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Implicit Theories 1


M Cecil Smith.
Joan T. Runne
Wesley C. Covalt

Northern Illinois University

DeKalb, IL 60115-2854

(815) 753-8448 fax# (815) 753-2100

Implicit Theories 2


Developmental changes in metacognitive abilities have occupied a central role in

cognitive research for at least the past decade. Metacognitive abilities include both the
knowledge possessed by the learner about their cognitive abilities and the strategies for
regulating cognitive activities (Baker & Brown, 1984). Metacognitive research has
focused attention in two areas: memory abilities (e.g., learning vocabulary, text recall) and
reading (e.g., strategies for comprehending text information). The bulk of metacognitive
research has concerned the development of metacognitive abilities in children (Paris,
Wasik, & Turner, 1991).
Research concerned with the development of adults' metacognitive abilities has
generally been limited to studies of metamemory, that is, knowledge of one's memory
abilities and capacities, and strategies for enhancing one's memory (Lachman, Lachman, &
Thronesbery, 1979). The findings concerning developmental changes in metamemory
abilities have been marked by inconsistencies. While Lachman et al. (1979) found that
metamemory continues to improve across the life span, Murphy et al. (1981) found
evidence for age-related declines, and Perlmutter (1978) found no such changes. Brigham
and Pressley (1989) found that older adults possessed less metacognitive awareness about
strategies for learning vocabulary items than did younger adults.
A somewhat smaller set of studies examines age differences in comprehension
monitoring ability when reading (Zabrucky, Moore, & Schultz, 1987). Older adults were
shown to better calibrate, or accurately assess, their comprehension than do younger Ss
when reading texts containing inserted errors. Research on adults' metacognitive
knowledge about reading, however, is sparse.
One aspect of metacognitive knowledge that has been overlooked to date is
concerned with readers' implicit theories about reading. Implicit theories are defined as
personal constructions about some particular phenomenon that reside in the minds of
individuals (Furnham, 1988; Sternberg, Conway, Ketron, & Bernstein, 1981). More
simply, implicit theories may be thought of as personal beliefs. Just as knowledge about
cognition is viewed as one component of metacognition (Baker & Brown, 1984), implicit
theories about reading skills may be seen as a subset of metacognitive knowledge. The
prevailing assumption regarding metacognitive knowledge is that such knowledge enables
the effective use of strategies for learning.
Implicit theories have several characteristics. They are typically ambiguous and
inconsistent in regards to explanation for phenomena, tend to be descriptive of types or
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categories of phenomena, often confuse cause and effect, and are deductive rather than
inductive (Furnham, 1988). Furnham notes that implicit theories can, and often do,
overlap with scientific theories and may function in similar ways. In fact, formal scientific
theories often originate from the implicit theories and initial informal observations of
Sarbin et al. (1960) list four main sources for the origination of implicit theories:
induction or experience; construction or inference and deductions from observations;
analogy or extrapolation from specific encounters; and authority or acceptance of ideas
from others. Adults may construct implicit theories about skilled reading based on their
own experiences as readers. Adults may infer that particular abilities are present in others
whom they observe and evaluate as good readers. Adults may view the good reader as
analoguous to the gifted runner: good readers are those persons who have natural ability,
work hard, and subsequently, read fast. Finally, the adult may consider good reading to be
the sum total of all that was learned in school from their reading teachers.
Implicit theories may potentially influence strategy knowledge and strategy use in
ways that either enhance or impede performance. If, for example, a person believes that
reading is primarily a word-identification task, then that person may focus his or her
efforts on simply decoding words without attempting to learn how to derive meaning from
the text's message (Gambrell & Heathington, 1981). Even good readers occasionally
resort to low level decoding-oriented explanations when describing what good readers do
when reading (Smith & Covalt, 1991).
The purposes of the present study were to (1) investigate the effects of implicit
theories when adults of different ages were engaged in reading tasks designed to
approximate those encountered across a variety of situations in everyday life and (2) to
examine age differences in implicit theories.


The sample consisted of 40 individuals in three groups: young adults (n = 13),
middle-aged adults (n = 14), and older adults (n = 13). The mean ages for each group
were 20.7 (s.d. = 1.49), 39.8 (s.d. = 4.76), and 65.1 (s.d. = 4.27) years, respectively.
Educational attainment for each group equalled 14.86 (s.d. = .52), 16.00 (s.d. = 1.79), and
12.64 (s.d.= 1.72) years of schooling, respectively.
The young adults were university students recruited from teacher education
classes. The middle-aged adults were university non-faculty and non-administrative
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employees who were contacted by letter and asked to participate. The older adult subjects
were recruited for the study when they came to a nearby hospital to participate in a senior
citizen's social group and were not receiving medical treatment. All subjects volunteered
to participate in exchange for an opportunity to win one of four $10.00 gift certificates to
be awarded in a drawing following the completion of data collection.
Subjects were tested individually in private offices at two locations, a university
counseling laboratory (young and middle-aged adults) and a suburban hospital (older
adults). Testing of all subjects was conducted by the first two investigators and two
graduate assistants.
Subjects first completed a questionnaire to provide demographic information, then
rated their prior knowledge of the five topics contained within the reading tasks. An 8-
point Likert-type scale was used for these ratings (0="know nothing," 7="am an expert").
Next, they were given an abbreviated version of the Vocabulary subtest of the Nelson-
Denny Reading Test (NDRT). This version consisted of one-half of the items (every other
item) for a total of 50 items. Administration time was reduced from 15 to 10 minutes.
Reading tasks. Three reading tasks were developed to approximate the kinds of
real-life reading activities that the subjects could have been expected to do at some time in
their lives. Due to time limitations, each subject was assigned to only two of the three
reading tasks. Across the three tasks, subjects were given two trials which were equated
in difficulty.
The first task was an academic reading task in which Ss were instructed to read
two passages taken from two college-level introductory textbooks in preparation for a
brief open-book quiz following each passage. The passage topics were “The structure of
galaxies” and “Psychotherapy approaches”. Both passages contained 210 words. Both
quizzes contained five short-answer, fill-in-the-blank questions that asked for information
contained within the respective passages. The tests required subjects to locate or recall
factual information in the passages; no inferences were required to answer the questions
correctly. The galaxies passage test was worth 8 points and the “psychotherapy” test was
worth 11 points.
The second task was deemed a work-related reading task in which Ss searched for
supplies in a 22-page excerpt from a 500-page industrial arts supplies catalog and for
information needed to order these supplies. For the first trial on this task, Ss were to
locate a “wringer press” and the “least expensive utility cart”, and information necessary
for ordering each (e.g., order numbers). The page numbers for these items were contained
in the index; the location of the items could also be inferred from the table of contents, but
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only if the subject had prior knowledge that a wringer press is a printmaking tool and
utility carts are for hauling ceramics. For the second trial, Ss were to locate the minimum
charge for shipping an order by truck and the mailing address of the catalog company’s
central office. The first item could be located by first looking in the table of contents
under “ordering information.” The second item could be located by looking on the order
form at the end of the catalog. Neither item was contained in the index. The maximum
score on either trial was two points (i.e., correctly locating target items).
The final task was a leisure reading task in which Ss were instructed to read a brief
newspaper article (e.g., a vacation spot) while thinking about sharing the information with
a friend (in this case, the experimenter). The task thus called for Ss to employ appropriate
strategies to remember the most important information in the passages, such as rote
rehearsal, imagery, elaboration, or notetaking to assist in retelling. One passage (Trial 1)
was titled “Smoky Mountains” and concerned a rustic hotel vacation spot. The second
passage (Trial 2) was titled “Southwest Design” and described the charm of the
southwestern United States and the architectural style of homes in the area. Both
passages were 208 words in length.
Accuracy of recall was assessed through number of correct propositions (e.g., a
single idea consisting of a noun and verb) recalled. The Smoky Mountains passage
contained 20 propositions and the Southwest Design passage had 17 propositions.
Implicit theories interview. Following the first trial for any task Ss were asked a
brief series of questions. These questions asked the Ss to consider how a "very good
reader" might have approached and completed the same reading task, how their own
actions differed (if at all) from a "very good reader," and how they might change their
approach to the task based on what they know about very good readers' skills and abilities.
These questions were posed to activate the Ss' implicit theories about reading in general
and, in particular, skilled reading behaviors. Thus, the questions were thought to tap into
subjects' metacognitive awareness about effective reading behaviors or strategies. These
questions, of course, presuppose that adult readers have some ideas about what it is that
good readers do while reading. Following this brief line of questioning, Ss completed the
second trial. In addition, across both trials, Ss were instructed to "think out loud" as they
performed the academic and work-related reading tasks. This think-aloud activity was not
required for the leisure reading task that served as a free recall task.
It was expected that, if activation of an implicit theory serves to heighten
metacognitive awareness, Ss' strategic approaches to the tasks might change on the
second trial as a result of accessing their implicit theories. Therefore, Ss’performance on
the second task should improve over the first task. Such improvement should not be due
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solely to practice effects because of the differences in the passages and search tasks across
the three types of reading activities. Previous research has indicated that when test-takers
have an opportunity to reflect upon their performances, accuracy improves on subsequent
testing opportunities (Goodchild, 1990). It was also expected that age differences in
implicit theories might be found. Older adults, having a greater amount of experience with
a variety of texts and reading tasks, might be found to have developed more sophisticated,
richer implicit theories about reading. The utility of such implicit theories may interact
with the reading task at hand, however. For example, younger adults, having greater and
more recent experiences with academic texts may have more sophisticated implicit
theories pertaining to academic reading than older adults with relatively less education
and, therefore, less experience with such texts.


