)

eBook devices (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h
Computers/laptops None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h
Smartphones None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h

2. When you are not reading, do you spend time doing the following activities? (Check all that apply, and indicate roughly how many hours per day on average).

Texting friends using a smartphone None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h
Playing online games None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h
Watching TV None < 2 h 2–3 h 4–5 h > 5 h

3. Please select the most appropriate answer for each item:

True for me Somewhat true for me Somewhat untrue for me Not true for me
I like hard, challenging books
I don’t like reading something when the words are too difficult
I enjoy reading books about people in different countries
I usually learn difficult things by reading
I read to learn new information about topics that interest me

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Follmer, D.J., Fang, S., Clariana, R.B. et al. What predicts adult readers’ understanding of STEM texts?. Read Writ 31, 185–214 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-017-9781-x

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Keywords

  • Reading comprehension
  • Expository text
  • Science text
  • STEM
  • Reader characteristics
  • Mechanical turk