Part-Whole Study Improves Memory for Science Information

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Michelle Kiser, Ed.D.

Dr. Michelle Kiser received her Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and Doctorate of Education at Texas Tech University.  Michelle completed her dissertation on the “Developmental Students Sources of Self-Efficacy and the University Academic Support Program Impact.” Michelle worked as the Assistant Director of Texas Success Initiative (TSI) Developmental Education Program for five years prior to being promoted to the Director of Support Operations for Academic Retention (SOAR) in May 2009. Michelle manages four programs within SOAR: The Learning Center, Supplemental Instruction, Texas Success Initiative, and Programs for Academic Development and Retention. Michelle has been employed by Texas Tech University for over 14 years. In addition, Michelle is an adjunct instructor for the College of Education at Texas Tech University teaching Teacher Education courses in Content Area Reading.  In her spare time, Michelle volunteers for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

Segmentation of information has been shown to increase comprehension and retention of multimedia materials (Mayer & Chandler, 2001; Mayer, Dow & Mayer, 2003; Singh, Marcus & Ayres, 2012). We wondered if memory for science text could be improved by studying information in pieces and then all together.

In a part-whole study method, the person studies the text in several parts and then as a whole, rather than being presented immediately with the whole text. We conducted an experiment to determine whether a part-whole method would enable non-developmental and developmental readers to recall more from a science text compared to using a whole-text method.

Forty-three developmental college readers and 52 non-developmental college readers studied a science text about sea otters. The complete text was about 300 words and had a readability level at approximately an 8th grade level. Half the students in each group were presented with the whole text, and half were presented with the text using the part-whole method. All students studied the text for 10 minutes total. The text was presented on a computer screen, and the timing was controlled by the computer. After studying the text, students were asked what percentage of the text they thought that they comprehended, and what percentage of the text they thought they could recall. They were then asked to recall as much of the text as they could using the computer. Recall was measured using the number of idea units from the passage that each student was able to recall.

The study showed the superiority of the part-whole method when studying science texts. The non-developmental students recalled more idea units than the developmental students, but importantly, both non-developmental and developmental students recalled more idea units when using a part-whole method instead of a whole-text method.

Developmental students who used a part-whole method compared to those who used a whole-text method reported that they comprehended a greater percentage of the text.

Developmental students who used a part-whole method compared to those who used a whole-text method predicted that they would recall a greater percentage of the text—and they actually did!

Overall, the findings suggest that developmental and non-developmental readers are not qualitatively different. Rather, they engage in similar processes, but differ in the skill and effectiveness with which they apply those processes.

As Nist and Simpson point out, “[T]he complexity of learning and studying…cuts across all college students, not just developmental students or students who are struggling” (quote from Stahl, 2006, p. 21).


Mayer, R. E., & Chandler, P. (2001). When learning is just a click away: Does simple user interaction foster deeper understanding of multimedia messages? Journal of Educational Psychology93(2), 390.

Mayer, R. E., Dow, G. T., & Mayer, S. (2003). Multimedia learning in an interactive self-explaining environment: What works in the design of agent-based microworlds? Journal of Educational Psychology95(4), 806.

Stahl, N. A. (2006). Strategic reading and learning, theory to practice: An interview with Michele Simpson and Sherrie Nist. Journal of Developmental Education, 29 (3), 20-24, 26, 27.



Metacognition: Critical Start for Literacy Instruction

Tasha Vice bio pic

Tasha Vice, Ph.D.

Tasha Vice studied at Eastern New Mexico University, where she received a M.Ed. in Secondary Education and M.A. in English. She continued to study Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University, where she earned a Ph.D. with an emphasis in Language and Literacy.  Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Reading and Education at South Plains College, where she teaches Developmental Reading as well as Integrated Reading and Writing. In addition, she instructs Learning Frameworks courses with a focus on cognitive neuroscience and psychological theories of learning. Her research interests include content literacy, critical literacy, and cognitive or metacognitive factors related to reading success. She can be reached by e-mail at

Core literacy skills are necessary for success. Yet, students lack the reading skills for literacy (ACT, 2011). Improving literacy is the responsibility in all content areas. However, colleges rely on developmental education to address the needs of literacy students (Boylan, 2001; NADE, 2011). Many developmental students believe they don’t need literacy improvement (Vice, 2013) and are resistant to learning (Lesley, 2001; Lesley, 2004). How can faculty help these students succeed?

Direct and explicit instruction of cognitive and affective strategies, content knowledge, and contextual skills are key. Responsive pedagogy addresses some components:

  • Advising, counseling, and support systems (NADE, 2011),
  • Opportunities to deconstruct negative feelings about learning (Lesley, 2001),
  • Activities to reconstruct or develop literacy identities (Gee, 2002),
  • Self-analysis of skill and attitude over time (Moje, 2008),
  • Social, emotional, cultural, and ideological contexts in the classroom (Chiu-hui and Cody, 2010).

Each of these is important, but none solely guarantees success. To increase success, educators should introduce metacognition, thinking about thinking (Flavell, 1979). Accurate metacognition is required to maintain focus, attention, motivation, and self-efficacy (Conley, 2005). Metacognition also includes a personal understanding of one’s performance and persistence (Conley, 2007).

Developmental students’ inaccurate perceptions are rooted in their personal beliefs about their abilities (Lesley, 2004). Dweck (2006) argues those students who believe their skills and abilities cannot change suffer from a fixed mindset. Students with a fixed mindset lack motivation for learning and cannot cope with failure. Students with growth mindset and who believe they can change are likely to embrace learning. Instructing students on the concept of mindsets can help them reduce resistance and embrace change as literacy learners.

“A growth mindset is telling yourself or someone else that you can do anything, no matter the challenge, with time, attention, and practice.” (Literacy Student, Fall 2015)

Duckworth (2016) argues that grit (persistence and perseverance) is the only determining factor of success. Students should reflect on their failures and develop plans to monitor, regulate, and direct their own thinking. Challenging students to go through these processes can help them increase their grit and succeed.

“Set up your mind. Believe. Make your brain work! Tell your mind ‘never give up’. Don’t let falling down, someone, or something affect you!” (Literacy Student, Fall 2015)

Mindsets theory provides insight into students’ inaccurate perceptions and may help them focus on growth while grit helps students to understand and persist as they perform literacy tasks.

“Metacognition is important because it helps us be successful! When we have a growth mindset, we are ready to grow and accept mistakes. With grit, we get through it and learn new things even if we fail. This helped me believe in myself, and I think I can do it!” (Literacy Student, Fall 2015)

As a critical starting point for literacy instruction, educators should explore practices and investigate the possibilities of using Mindsets and Grit theories that address students’ metacognition.


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