AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

4. Learning by any other name: Communication Research Traditions in Learning and Media

4.1 Introduction
4.2 Research Beginnings
4.3 Technical Perspective
4.4 Psychological Perspective
4.5 Social-Cultural Perspective
4.6 Review of Elements of Communication
4.7 An Integrated Approach to Learning
4.8 Conclusion
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4.4 Psychological Perspective

4.4.1 Definition

Psychologically based communication theories share some fundamental characteristics (Trenholm, 1986). First, they represent a modification of technical theories in that messages are filtered primarily through individuals, not channels. Cognitive processes of handling information determine how a message is sent and received; the physical "signal" or channel is less important. Second, this view places more emphasis on the perceptions of senders and receivers. Communication takes place only when these parties perceive it. This perspective assumes that one person's outward behavior affects the cognitions or behavior of another. Such influences contribute to the messages and feedback of communicative events. Third, the goal of these behaviors is to arrive at a consistent meaning between sender and receiver, thereby reducing uncertainty in the meanings each carries for given objects and events.

The psychological perspective is the result of a synthesis of cognitive and behavioral psychology theories. In this tradition of research, three strategies are clear: (1) the adoption of attitude change as the most interesting dependent variable, (2) the modeling of communication (i.e., persuasion) as a special case of behavioral learning theory, and (3) the reliance on experimental social psychology for conceptual and methodological research strategies. The basic communication model proposed by Hovland and Janis (1959) conceived of the communication situation in terms of message content, source identity, type of channel, and setting operating through predispositional factors (situational elements that determine what audience members attend to and how) and internal mediating processes (attention, comprehension, and acceptance) in order to produce observable communication effects (changes in opinion, perception, affect, and action). The challenge of a message was to gain the receiver's interest, then produce the intended effect with understandable and memorable content. The receiver's interest, of course, could be affected by external qualities of the subject of communication or sender, as well as internal interests, beliefs, and cognitive processing capacities (Andersen, 1972). Thus, the model retained the linear notion of technical communication theories but adopted a strong emphasis on the effects component of the communication process.

Other theorists built on this model but emphasized the importance of the individual's abilities in understanding communication effects. The following models taken from Schramm (1954) demonstrate the inclusion of new components in the communication models being applied.

Schramm (1955), along with Osgood (1954; Osgood, Suci & Tannenbaum, 1958), conceived of each person as an entire communicative system with both sending and receiving abilities and, further, saw a more referential model of communication where the participants' experiences determined the meaning of symbols (including both verbal and nonverbal signals and gestures). Words had meaning only insofar as personal experience provided a context for interpretation. Thus, according to this view, for communication to occur, both sender and receiver must share similar experiences. Based on this model, Schramin argued that the effects of communication were limited by the cognitive capacities of senders/receivers and were not as direct as early technical theories of mass communication may have implied (see Fig. 4-2).

Theoretical orientations that adopted the psychological perspective were consistent with Newcomb's (1953) ABX model of social psychology, which held that communication is the way individuals orient to their environment and to one another. Persons develop attitudes toward objects consistent with other individuals who are perceived by them as socially attractive. This model is based on the concept of balance or consistency between one's belief and attitude systems with others who are important to the individual. Once the balance of this state is upset, all parties respond to the resulting dissonance by using communication to restore balance (Festinger, 1962).

Westley and MacLean (1957) contributed an important addition to this model by framing an event (e.g., a news event) as a starting point for communication designed to achieve this attitudinal balance among communicators. Their approach placed the mass media organization (e.g., newspapers) between the source and destination of messages. Assuming a gatekeeper function, the media funnel information from infinite sources, encode messages, and transmit them to the destination. The model also formalized feedback loops in communication, recognizing that feedback to both the sources of messages and message distribution systems (media organizations) was an integral component of the process.

4.4.2 Elements of Communication

Most components of the communication process first laid out by technical theories are retained in the psychological perspective. Message sender and receivers are viewed as connected through feedback loops. Channels refer to material objects that produce or carry signals from one party to the next, but also include nonverbal gestures. Messages are seen in this perspective as "stimuli" that enact certain cognitive structures and recall past experiences on the part of all communicative participants. Noise in this perspective, then, highlights the internal interference that can result from unmatched experiences and perceptions among senders and receivers. The whole of the communication process is framed within individuals' cognitive processing abilities (Trenholm, 1986). The existence of individuals' mental constructs that shape information processing and interpretation represent the key contributions of psychological theories to communication.

