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Too much information?

November 22, 2010

Photo of people working at computersOver the last decade or so, the World Wide Web has created a seismic shift in one of the cornerstones of education: reading.

Or, more precisely, how we understand what we’re reading.

In this new age of information, it’s no longer enough to comprehend a single text, NIU researchers say. The ease of Internet access to information such as advertisements, blogs, press releases, wikis, newspapers and encyclopedias makes it imperative that readers also be equipped to analyze multiple perspectives and evaluate source reliability.

“The types of reading situations required of students in the 21st century have changed, and we need to create interventions to help students better understand what they read,” says NIU psychology professor Anne Britt.

“Students are bombarded by a variety of online information that is unfiltered by traditional sources such as librarians and publishers,” Britt says. “More than ever, they have to evaluate the quality of the information on their own.”

Anne Britt, Joseph Magliano and Brad Pillow

Anne Britt, Joseph Magliano and Brad Pillow

With a new grant award of $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education, Britt and NIU Department of Psychology colleagues Joseph Magliano and Brad Pillow are now working to better understand how students filter the information glut.

The NIU researchers are members of a multi-institution team that in total received $19 million from the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year project led by Susan R. Goldman of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to basic research on how students process information, the team will develop and test classroom- and web-based interventions to improve “reading for understanding” at the middle-school and high-school levels.

“We’ve been doing this type of research at NIU for awhile,” says Britt, who specializes in the study of how readers form arguments when presented with conflicting information and multiple perspectives.

She says past NIU studies have underscored the difference between reading comprehension and reading for understanding. The studies, for example, found that when given multiple sources to produce an essay, some students mistakenly support their arguments with material from unreliable sources, including from fictional novels.

“It’s not enough to comprehend a single text,” Britt says. “Students must also be able to identify the reliability and veracity of information.”

That requires another layer of critical-thinking skills.

“It involves reflecting on a whole set of factors associated with text, including who wrote it and why, and how the material is relevant to the reader’s goals,” says Magliano, whose area of research expertise focuses on how people understand what they read and watch.

“The web has been a real game changer,” Magliano says. “The general consensus is that reading comprehension is more important than ever, but the critical skill sets now required for full comprehension typically have not been taught in school.”

The research collaboration is one of six multi-institutional teams working collaboratively on a major Reading for Understanding Research Initiative funded by the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education.

Overall, the IES Network represents a $100 million investment aimed at improving reading skills. The effort comes in response to data from national assessments and employers indicating that many high school and college graduates lack basic literacy skills.

Keith Millis and Katja Wiemer

Keith Millis and Katja Wiemer

NIU psychology professors Keith Millis and Katja Wiemer also are receiving $200,000 in funding for their efforts on another project team headed up by Educational Testing Services. Their work will focus on assessing the interventions for K-12 students.

“We are trying to bring assessment up to the 21st century,” Millis says. “The exciting thing about this is that, unlike the assessments from yesterday, tests nowadays can be delivered on the computer using cutting-edge technologies.”

More than a dozen student researchers also will assist in the NIU research projects.

by Tom Parisi