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Research has shown that educational media can hold significant benefits for preschool and elementary-school children’s understanding of and attitudes toward STEM. Yet, educational media are effective only if they are well-designed; the underlying STEM content must be educationally viable, and its treatment within a given media product must be tailored to the needs, abilities, and interests of its target audience.
Findings from Research and Evaluation
Formative research is empirical research conducted during the development of a set of materials—often using early prototypes—to inform the production of the final product. Such research is highly valuable in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a particular set of materials, and in pointing to any revisions that might be needed. Typically, many of the implications of formative research are specific to the materials that are tested. However, by pooling research of numerous STEM media projects, we can also identify characteristics that that have contributed to the effectiveness of existing educational media as a whole – and that producers can employ to make new materials as educationally powerful as possible. (For a more detailed discussion of these characteristics, see Fisch, 2004a, 2004b.)
Because children’s use of informal science media is generally voluntary, key characteristics pertain both to the clarity of the embedded STEM content and to the appeal and age-appropriateness of the materials as well. Some of these characteristics apply across many different media (e.g., television, computer games, print):
- Engaging children via the use of appealing elements such as humor, mysteries, and games, among others (with the caveat that humor is developmental, so children appreciate different kinds of humor at different ages (Fisch, Yotive, McCann, Cohen, & Chen, 1996; Frenette, 1991)
- Presenting engaging or action-filled visuals, instead of either static visuals, extensive dialogue, or “talking heads” (Fisch et al., 1996)
- Creating characters whom children see as competent and intelligent, and with whom they can identify (Frenette, 1991; Johnston, 1980; Johnston & Luker, 1983)
- Choosing age-appropriate topics (for both stories/games and educational content) that are inherently interesting to children and relevant to their lives (Frenette, 1991)
- Presenting content via age-appropriate language and at levels of difficulty that are tailored to children’s knowledge and developmental level (Frenette, 1991)
- Handling educational content in ways that are clear, direct, and explicit (Fisch, 2000, 2004a)
- Making on-screen print as legible as possible, by using large fonts, high contrast between print and backgrounds, and standard orientations (Fisch, 2004b)
- Keeping the educational content “on the plotline” – that is, making the educational content central, rather than tangential, to gameplay or the plot of a narrative (e.g., using a science concept to uncover the crucial clue that solves a mystery, designing games so that gameplay naturally requires users to employ and practice a targeted skill (ARC Consulting LLC, 1995; Fisch, 2000, 2004a)
- Focusing an individual game, activity, or television episode tightly on conveying a small number of ideas (ARC Consulting LLC, 1995; Frenette, 1991; Goodman, Rylander, & Ross, 1993)
- Reinforcing concepts by revisiting them several times over the course of a game or television episode (ARC Consulting LLC, 1995)
- Embedding content in a context of problem solving in which characters continually revisit and refine their solutions to make them more effective (Goodman et al., 1993)
- Drawing explicit connections among conceptually related activities or television segments, to encourage children to see how similar concepts can be applied to different problems or situations (Johnston, 1980; Johnston & Luker, 1983)
- Encouraging children to actively engage in the educational content themselves, through either interactive gameplay or viewer participation while watching a television program (e.g., playing along with a game show, attempting to solve a problem before the on-screen characters solve it (Fisch, 2004b)
- Motivating children to carry learning forward via activities that extend the experience after viewing (e.g., trying a hands-on experiment that was shown on-screen, searching for additional information in books or online (Frenette, 1991)
Other characteristics of effective media are more specific to interactive media. Some of these include:
- Making interfaces easily usable within the parameters set by young children’s cognitive development and eye-hand coordination (e.g., by making clickable hot spots large and well spaced (Hanna, Risden, Czerwinski, & Alexander, 1999; Strommen & Revelle, 1990; Wilson & Talley, 1990)
- Using on-screen spacing and highlighting to support children’s grouping and counting of on-screen objects (Hanna et al., 1999; Strommen & Revelle, 1990)
- Keeping verbal instructions short (20 seconds or less) and concrete, and taking advantage of inflection/affect (Strommen & Revelle, 1990)
- Designing feedback and hint structures to scaffold performance (e.g., by providing greater support in response to repeated errors), and to reinforce success in order to support children’s self-concept of being “good at science or math” (Revelle, Strommen, & Medoff, 2001)
ARC Consulting LLC. (1995). Research findings: The Magic School Bus (Vol. 1, Executive summary, & Vol. 2, Comprehensive report). New York: Author.
Fisch, S.M. (2000). A capacity model of children’s comprehension of educational content on television. Media Psychology, 2, 1, 63-91.
Fisch, S.M. (2004a). Children’s learning from educational television: Sesame Street and beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Fisch, S.M. (2004b). Characteristics of effective materials for informal education: A cross-media comparison of television, magazines, and interactive media. In Rabinowitz, M., Blumberg, F.C., & Everson, E. (Eds.; 2004). The impact of media and technology on instruction (pp. 3-18). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Fisch, S.M., Yotive, W.M., McCann, S.K., Cohen, D.I., & Chen, L. (1996, April). The many faces of science on children’s television: 3-2-1 Contact and Cro. Rountable discussion presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY.
Frenette, M. (1991). Television as a source of informal science learning for pre-adolescents: Design considerations. Canadian Journal of Educational Communication, 20, 1, 17-35.
Goodman, I.F., Rylander, K., & Ross, S. (1993). Cro Season I summative evaluation. Cambridge, MA: Sierra Research Associates.
Hanna, L., Risden, K., Czerwinski, M., & Alexander, K.J. (1999). The role of usability research in designing children’s computer products. In Druin, A. (Ed.), The design of children’s technology (pp. 3-26). San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufman Publishers, Inc.
Johnston, J. (1980). An exploratory study of the effects of viewing the first season of 3-2-1 Contact. New York: Children’s Television Workshop.
Johnston, J., & Luker, R. (1983). The “Eriksson Study”: An exploratory study of viewing two weeks of the second season of 3-2-1 Contact. New York: Children’s Television Workshop.
Revelle, G.L., Strommen, E.F., & Medoff, L. (2001). Interactive technologies research at the Children’s Television Workshop. In Fisch, S.M., & Truglio, R.T. (Eds.), “G” is for growing: Thirty years of research on Sesame Street (pp. 215-230). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Strommen, E.F., & Revelle, G.L. (1990). Research in interactive technologies at the Children’s Television Workshop. Educational Technology Research and Development, 38, 4, 65-80.
Wilson, K.S., & Talley, W.J. (1990). The “Palenque” project: Formative evaluation in the development and design of an optical disc prototype. In Flagg, B.N. (Ed.), Formative evaluation for educational technology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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