Aug
5
2014

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Children’s educational television programs often have characters talk directly to their young viewers – encouraging children to “participate” in the TV show. A new CcaM study shows that, for frequent viewers of these shows, these participation cues are an effective way to support learning.

The main question driving this study was whether participatory cues (i.e., when characters ask questions or encourage interaction with content) help children learn from educational TV.  There were two findings:

  1. Although cues certainly encourage children to engage (talking, dancing) with TV content, only children who are experienced with these cues (i.e., frequent viewers of the TV content) actually experienced learning benefits.  For kids who were less familiar with the show, the cues resulted in less learning from educational TV. 
  2. Regardless of cues, children who were more familiar with the educational TV program used in the study learned more from the program.

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Although children’s educational TV programs frequently incorporate participatory cues into their content, prior to this study, it was unknown whether these features supported children’s learning.  This study is the first to show that, for preschool-aged children, these cues can be a great way to bolster children’s learning from television.  But, children need time to learn how to use these cues. Benefits will not be immediate.

This study has important implications for media developers.  Although cues are becoming more commonplace in children’s TV, they might not be the most efficient investment. Identifying ways to support and enhance familiarity (i.e., via relatable characters or content) may be a more prudent approach.  And, if using cues, it important that designers recognize that viewers need time to familiarize themselves with the content before benefits emerge.  

For this study, 187 children (3-5 yrs) were randomly assigned to one of two groups.  One group watched an episode of the educational program, Dora the Explorer (DTE), without any editing while a second group watched the same episode, but all participatory cues were deleted. Before viewing, children completed an assessment to measure familiarity with DTE and educational content knowledge. After viewing, children completed an assessment to measure how much educational content they learned from the show. 

The study was conducted by CcaM’s director, Dr. Jessica Taylor Piotrowski.

Click here to read the article “Participatory Cues and Program Familiarity Predict Young Children’s Learning from Educational Television” published in Media Psychology.  

If you would like more information about this article, please contact the corresponding author – Jessica Taylor Piotrowski – via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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