Place-on-the-page and text-sequence memory (Therriault & Raney)

Therriault, D. J. & Raney, G. E. (2002). The representation and comprehension of place-on-the-page and text-sequence memory. Scientific Studies of Reading 6(2), 117-134.

Yet another entry produced for this Human Factors class, this text highlights some interesting concepts related to how memory in reading is linked to the physical format of the text.

This article is a report on a study by Therriault and Raney investigating place-on-the-page memory vs. text-sequence memory, concepts which had been explored previously in studies by several other researchers in the area of reading and memory, including Rothkopf; Christie & Just; Zechmeister, McKillip, Pasko & Bespalec, and notably by van Dijk and Kintsch. Therriault and Raney adopt van Dijk and Kintsch’s model that texts can be being represented at three levels: surface level (memory for wording and physical characteristics of the text), textbase (the relationship between separate concepts) and situational model (the gist, or theme of the text as a whole).

Compared to other studies, this one is distinct in that a) it aims to test the impact of comprehension on both types of memory, b) it tests the impact of text structure on memory (by giving some subjects texts in which the paragraph order was random), and c) it tests whether there is any voluntary control involved in text retention (by informing some participants of what they would be tested on before the test). It also further explores whether place-on-the-page and text-sequencing memories can be categorized as surface, textbase or situational.

Comprehension was tested by giving two distinct test groups texts at different reading levels (but of the same length). The first was “a biography about William James that was written at an 11th-grade level” (121) while the second was “an expository essay about the extinction of the dinosaurs that was written at an 8th-grade level” (121). The relationship between comprehension and memory was assessed by comparing scores on the text-sequencing questions with scores on a series of comprehension questions.

The results of this study indicate that readers retain text-sequence information better in cases where their comprehension is high and that although individuals do retain some surface features of a text, place-on-the-page memory is weak, and is not affected by comprehension. Of note is the fact that this last finding is distinct from past research by both Rothkopf and Zechmeister et al, in which they had found a strong relationship between place-on-the-page memory and comprehension (130). Therriault and Raney attribute this discrepancy to their colleagues’ use of fill-in-the-blank questions (a cloze test) to test comprehension, which “provide stronger recall cues” (131).

A somewhat surprising outcome of the testing in this study is that the use of a scrambled text has “virtually no impact on memory” (130). Cueing the participants about the nature of the post-reading analysis also did not impact the scores.

COMMENTS

Although not explicitly stated in this document, this research should be of interest to those working in the area of electronic text, in that it downplays the attachment that some individuals have to the printed page, to the notion that ‘I need to see it on the page in order to remember it’ (as I myself have been known to say). However, Therriault and Raney do point out in their General Discussion that other research has shown that typology cues such as bold print can have an effect on comprehension, and could also impact memory.

The results involving scrambled text are quite curious. In the Discussion section, we are told that “Whereas text difficulty and question type drastically influenced memory perception, reading a normal or scrambled text had virtually no impact on memory […] we found no evidence that scrambling reduced comprehension.” (p.130) This statement makes me seriously wonder about the content of the texts and the nature of the comprehension questions that were asked, as I would (as the researchers had) expect that at least in some types of texts, order of paragraph would have some impact on comprehension.

A few criticisms were mentioned in class. Virginia felt that the types of content in the two texts were far too different, and could not garner comparable levels of interest from the readers. Dr. Blustein argued that since the participants were given the option of two texts, the researchers were in fact able to control for motivation. (However, one can imagine that some individuals would have no interest in either dinoraurs or a biography about William James — what would be the motivational level of these individuals?) The study was also criticized for having copied the methodology of a 1971 experiment rather than a more recent/improved model.

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2 responses to “Place-on-the-page and text-sequence memory (Therriault & Raney)

  1. I guess the link between reading and comprehension is obvious. And, obviously one cannot be said to be reading without some degree of comprehension. Yet, what degree is necessary? It will differ if one is reading to discover facts or reading strictly for pleasure. Also, some texts can be appreciated on different levels–e.g. Shakespeare. If one reads Shakespeare with a relatively low level of comprehension, one can still be enjoying the experience even if one is far from grasping all the details and ambiguities in the text.
    And, how does all this relate to memory? One could remember words or phrases or general ideas without a profound grasp of the text. One might have an excellent memory for details without having a profound understanding of the significance of the details.

  2. I am curious to get my hands on the results of these new brain imaging studies I’ve heard of — I wonder if they have tried to ascertain the difference between brain use between people who are reading for different purposes, or with differing levels of interest, or with different levels of prior knowledge of the subject matter.

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