Understanding and Reasoning with Text

Understanding and Reasoning with Text

M. Anne Britt (Northern Illinois University, USA), Katja Wiemer (Northern Illinois University, USA), Keith K. Millis (Northern Illinois University, USA), Joseph P. Magliano (Northern Illinois University, USA), Patty Wallace (Northern Illinois University, USA) and Peter Hastings (DePaul University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-447-5.ch010


Consider the assignment that teachers have been giving their students for years: “Write an expository essay on a scientific topic. Example topics may include global warming, human memory, or the spread of infectious diseases. You must have at least three references.” The instructor makes it clear that the paper should have a thesis or claim that is supported by evidence. Claims might be that global warming will be disastrous only for some nations, why it is futile to teach mnemonics to young children, or that cell phone use causes cancer. From the perspective of the student (and cognitive psychologists), this assignment is challenging at any grade. The challenge is that the assignment entails a number of complicated and interconnected tasks. For example, reading a research paper requires the reader to make inferences that span sentences and paragraphs (in addition to a whole host of other processes), and to understand the logical and rhetorical structure of the text as a whole. If the paper describes an experiment, the student must additionally understand how to determine whether the data support the conclusion (i.e., the scientific method). In most cases, the student must also integrate the content of several papers (sources) into a coherent structure. This process involves evaluating the credibility of the sources, selecting relevant pieces of information from each, and putting them into a coherent argument structure. No wonder such assignments are met with groans.
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A student’s interaction with text in the context of learning involves a complex sequence of cognitive processes, some of which are shared across tasks and some are task-specific. On a basic level, the student reading to acquire knowledge for writing a research paper must simply understand the material from each text. Text comprehension is itself a complex task that requires comprehension of individual statements, recognizing connections between statements, relating statements to prior knowledge, and integrating these elements into a coherent representation of the text (e.g., Graesser, Singer & Trabasso, 1994; Kintsch, 1988; 1998). The Reading Strategy Assessment Tool (RSAT) was designed to assess high-school and college students’ use of successful reading strategies during comprehension. Such reading strategies are important because they help readers construct a coherent mental representation of a text and have been shown to be predictive of comprehension (Magliano & Millis 2003, Magliano, Trabasso, & Graesser, 1999).

On a more global level, our hypothetical student must be able to reason more deeply with and about the texts they are reading (Rouet, Britt, Mason, & Perfetti, 1996). Our other projects focus on the student’s use of their text representation in various reasoning tasks. The Critical Thinking tutor (CT Tutor) helps students critically evaluate scientific studies, Operation ARIES! (Acquiring Research Investigative and Evaluative Skills) teaches the scientific concepts needed to evaluate studies, Cultivating Argument Skills Efficiently (CASE) teaches students to comprehend, evaluate and produce arguments, and Sourcer's Apprentice Intelligent Feedback (SAIF) helps students write essays from multiple texts.

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