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date: 11 December 2017

Summary and Keywords

Knowledge and comprehension are essential components of an individual’s understanding of a health text. Whether reading a health pamphlet or watching a health campaign in the form of a public service announcement (PSA), or watching edutainment programming, individuals gain knowledge about the health topic being discussed. Knowledge, however, can only be retained if the individual can also comprehend the text or video. Often comprehension in a health context focuses on health literacy or the degree to which individuals can process and understand health information in order to make informed health decisions. Health literacy is commonly viewed in terms of the readability (e.g., reading level, complexity) of the health text or script. However, in order for individuals to gain knowledge and use that knowledge appropriately and effectively in making health decisions, individuals need to comprehend or understand what the text is conveying.

Because comprehension is such an important component of gaining and using health knowledge, we must understand how we store health knowledge in memory. A schema is a mental representation that stores knowledge as interrelated pieces of information. Schemas tend to be a fairly static representation of knowledge. A mental model is a more dynamic mental representation in that we use mental models to process, organize, and comprehend incoming information. In a mental model, there is a correspondence between an external entity and the constructed mental model of that entity that allows people to counterfactually manipulate information and engage in problem solving. A situation model is the most contextualized mental representation because it encompasses a specific event or set of interrelated events. There are several ways in which to examine comprehension processes. One way is to examine the most basic level of comprehension by investigating the importance of language and semantic representation of a text. A more complex way to examine comprehension is to view the activation levels of various words or concepts important in creating a representation of the story structure in memory. One model that specifically examines concept activation is the landscape model. The model posits that greater frequency of activation and the strength of activation of a concept determine the concept’s overall activation level. The higher the activation level of a concept in a text or video, the more likely the concept will be included in the mental representation for the text or video and stored in memory. A third way to study comprehension is to examine how concepts change throughout a text and how the concepts relate to one another. The event-indexing model describes how individuals create situation models based on five dimensions of information: time, space, protagonist, causality, and intentionality. Throughout the process of gaining information, the individual updates the situation models for a text on each of the five dimensions. When events have similar dimensions in common, the events are connected in memory; thus, describing health information with similar dimensions in common (e.g., a protagonist the entire way through the text, events happening in the same amount of time) will be better recalled later. Empirical work on comprehension of both text and video messages has demonstrated the landscape model and event-indexing model’s ability to examine comprehension processes based on the format, language, and organization of the information. Health message design can benefit from utilizing these comprehension models to ensure that knowledge is received by the intended audience and comprehended, and thus able to be used in future experiences.

Keywords: comprehension, mental models, schemas, situation models, information seeking, health literacy, health and risk message design and processing

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