Assessing the Impact of Topic Interest on Comprehension Processes (RR 11-02)

Executive Summary

Cognitive ability and prior knowledge have been traditionally explored in terms of their influence on measures of academic performance. Many other variables, however, may influence these measures. Performance may be affected not only by knowledge and cognitive skills, but also by the extent to which students are motivated and engaged in an academic task. Motivational variables may even explain within-person variability across tasks that measure similar constructs. Understanding how these factors affect this variability is critical not only for basic research on cognitive processes, but also for educational practices and assessment.

The present study focuses on the motivational variable of interest, and how interest relates to processes involved in reading. Interest describes a particular relationship between a person and a content area that is characterized by focused attention and positive affect. This research was designed to examine how interest changes the processes related to comprehension while reading expository texts. Although evidence of the relationship between interest and reading comprehension has been accumulating in the literature, this relationship is not well understood. Studies have shown that interest and performance are related under some circumstances but not others. Moreover, there has been an emphasis in prior research on whether interest affects comprehension outcomes (e.g., performance on a standardized test), rather than how and why it affects the processes that occur during reading to support comprehension and under what conditions the interest–performance relationship emerges.

The purpose of the present study was to assess the extent to which interest affects processes that occur during reading and processes that support comprehension. We believe that focusing on this relationship can provide important insights into how and why interest can affect performance on outcome measures of comprehension. Furthermore, based on the assumption that other individual-difference factors (e.g., reading skill, prior topic-relevant knowledge) would be implicated in the interest–performance relationship, these individual-difference measures were also included in the current model. Finally, the relationships between interest and task performance may be reciprocal across time as readers interact with text. Therefore, interest both before and after reading was measured in order to explore the extent to which comprehension processes are an outcome as well as a predictor of interest. This allowed us to ascertain whether prereading interest corresponded to cognitive processes online, and whether cognitive processes online corresponded to changes in postreading interest.

The results indicated that higher-interest readers process texts more slowly, and demonstrate greater sensitivity to features that support the construction of a coherent mental model for a text, than lower-interest readers. Moreover, there is some evidence that interest helps less-skilled readers become more engaged with the text. These results provide some explanations for a growing body of literature that shows that text-topic interest affects performance on comprehension tests. Moreover, they suggest that topic interest could be used as a scaffold to promote comprehension.

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