The importance of beliefs, attitudes, and values of communicators (Andersen, 1972) becomes clear in the psychological perspective. These constructs are the result of prior experience, but also the motivation for further communication, thus acting as an influence over perception and behavior. They are, in Newcomb's (1953) and Festinger's (1962) terms, the measure of balance in social situations--the motivating force for communication. In addition, the role of attention, comprehension, and acceptance of information in the communication process is introduced in this perspective (Andersen, 1972). Because individuals seek to maintain cognitive balance, their attitudes and beliefs help them select information to which they will attend, how much of it they comprehend, and the ways in which they incorporate messages in their perception and experience. In short, psychological theories of communication hold that communicators selectively attend to and participate in those events that are consistent with their belief and value structures.

4.4.3 Assumptions and Research Focus

Psychological theories assume that human beings exist and process information independently. The reliance of psychological perspective research on S-R learning models focuses attention on cognitive processes, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. The psychological perspective also assumes that in using prior experience to shape cognitive constructs and attitudes, receivers are influenced by the messages they receive. Finally, according to this perspective, human beings are assumed to attend to incoming messages selectively, and consciously choose future responses based on prior experience and anticipation of future events. This dimension of psychological perspectives, then, goes beyond traditional behaviorism in examining the influence of internal cognitive processing on communication.

Description and prediction of communication through each person's conceptual filters introduced research questions on the development, maintenance of, and changes in cognition and attitudes. Several new variables were introduced in experimental studies of communication, including person perception, attitudes, attention, comprehension, and a host of other psychological concepts (Trenholm, 1986). Indeed, later psychological theories (for example, the ABX model) introduced the notion that our perceptions of other people, especially our relational status with those people, is an important influence in the communication process.

4.4.4 Discussion of Representative Research Persuasion Studies. One of the greatest and earliest influences in the development of the psychological perspective was a series of persuasion studies (Hovland & Janis, 1959; Hovland, Tanis & Kelley, 1953; Hovland, 1948). This programmatic research began in the American Soldier Studies, which used film as part of the indoctrination of new recruits during World War 11. The Why We Fight series of film documentaries was designed to replace the traditional lecture-style orientation. A series of studies addressed the effectiveness of film as a vehicle for indoctrination (Hovland, Lumsdaine & Sheffield, 1949). Of interest to the researchers was the ability of the films to provide factual information about the war, to change attitudes of new recruits towards war, and to motivate the recruits to fight. Learning was addressed as persuasion in this instance, involving knowledge acquisition and attitude changes.

The researchers found that the films had significant impact on knowledge of factual material. They found that the soldiers' opinions or attitudes were also affected by the films to a lesser extent. Finally, they found no effect on the motivation of soldiers to fight. In addition, the researchers looked at links between personal factors, such as intellect and learning outcomes. Greater intellectual ability fostered more learning of factual information. However, intellectual ability had a much more complex relationship with opinion change, encompassing the concepts of learning ability, critical ability, and the ability to draw inferences.

The American Soldier Studies laid the foundation for future learning hierarchies of communication effects models such as the one suggested by McGuire (1973). McGuire looked at the process of persuasion (change in attitude or opinion) in conjunction with the factors of communications. In his model, persuasion is broken down into six states: presentation of the communication, attention to it, comprehension of the content, yielding to a new position, retention of that new position, and overt behavior based on the new position. These states are combined with the traditional elements of communication models to create a communication-persuasion matrix. The communication elements axis consists of source, message, channel, receiver, and destination, while the persuasion axis includes presentation, attention, comprehension, yielding, retention, and behavior (McGuire, 1973). Research on Children and Television. Other examples of psychological research emerged from research on television and children. The first rigorous academic exploration of television's effects on children (Himmelweit, Oppenheirn & Vince, 1959) set the stage for an examination of television's unintended effects on learning. Part of the study focused on the extent to which children's outlooks were colored by television: How were their attitudes affected? How were they socialized? Juxtaposing viewers and nonviewers, Himmelweit, Oppenheim, and Vince found that viewers were more ambitious than nonviewers and that girls who watched television were more concerned with issues such as adulthood and marriage than were those who were nonviewers.

At about the same time, Schranun, Lyle, and Parker (1961) initiated the first major exploration of television's effects on children in North America in a series of I I studies on children from Canada and the United States. In particular, this research emphasized how children learn from television. Based on their research, Schramm, Lyle, and Parker developed the concept of "incidental learning":

By this we mean that learning takes place when a viewer goes to television for entertainment and stores up certain items of information without seeking them (1961, p. 75).

In other words, the researchers found that learning took place whether or not programs were intended to be educational. The amount of incidental learning that occurred was linked to such qualities as children's age, television habits, and learning abilities. Studies of Television and Aggression. The other major area of psychological perspective research on children and television focused on the study of violent television programming (see also and 11.3.2). It seemed that if any type of content could be expected to demonstrate clear, direct effects on any particular segment of the audience, violent portrayals in children's programming ought to provide clear evidence of television's impact. The impetus for this research emerged from public outcries of educators and parents who argued that children were learning aggressive behaviors from television exposure. The theoretical model applied in this research was grounded in social learning theory. The early work in social learning theory involved children and imitative aggressive play after an exposure to filmed violence (Bandura, 1963). These studies were based in the highly controlled methodology of experimental psychology. The social learning model, which attempts to explain how children develop personality and learn behaviors by observing models in society, was extended to the study of mediated models of aggression. This approach examines learning as a broad-based variable that involves knowledge acquisition and behavioral performance.

In a series of experiments (Bandura, 1961; Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963; Bandura, 1965), Bandura and his colleagues demonstrated that exposure to filmed aggression resulted in higher levels of imitative aggressive behavior. Such behaviors were conditioned not only on the role model to which the child was exposed but also on the physical setting and arousal of aggressive feelings in later situations. According to this approach, the message being sent, intentional or unintentional, is the notion of what constitutes appropriate behavior in society. The crux of the theory is that people learn how to behave from models viewed in society, live or mediated (Bandura, 1977). If the modeled behavior is seen as being desirable by the receiver, she or he may acquire that behavior. In addition, social learning research demonstrated that children were able to recall aggressive behavior up to 8 months after the initial exposure (Hicks, 1965). Bryant (1975) extended social learning theory beyond the realm of aggression to include the modeling of prosocial behavior. He concluded that children could also learn altruistic behaviors from mediated models.

Beyond the laboratory, researchers reported the results of a 10-year longitudinal study examining the relationship between television violence and aggressive behavior (Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder & Huesmann, 1972). This correlational study concluded that boys who reported viewing more violent content in the third grade displayed greater levels of aggression 10 years later. Finally, research indicated that children who had viewed violent films were more likely to tolerate violence (Drabinan & Thomas, 1974, 1976, 1977). In response to the growing literature associating television and violence, NBC commissioned a panel study (Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp & Rubens, 1982) that revealed only small correlations between viewing televised violence and subsequent aggression, and no evidence at all indicating long-term effects. Cultivation Research. Beginning in the late 1960s at the same time that initial research examined links between television exposure and aggressive behavior, research on the long-term socialization effects of television achieved prominence in the study of media and audiences. This approach, known as cultivation research, conceptualized learning as a generalized view of the world or perception of social reality as conveyed by the mass media. Concerned primarily with television as the foremost "storyteller" in modem society, researchers argued that television's power to influence world views was the result of two factors. First, television viewing was seen as ritualistic and habitual rather than selective (see 11.8.2). (That is, viewers chose to watch "television" in general rather than a specific program.) Second, the stories on television were all related in their content and in similar production processes.

Early cultivation research held that heavy television viewers would "learn" that the real world was more like that portrayed on television--particularly in regard to pervasive violence--than would light viewers (Gerbner, Gross, Eleey, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox & Signorielli, 1977; Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox & Signorielli, 1978; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1980; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, Morgan & Jackson-Beeck, 1979). Heavy viewers were expected to estimate the existence of higher levels of danger in the world and feel more alienated and distrustful than would light viewers. The scope of cultivation research was later broadened to include attitudes regarding race, sex roles, and various professions. Of crucial importance to cultivation theory, however, is the idea that such effects are more likely to take place in the absence of counter messages from the surrounding environment. Heavy viewers were thought to experience such effects because of the lack of other activities and interactions in their social lives. Without exposure to the real world, television served as the model.

Although cultivation has been a significant force in communication studies, its conclusions have been criticized repeatedly. Again, these criticisms focused on the role of contextual elements from the viewer's social environment. Doob and MacDonald (1979), for example, found that perceptions of personal danger were more influenced by one's area of residence than by television viewing. O'Keefe (1984), on the other hand, concluded that the amount of television exposure had no relationship with perceptions of crime, concern about victimization, and assessment of the criminal justice system. Such divergent conclusions are perhaps irreconcilable, but as new technologies develop, audiences become more fragmented, and program forms and themes become more diverse, such an approach seems increasingly irrelevant. Agenda-Setting Research. Another example of psychological perspective research has focused on the study of news content and the process by which public learning about the world is influenced by mass-media news coverage. That is, to what extent does the content individuals read in the newspapers and watch on the television news affect their world view? This research tradition, referred to as agenda setting, was inspired by the writings of Walter Lippmann (1922), who proposed that the news media created the "pictures in our heads," providing a view of the world beyond people's limited day-to-day experiences. The basic hypothesis in such research is that there will be a positive relationship between media coverage of issues and what issues people regard as being important. In the 1960s, researchers extended the hypothesis by arguing that the media focus attention on specific issues, thereby suggesting what people should think, know, and have feelings about (Cohen, 1963; Lang & Lang, 1966).

