Rawson's Comprehension & Memory Lab Research Projects

Research Projects

Our lab currently supports several active and exciting lines of research. Here is just a sample of our ongoing projects:

How does text comprehension become 'automatic'? For many adults, text comprehension processes are usually fast and effortless.  Skilled readers can quickly and easily understand most of the text material they encounter in daily life.  In short, text comprehension processes seem “automatic” to most of us.  An important question follows from this observation: What are the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the automatization of text comprehension processes?  That is, how do skilled readers become skilled readers?  Not only is this question of basic theoretical interest, it has important implications for the estimated 43% of adults in the U.S. who have only a basic or below basic level of prose literacy (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Over the last year, one theoretical branch of my research has focused on exploring the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the automatization of text comprehension processes. 

How can we improve students' learning of course material? A primary goal of education is to promote durable learning of information, not just transient increases in the familiarity of information. Accordingly, a major problem is how to support student learning in a manner that yields long-term retention.  The problem is compounded by the fact that students are expected to learn an overwhelming amount of information across their various classes. Thus, a student must not only learn important concepts in such a way as to promote long-term retention, but they must also do so as efficiently as possible to ensure enough time to learn all of the important content.  To address these issues, one branch of my research program focuses on how to improve the durability and efficiency of student learning. 

How can we improve patients' learning of health information? Patients who are diagnosed with chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes) are usually given written materials about how to manage their disease (e.g., from medical personnel or educators in patient education programs).  In many cases, the extent to which patients can successfully manage their disease may depend critically on their ability to learn and retain information about appropriate day-to-day behaviors, medication regimens, tell-tale symptoms, and so on.  Furthermore, successful disease management may also depend in part on their ability to accurately evaluate what they know and what they don’t know (e.g., to guide subsequent study of the medical information, to seek information from medical personnel, etc.).  

How does knowledge improve memory? A wealth of previous research has shown that higher levels of domain knowledge can support learning of new domain information.  These knowledge effects on memory are almost exclusively attributed to the involvement of organizational processes (i.e., knowledge supports the encoding of similarities between items). This line of research tests the distinctiveness theory of skilled memory, according to which knowledge supports not only the encoding of similarities between items but also key differences between similar items so they may be discriminated from one another later.