As might be expected given cohort and educational differences among the three
age groups, there were significant differences on the Nelson-Denny Reading Test-
Vocabulary (NDRT-V). Mean scores for the young, middle, and older adults were 37.13
(6.37), 42.57 (5.96), and 31.0 (12.80), respectively. Because, however, the administration
of the NDRT-V was not a standardized form of the test, these scores should be taken only
as a crude index of the adults’vocabulary skills. Generally, however, we expected that the
older adults, with less education, would perform poorest on this measure, and the middle-
aged adults, with the most education, would perform best.
Analyses of variance revealed that the three groups differed only on prior
knowledge of the psychotherapy topic, F = .54, p < .01. The middle-aged subjects had
significantly greater prior knowledge about psychotherapy approaches than did the other
two groups. All other ANOVAs on prior knowledge for the remaining topics were non-
Changes in Performance Across Trials
We first examined group differences in performance on the three reading tasks. A
series of six (three reading tasks, two trials) one-way ANCOVAs were conducted with
vocabulary score as the covariate. On the academic task, Trial 1 (Galaxies passage), there
were no significant main effects or interactions. On Trial 2 (Psychotherapy passage), there
were significant group main effects favoring the younger (i.e., college) Ss. This effect held
despite the middle aged Ss’greater prior knowlege of psychotherapy. Older Ss performed
poorest of the three groups on both academic trials. On the work reading task, there were
no main effects or interactions on either Trial 1 or Trial 2, although the group main effect
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approached significance on Trial 2 (p = .057). Finally, on the leisure reading task, there
were significant group main effects on Trial 1 (Smoky Mountains passage) (F = 4.58, p <
.05). This difference favored the younger, college aged subjects who recalled 6.50
propositions versus 3.88 propositions for the middle-aged subjects and 4.75 propositions
for the older subjects. On Trial 2, (Southwest Design passage) there were no significant
Analysis of Strategic Activities
We next turned our attention to analyzing the strategic behaviors that were
employed by the subjects on the academic and work reading tasks and which were
obtained via their “think aloud” activities while completing the tasks. For the academic
task, subjects’descriptions of their problem-solving activities were coded by two judges.
Initially 35 separate coding categories were utilized. Such a system proved to be both
unwieldy and unreliable. These categories were collapsed to include only six categories
(with examples):
(1) Metamemory knowledge and strategies (e.g., recognition of memory failure;
use of mnemonic strategy, such as imagery);
(2) Task Organizing and Study Activities (e.g., asking experimenter to clarify task;
deciding on goals; taking notes);
(3) Metacognitive strategies (e.g., looking back in text; asking self-questions about
passage information);
(4) Non-strategic searching of text passage (e.g., random skimming of text
(5) Revision and Self-Monitoring (e.g., checking answers to test questions);
(6) Miscellaneous activities (e.g., activities not included in above categories).
The latter two authors coded the protocols; interjudge agreement equalled .95.
Repeated-measures multiple analyses of variance (MANOVA) were conducted to
determine significant group (age), trial (one versus two), and interaction (age X trial)
effects. The purpose of these analyses was to determine if there were age effects
regarding problem-solving activities when engaged in the reading activity. A second
purpose was to determine if subjects shifted strategic activity on Trial 2 as a possible result
of having accessed their implicit theories during the intervening metacognitive interview
(following Trial 1). No other categories demonstrated significant effects.
Academic Tasks. For the metamemory category, there were no age effects, but
significant effects for trial. Subjects were shown to have engaged in significantly more of
these activities on Trial 1 than Trial 2. For the Task Organizing/Study Activities there
were significant age effects favoring the younger Ss. All Ss engaged in these types of
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activities significantly more on Trial 2 than on Trial 1. For the Metacognitive Strategies,
age differences approached significance (p=.052). On Trial 1, young and old Ss used
more strategies than did middle aged Ss; on Trial 2, young Ss used more strategies than
did middle or old Ss. Young and middle-aged Ss used more strategies on Trial 2 than on
Trial 1. The older Ss decreased their strategy used from T1 to T2.
Work Reading Tasks. Twenty initial categories were collapsed to include the same
six categories as above. Repeated-measures multiple analyses of variance (MANOVA)
were conducted to determine significant group (age), trial (one versus two), and
interaction (age X trial) effects. The purposes for this analysis mirrored that for the
academic task.
For metacognitive strategies there were significant age and interaction effects.
Young Ss used more strategies on Trial 1 than on T2, while middle aged Ss used more
strategies on T2 than on T1. For organizing activities, there were also signficant age
effects: older Ss engaged in more organizing activities than did the other two groups.
However, organizing activities decreased for all from T1 to T2.
No other categories of problem-solving activities demonstrated age or task effects.
For the leisure reading task, subjects did not “think aloud”, so analysis of their
studying and/or strategic activity while reading the passages was not possible.
Analysis of Implicit Theories
We then examined individuals’implicit theories of reading by examining responses
to the first question on the metacognitive interview (“How would a ‘very good reader’
have approached and completed this task?”). Subjects’responses to this question were
coded using much the same categories as above for the academic and work reading tasks.
The categories for good readers’skills on the academic tasks were: (1) has good
metememory knowledge and skills; (2) uses organizational and study skills; (3) has
metacognitive knowledge and uses strategies; (4) has an interest in the passage topic; and
(5) engages in self-monitoring.
The categories for good readers’skills on the work reading tasks were:
(1) has good metememory knowledge and skills; (2) uses organizational and study skills;
(3) randomly searches text; and (4) persists in completing task.
For the leisure reading task, the categories for good reader skills were:
(1) has good metememory knowledge and skills; (2) uses organizational and study skills;
(3) has metacognitive knowledge and uses strategies; and (4) has an interest in the topic.
Interjudge agreement on category codings equalled .96.
We analyzed these responses for age-related differences by counting each subject’s
descriptions. The results are shown in Table 2. Although the differences have not yet been
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analyzed for significance, for the academic tasks, more metacognitive strategies were
identified than any of the other categories of skills. In other words, subjects believed that
“very good readers” possess the kinds of skills that researcher refer to as metacognitive
strategies, such as looking back in text to confirm an answer to a test question. The
groups did not differ in terms of how frequently metacognitive skills were cited. Middle
aged adults cited metamemory knowledge and skills more frequently than did the other
two groups. Older adults, on the other hand, cited the task organizing and studying
abilities of “very good readers” more frequently than did the other two groups.
For the work reading task, very good readers were assumed to possess and use
good task organizing and study skills. This category of skills was mentioned more
frequently than any other. Younger subjects mentioned these skills more frequently than
did middle aged or older subjects.
Metacognitive strategies, such as attending to main ideas and rereading when
necessary, were mentioned as “very good reader” skills more frequently than were other
skill categories in regards to leisure reading. Younger and middle aged Ss mentioned
these skills more frequently than did older Ss. No other categories of skills were
mentioned as frequently.
Consistency of Theories Across Tasks
Finally, we examined the consistency of Ss’implicit theories of “very good
reading” across the three tasks. That is, did the Ss believe that very good readers possess
particular abilities that may be applied across the spectrum of reading tasks and activities?
Looking at subjects’theories across the three treading asks, the responses suggest that
these adults viewed “very good readers” as being strategic readers who are able to use
particular techniques, such as memory aids, to enhance their reading efforts. Beyond that,
it appears, however, that rather than holding an overarching theory of skilled reading,
subjects’theories are situation- or task-specific. That is, the reading skills necessary for
academic reading are seen to differ from those necessary for work-related reading, which
are in turn different from the skills needed for leisure reading. This idea is consistent with
Furnham’s (1988) claim that laypersons formulate theories for specific phenomena rather
than more generalizable theories which apply across situations or events.


This study was an attempt to examine older adults' implicit theories about reading
from a metacognitive perspective. Although a variety of methods have been employed to
assess metacognitive skills among readers young and old (Denny, 1990; Garner, 1987),
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less research has been devoted to understanding implicit theories and, in particular, adults'
metacognitive knowledge of reading and how such knowledge changes over the life span.
Implicit knowledge about reading is assumed to be important because individuals’beliefs
about the nature of skilled reading may serve to influence their attempts at reading
skillfully. Also, adults, who have accumulated a great deal of experience with different
kinds of texts, may have acquired sufficient knowledge about how to be an effective
reader, and may employ this knowledge in ways that may enable one’s reading efforts. No
evidence was found to demonstrate that the implicit theories held by adult readers have
such powerful effects. Adults were somewhat more strategic on the second trial for the
academic and work reading tasks--especially the younger and middle aged subjects. There
were no profound qualitative differences among the three age groups regarding their
implicit theories about reading.
The interview method employed in this study is problematic because unskilled
readers are probably unaware of how a “very good reader” could successfully complete
the reading tasks. For example, when asked what a very good reader would do given the
task, one older adult subject said “Well, not being a good reader, how am I supposed to
know?” In such cases where declarative knowledge is insufficient, individuals may have
developed incorrect ideas about what skills constitute good reading (Gambrell &
The outcomes of this study were disappointing in that there was no evidence to
suggest that accessing one’s implicit theory of reading helps to improve one’s reading
efforts. Nevertheless, it remains important to understand the implicit theories of
competent--as well as expert--adult readers because this knowledge fleshes out the nature
of adults’thinking about their own and others’cognitive activities. Strategy instruction,
which fosters more accurate metacognitions about reading, has been touted as a method
which may lead to more skilled reading (Pressley, Borkowski, & Schneider, 1987). Even
adults who are competent readers might benefit from such strategy instruction. Further
studies are needed to determine if adults' implicit theories, developed from their
experiences with a wide variety of reading situations and texts, have any impact on
strategic reading behaviors.
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Table 1: Mean Performance on Reading Tasks.

