Using Comprehension Strategies with Authentic Text in a College Chemistry Course

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College science students learn important topics by reading textbooks, which contain dense technical prose. Comprehension strategies are known to increase learning from reading. One class of comprehension strategies, called elaboration strategies, is intended to link new information with prior knowledge. Elaboration strategies have an appeal in science courses where new information frequently depends on previously learned information. The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of an elaboration strategy in an authentic college environment. General chemistry students read text about Lewis structures, figures drawn by chemists to depict molecules, while assigned to use either an elaboration strategy, namely elaborative interrogation, or another strategy, rereading, which served as a placebo control. Two texts of equal length were employed in this pretest-posttest experimental design. One was composed by the researcher. The other was an excerpt from a college textbook and contained a procedure for constructing Lewis structures. Students (N = 252) attending a large community college were randomly assigned to one of the two texts and assigned one of the two strategies. The elaborative interrogation strategy was implemented with instructions to answer why-questions posed throughout the reading. Answering why-questions has been hypothesized to activate prior knowledge of a topic, and thus to aid in cognitively connecting new material with prior knowledge. The rereading strategy was implemented with instructions to read text twice. The use of authentic text was one of only a few instances of applying elaborative interrogation with a textbook. In addition, previous studies have generally focused on the learning of facts contained in prose. The application of elaborative interrogation to procedural text has not been previously reported. Results indicated that the more effective strategy was undetermined when reading authentic text in this setting. However, prior knowledge level was identified as a statistically significant factor for learning from authentic text. That is, students with high prior knowledge learned more, regardless of assigned strategy. Another descriptive study was conducted with a separate student sample (N = 34). Previously reported Lewis structure research was replicated. The trend of difficulty for 50 structures in the earlier work was supported.