This work focused on computer-mediated tutoring and its interaction with perceived cultural barriers. I was interested in how cultural background, cognitive load, and communicative involvement would interplay with a tutor’s instruction and a listener’s ease of comprehension. The results to this 5-experiment quantitative and qualitative study were quite complex, showing that users’ cognitive load threshold interacted with whether they perceived their conversational partner to be from the same or a different culture.
That is, those in the most difficult condition (challenging descriptions and perceived cross-cultural communication) actually put forth the least amount of effort of any group. Unsurprisingly, the difficulty manipulation in same-culture teacher/learner pairs caused the pairs to work harder. However, this same difficulty manipulation caused contrasting-cultural pairs to put forth less effort than those in the easy-manipulation group.
That is, when conversational participants were not from the same perceived cultural group, they did not try as hard in a difficult task. However, when they were in the same perceived cultural group, they did try harder in the harder task. Importantly, the cultural group manipulation was a deception, and all participants were from the same culture.
The findings of the study reiterate the well-established finding that Bruner’s scaffolding is indeed an important aspect of learning—when teachers and learners reach a load threshold, they will no longer be willing to try. The study also revealed interesting features of three theories of communication, which, at the time were thought to be at odds with each other. The dissertation showed that depending on the parameters of communicative setting, one or the other theory might be correct. The key parameters were cognitive load and perceived in-group/out-group status as manipulated by cultural preconceptions of the interlocutor (conversational partner).
One of these theories addressed in my work was Herbert Clark’s theory of common ground, whereby speakers and listeners try painstakingly to take each other’s perspectives into account. In this research, I demonstrate that such factors can amplify content difficulty, and need to be taken into consideration when determining how to scaffold tasks for learners.
Roxanne Raine, Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA