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Although many contextual factors play roles in whether children will learn from the media they watch (Crawley et al., 1999; Fisch, 2000; Mares & Acosta, 2008; Richert & Schlesinger, 2017; Richert & Smith, 2011), children making personal connections to the content they are watching may further facilitate learning (Calvert et al., 2007; Cingel & Krcmar, 2017). Previous research has examined how identification with media characters influences learning outcomes (Schlesinger et al., 2016), but no studies have manipulated a child’s level of identification with media characters or measured how this manipulated identification relates to learning.
Hypothesis 1:Children’s identification with a novel character will be related to whether or not that character is presented as similar/dissimilar from them.
Hypothesis 2:Children reporting higher levels of identification with a novel character will be more likely to learn from that character.
Eighty-seven 4-6-year-old children watched a video of a novel puppet solving a STEM problem. After the video, children were tasked with solving an analogically-similar problem (building a lever to launch a ball). Additionally, children were tested for working memory, spatial ability, executive function, and fantasy-reality distinction. Children reported their levels of identification with the novel character before and after the story manipulation, in which the character was presented as similar (Same group) or dissimilar (Different group) to the participant. Hypothesis 1 was supported: Children in the Same group reported higher levels of identification with the character, while children in the Different group reported lower levels of identification. This was tested by creating difference scores from the pre- and post-test identification scores, and then using a One-Way ANOVA (Figure 1) examining difference scores between conditions (Same: M=.731, SD=.758; Different: M=-.295, SD=.397; Control: M=-.015, SD=.353; Welch’s F(2, 49.008)=19.007, p<.001, η2=.401). Games-Howell post-hoc analysis revealed that the difference between the Same and Different groups (-1.025, 95% CI[.619, 1.432]) was statistically significant (p<.001), as well as the difference between the Same and Control groups (-.746, 95% CI[.351, 1.140], p<.001). The Same group’s difference scores were significantly different from 0 (t(25)=4.916, p<.001, Cohen’s d=1.966), as well as those of the Different group (t(27)=-3.927, p=.001, Cohen’s d=-1.512), indicating an increase from pre- to post-test scores in the Same group but a decrease in the Different group. The Control group was not significantly different from 0 (t(32)=-.246, p=.807, Cohen’s d=.087).
In partial support of Hypothesis 2, identification was significantly related to increases in memory for the video solution for children who believed the character was similar to themselves (Table 1; r=.394, p=.046), but not the learning outcomes of analogical transfer (r=-.325, p=.105) or divergent thinking (r=-.082, p=.672). Findings are discussed in terms of the role of working memory, which was likely taxed by the story manipulation, leading to higher memory scores, but no effect with the higher levels of learning outcomes.