In order to link mass media and public knowledge, a landmark study compared press coverage of the 1968 presidential campaign with the salience of campaign issues among a sample of undecided voters (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Finding a significant positive correlation between voter knowledge and press coverage, the authors (Shaw & McCombs, 1977) concluded that the direction of influence was indeed from the press to the audience. That is, press

coverage of events and issues was not preceded in time by audience interest in and demand for coverage of the topics.

Agenda-setting studies over the past 3 decades have employed both short-term and longitudinal designs to assess public awareness and concern about issues such as unemployment, energy, and inflation in relation to the amount and form of relevant news coverage (for example, Behr & Iyengar, 1985; Brosius & Kepplinger, 1990; Iyengar, Peters & Kinder, 1982). Recent research has attempted to broaden understanding of agenda setting by investigating both attitudinal and behavioral outcomes (e.g., Ghorpade, 1986; Roberts, 1992; Shaw & Martin, 1992).

Concern over possible mediating factors such as audience variations, issue abstractness, and interpersonal communication among audience ' members has fueled significant debate within the field concerning the strength of the agenda setting effect on public learning. For example, some studies have suggested that agenda setting is strongly influenced by audience members' varying interests, the form of media employed, the tone of news stories toward issues, and the type of issue covered (Demers, Craff, Choi & Pessin, 1989; Protess, Leff, Brooks & Gordon, 1985; Yagade & Dozier, 1990). These theoretical problems face radical transformation, if not extinction, as audience members take an increasingly active role in setting their own media agendas through the use of video recordings, narrow-cast cable, and other new media technologies. Media Attributes Research. The media attributes approach to the study of instructional media provides a good example of psychological research in in-school contexts (see 11.3, 16.3, 16.4, 26.4, 27.2, and 29.4). Rather than focusing on which mode of delivery resulted in the highest levels of learning as in the earlier media comparison studies, investigators turned to the more narrowly focused exploration of unique media characteristics and their connections to the development or enhancement of students' cognitive skills. Each medium was said to possess inherent codes or symbol systems that engaged specific cognitive abilities among users. In this research, the conceptualization of learning outcomes shifted away from consideration of the exclusively lower-order cognitive processes of the media comparison approach to include the learner's higher-order interpretive processes as well. For example, according to the media attributes perspective, a researcher might ask how students interpret use of a fade between scenes in a television show and its connection to the viewer's ability to draw inferences about the passage of time in a story.

Early media attributes studies (Salomon, 1974, 1979; Salomon & Cohen, 1977) concluded that mastery of certain skills was a requisite for satisfactory use of a medium. For instance, students had to be able to encode letters on a page as meaningful words in order to use a book. A series of laboratory and field experiments following this line of research reported that learning was mediated by the cognitive skills necessary for effective use of a particular medium.

In addition, scholars have analyzed the relationship between media attributes and the cultivation or development of certain cognitive skills (see also 11.3). For television alone, studies have documented positive learning effects for the use of motion (Blake, 1977), screen placements (Hart, 1986; Zettl, 1973), split-screen displays (Salomon, 1979), and use of various camera angles and positions (Hoban & van Ormer, 1950). Researchers also explored cognitive skills linked to other media attributes, including the use of verbal previews, summaries, and repetition (Allen, 1973); amount of narration on audio/video recordings (Hoban & van Ormer, 1950; Travers, 1967); and the use of dramatization, background music, graphic aids, and special sound/ visual effects (e.g., Beck, 1987; Dalton & Hannafin, 1986; Glynn & Britton, 1984; Morris, 1988; NIMH, 1982; Seidman, 1981).

The list of cognitive skills linked to such attributes included increases in attention, comprehension, and retention of information, as well as visualization of abstract ideas. Some intriguing results emerged from this research approach. For example, one study (Salomon, 1979) presented children with pictures of a particular scene, then asked them to choose an alternative view of the scene (e.g., from the back) from four pictures. The results demonstrated that frequent viewers of television were better at such perspective-taking skills.

Critics pointed out the potential weaknesses of this research. Some held that assertions about media's cognitive cultivation capacities had yet to be proved (Johnston, 1987). One detailed review of the research (Clark, 1983) argued that media attributes research rests on three questionable expectations: (1) that attributes are an integral part of media, (2) that attributes provide for the cultivation of cognitive skills for learners who need them, and (3) that identified attributes would provide unique independent variables that specified causal relationships between media codes and the teaching of cognitive functions. A subsequent review found that no one attribute specific to any medium is necessary to learn any specific cognitive skill; other presentational forms may result in similar levels of skill development (Clark & Salomon, 1985). While some symbolic elements may permit the audience members to cultivate cognitive abilities, these elements are characteristic of several media, not unique attributes of any one medium (Clark, 1987).

Updated October 14, 2003
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