This week, I’ve been reading The Skills of Document Use: From Text Comprehension to Web-Based Learning by Jean-François Rouet (link to publications) and it has catapulted to the top of my list of favourite professional resources. In a nutshell, it’s brilliant. For starters, Rouet’s summary of current theories of comprehension — including, Kintsch’s Construction-Integration theory — is the best I’ve ever read. The organization of the chapter helped me to conceptualize elements of current psychological theories in new ways — and for this, I’ll always be appreciative. I also love that he explains how the research base on comprehension, that has largely been grounded in comprehension of single texts, is inadequate for understanding the complexities of synthesis across multiple documents. Basically, I wanted to dance a jig — right here in the library — when I read this! This is exactly the theoretical framework I need for my dissertation! (See page 28 for his model.)
Rouet carefully chronicles the extra complexities of constructing meaning across multiple documents. He notes that cognitive variables interact with resource variables and context variables — and suggests that multiple document comprehension differs from single text comprehension in at least three ways (pp. 67-68).
First, source information is critical to the process of integration. The provenance of information “simply cannot be ignored” (p. 68) since it “allows the reader to differentiate documents, and to evaluate the respective contribution of each document to a global representation of a situation.” (p. 68).
Second, multiple document comprehension also emphasizes the “distinction between texts and situations” (p. 68) which, in turn, may help readers to update previous knowledge.
Third, Rouet notes that documents “may complement each other” (p. 68) in a variety of ways — and the reader, of course, has to figure out how. He notes that the most common scenario is likely to be one in which multiple documents present different parts of a whole explanation. Here, the reader needs to determine how the pieces fit together as she constructs a coherent representation of the situation.
Regarding the use of the Internet for teaching multiple document use and integration (what I’m calling synthesis) Rouet offers valuable insights, not the least of which is this concluding statement, “The web may prove to be the teacher’s best friend, but teachers will have to learn how best to take advantage of it.” (p. 182). He recommends that students be explicitly taught skills for integration, sourcing and corroborating information (p. 177) — complex skills in their own right that include several complex sub-components. “Such skills come in addition to those needed to use computers and computer software. They also come in addition to general knowledge of search engines, menus, URLs, and general web-site organization. Instead, they amount to advanced literacy skills that may be of great use in printed as well as electronic information.” (p. 180).
Rouet sets a robust agenda for teachers and researchers globally. There is much work to be done.
Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rouet, J.-F. (2006). The skills of document use: From text comprehension to web-based learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.