Date of Award

Spring 5-17-2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Communication

First Advisor

Deborah L. Linebarger, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Joseph N. Cappella, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Amy B. Jordan, Ph.D.

Abstract

This study represents the first experimental investigation to simultaneously evaluate the impact of three key areas of a child’s television viewing experience -individual differences (story schema), the stimulus (narrative type), and the environment (perceived demand characteristics). Guided by the capacity model (Fisch, 2000, 2004), preschoolers’ comprehension of an educational television program was evaluated in a 2 (story schema: low, high) x 2 (perceived demand characteristics: fun (low), learning (high)) x 2 (narrative type: participatory cues absent, participatory cues present) between-subjects fully crossed factorial experiment. Comprehension was operationalized as both narrative (i.e. central, incidental, and inferential comprehension) and educational content comprehension. A total of 172 preschoolers (102 females) participated in the study (Mean Age = 4.2 years). Children were randomly assigned to one of four conditions created by crossing the perceived demand characteristic manipulation with the narrative type manipulation. Story schema level was assigned through a median-split procedure based on story schema scores. In addition to program comprehension, data was collected on expressive vocabulary, story schema skills, program familiarity, and engagement with and attention to stimuli.

Advanced story schema supported narrative comprehension, and this reduction in narrative processing demands translated to educational content comprehension. Children’s television programmers are advised to design educational television content which conforms to a prototypical story structure while integrating educational content within the narrative. Additionally, while children seemed able to devote greater attention to content when asked to “watch to learn”, they appeared to struggle with how to differentially distribute this attention, resulting in minimally enhanced inferential processing and no additional benefits to educational content comprehension. Finally, the inclusion of participatory cues in children’s television programming was not sufficient to support comprehension. Rather, it seems that engagement with participatory cues is necessary to support comprehension – particularly for children with low story schema and children viewing “for fun”. When integrating the findings for perceived demand characteristics and narrative type, children’s television programmers are advised to use participatory cues strategically to highlight educational content.

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