Lombard, Matthew; Maynard, Michael L.; Baasanjav, Undrahbuyan; Schifter, Catherine (Temple University. Libraries, 2018)
      Research over the past several decades suggests there are persistent political knowledge gaps among electoral cohorts in the United States. Of particular concern to many scholars is a generational gap in political knowledge that appears to be widening. The current generation of young voters has lower levels of political knowledge than any of its cohorts of past generations despite having higher levels of formal education. Although formal education is a significant predictor of political knowledge, the strength of this relationship has declined in recent years. Since the 1950s, overall levels of formal education in the United States have significantly increased, yet there has not been a proportionate increase in overall levels of political knowledge. Some scholars attribute this decline in the relationship between formal education and political knowledge to a preceding decline in the quality of civic education in our primary and secondary schools. Quality civic education is important because it provides young people with civic knowledge—knowledge of how their system of government functions and how they can become effective participants within that system. Civic knowledge is important because it also provides a context for a deep understanding of information disseminated in the media about current political issues. Although voters can learn about political issues by encountering information in various types of media, there is a strong correlation between consumption of text-based news media and levels of political knowledge. Newspaper readership has declined, however, especially for traditional print newspapers, which is at its lowest level since 1945. Digital readership is difficult to assess, but there is some evidence that digital newspaper readership is not nearly enough to account for the decline in readership for traditional print newspapers. Civic background knowledge and interest in reading about political issues can enhance deep-level comprehension of text-based political information. Finding ways to make civic background information interesting for young voters could stimulate their interest in reading about political issues and result in increasing their levels of political knowledge. If the Millennial generation continues to be less knowledgeable than their predecessors, it could erode this cohorts’ ability to effectively represent its interests and could eventually result in a polity in which the “vox populi” is reduced to a mere whisper. This study examined text comprehension and interest within the context of an embodied cognition perspective in which the abstract symbols of language are viewed as fundamentally grounded in our bodily responses to our environment. Emerging media, such as interactive computer simulations and virtual environments, provide a way to ground unfamiliar and complex political text-based information in embodied, experiential contexts that could increase comprehension of abstract concepts. These media often evoke the perception of “being there,” in a virtual space. The sense of “being there,” or virtual spatial presence, creates a degree of spatial uncertainty that can result in an increase in arousal that stimulates interest in the information encountered in the virtual space. A within-subjects experiment was conducted to determine whether providing civic background information in a more embodied media format (i.e., an interactive desktop computer simulation) versus a less embodied format (i.e., an onscreen document) for newspaper articles about Obamacare increased interest in and comprehension of the articles. The data were analyzed with paired t-tests and repeated-measures ANOVA. Other statistical tests were also performed to determine relationships among the variables of text comprehension, virtual spatial presence, situational interest, self-reported core affect, and physiological arousal. The findings indicate that surface-level text comprehension of a newspaper article about Obamacare was significantly higher when civic background information for the article was presented in the more embodied format; however, format did not have a significant effect on deep-level comprehension. The findings also indicate that levels of virtual spatial presence and self-reported core affect were significantly higher when participants read information in the more embodied format. Although the results did not reveal a significant effect of format on situational interest in the information, there was a significant order effect of format on situational interest. This was likely the result of a novelty effect and not specifically a result of the level of embodiment the format provided. Within the more embodied format, significant positive correlations emerged between virtual spatial presence and situational interest and between virtual spatial presence and self-reported core affect (i.e., subjective feelings of arousal and enjoyment); however, a negative correlation emerged between virtual spatial presence and skin conductance level. Significant positive correlations also emerged across format conditions between situational interest and self-reported core affect and between situational interest in civic background information for a newspaper article and situational interest in the article itself. The main predictors of overall text comprehension of the newspaper articles about Obamacare were posttest civic knowledge and situational interest.