Young (n=8) Middle (n=9) Older (n=8)

Mean (sd) Mean (sd) Mean (sd)

Academic Task Trial 1 (“Astronomy”)

7.88 (1.55) 6.67 (1.87) 5.12 (3.80)

Academic Task Trial 2 (“Psychotherapy”)

5.50 (1.51) 6.11 (1.05) 5.0 (1.51)

Work Reading Trial 1

1.92 (.29) 1.89 (.33) 2.0 (0.0)

Work Reading Trial 2

1.75 (.62) 1.56 (.53) 1.71 (.49)

Leisure Reading Trial 1 (“Smoky Mtns”)

6.50 (1.41) 3.88 (2.36) 4.77 (1.09)

Leisure Reading Trial 2 (“SW Design”)

5.0 (2.14) 4.12 (1.89) 4.12 (1.48)
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Table 2. Mean Number of “Good Reader” Skills Identified (by Task).


Academic Reading

Skill Young Middle Old

Memory/Metamem. .5 1.11 .11
Organizing/Study .5 1.44 1.55
MetacognitiveStrat. 2.75 3.00 2.67
Interest .25 .11 .11
Self-Monitoring .13 .11 .22

Work-Related Reading

Skill Young Middle Old

MetacognitiveStrat. .75 1.33 .88
Organizing/Study 2.11 1.55 .75
Skimming 0 .11 .13
Persistence 0 0 .50

Leisure Reading

Skill Young Middle Old

Memory/Metamem. .25 .63 .78
Organizing/Study .25 .13 .11
MetacognitiveStrat. 1.88 1.75 .89
Interest in Topic .63 .75 .67