An Analysis of the Content and Organization of Children's Knowledge Structures

ABSTRACT - ID this paper, we explore the information processing capabilities of first- and fourth-grade children in an attempt to provide a better understanding of both the content and organization of information in children's memories. An empirical study of first- and fourth-graders was designed to directly measure their knowledge about nutrition and breakfast cereals. Several differences, as well as many similarities, were found between the information processing capabilities of the two age groups. The results of the study suggest that much of the previous literature has tended to underestimate the abilities of younger children to process consumer information.


Donna M. Klees, Jerry Olson, and R. Dale Wilson (1988) ,"An Analysis of the Content and Organization of Children's Knowledge Structures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 153-157.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 153-157


Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania

Jerry Olson, Pennsylvania State University

R. Dale Wilson, Michigan State University

[The authors thank Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania, for his helpful comments on a previous version of this paper.]


ID this paper, we explore the information processing capabilities of first- and fourth-grade children in an attempt to provide a better understanding of both the content and organization of information in children's memories. An empirical study of first- and fourth-graders was designed to directly measure their knowledge about nutrition and breakfast cereals. Several differences, as well as many similarities, were found between the information processing capabilities of the two age groups. The results of the study suggest that much of the previous literature has tended to underestimate the abilities of younger children to process consumer information.


A substantial number of studies have examined how children process information. Much of this research suggests that children's consumer information processing ability in general and their ability to process consumer information contained in advertisements has been underestimated. In fact, it seems that children, even very young children, can effectively process much of the consumer information presented to them.

However, little is known about the actual content and organization of knowledge in children's memories. A better understanding of the content of children's knowledge would provide the necessary base for interpreting the types of information acquired by young consumers at various age levels and the subsequent behavioral effects of that knowledge, such as in the processing and recall of advertisements.

In order to process consumer information, children must have a framework of relevant knowledge in memory. This preexisting knowledge drives the comprehension processes necessary for interpreting new stimuli, assigning meaning to them, and integrating this new knowledge in memory for future use (Olson 1980). Thus, the more sophisticated and extensive this stored knowledge, the more effectively information can be processed.

The present study attempts to directly measure children's knowledge structures about nutrition and breakfast cereals. We examine age-related differences in several qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the children's knowledge structures.

The view of the child as a relatively sophisticated consumer and information processor has been slow to gain widespread acceptance. ID part, this is due to an almost exclusive reliance on a single theoretical framework for the interpretation of information processing studies -- namely, Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Pi, get's theory emphasizes the explanatory power of the stage construct, whereby the child's cognitive processes are presumed to mature through several stages of development. These stages roughly correspond to chronological age: sensorimotor (birth to two years), preoperational (two to seven years), concrete operational (seven to eleven years), and formal operational (eleven through adulthood).

Piaget's stages of cognitive development have generated a great deal of research. Increasingly, however, researchers have moved away from strict adherence to this framework by incorporating other aspects such as the role of experience and the cognitive representation of information in memory. Such shifts are evident in the work of several researchers (e.g., Calder, Robertson, and Rossiter 1975; Macklin 1983; Roedder 1981; Ward 1980; Brown 1979; Nelson 1986). Furthermore, the assumption that young children, especially under the age of eight, are not capable of understanding and evaluating consumer information is not based on actual measures of the knowledge stored in their memories. In fact, little is known about the actual content and organization of information in children's memories. Few attempts have been made at direct measurement (for exceptions, see Ceci, Lea, and Howe 1980; Kanwar, Olson, and Sims 1980; Markus 1977; Roedder-John 1985). As Roedder-John and Whitney (1986) have noted, few attempts have been made to describe and examine the general patterns of qualitative and quantitative changes in children's knowledge as it develops over time as predicted by Piaget's theory.


Knowledge has been conceptualized as structures or frameworks of concepts in memory. As the child develops and acquires new knowledge, changes occur in these structures (Hayes-Roth 1977). These changes may involve accretion (the accumulation of facts), tuning (the gradual modification of old structures to reflect new information) and restructuring (devising new structures to represent new and old information). As an individual's knowledge structures become more complex and better organized, he/she may become aware of stimuli not previously obvious (Lange 1978; Rumelhart and Norman 1978). In addition, the structure may take on the quality of "richness" through a complex web of interrelationships between concepts (Kintsch 1974). For example, a child may not have a relevant, adequate knowledge structure available for interpreting a new stimulus. The stimulus would then be understood in terms of an available, possibly disorganized structure (Calder, Robertson, and Rossiter 1975). Over time and repeated activations, however, ill-structured information tends to become organized as a result of new insight and understanding through Rumelhart and Norman's (1978) "click of comprehension".

We believe that the study of children's knowledge structures demands a theoretical framework which deals not only with differences between age groups attributable to cognitive development, but also acknowledges differences within age groups. Such differences would include varying knowledge structures resulting from differing consumer experiences. For example, Ward (1980) found that young children who had frequent consumer-related interactions with their parents displayed consumer skills beyond what would normally be expected based on their cognitive stage. Young children also seem to be able to overcome processing deficits through various processing strategies such as reducing the effort required to process a given amount of information (Roedder-John and Whitney 1986).

A viable theoretical framework should include visual and verbal representations of information in memory, since both forms are considered important aspects of memory. Rossiter (1976), for example, found evidence of a rich visual consumer base in children's memory. To incorporate these factors, a research framework was developed using a levels-of-processing perspective with a basic information processing model. In the information processing model a child must first attend to an environmental stimulus such as a product package. Attention is a prerequisite to engaging the subsequent stages of information processing, including comprehension (encoding), representation, storage, retrieval, and information integration for subsequent -decision making. Processing can terminate at any point. Furthermore, the new information would be stored in memory as a modification of existing knowledge structures or as new knowledge structures. This framework is consistent with current conceptualizations of the organization of information in memory (Hayes-Roth 1977; Lange 1978; Markus 1977; Nelson 1986). Ward (1980) described the information processing framework as a promising approach for children's consumer research because it focuses on complex cognitive skills, such as the selection and use of information relevant to purchasing decisions.

Augmenting the basic information processing framework is the levels-of-processing perspective. Originally introduced by Craik and Lockhart (1972) as a reaction to static information processing models, the key idea relevant to this study is that memory content is a function of the encoding operations that create it. The encoding process is "driven" by preexisting knowledge structures that are activated by a stimulus (Olson 1980). Encoding processes occur at various levels ranging from structural (e.g., simple matching or pattern recognition) to semantic (e.g., making more abstract associations or inferences about the external stimulus). The resulting representation of an event is strongly determined by expectations, prior schemas (cognitive organizing frameworks), and other cognitive and affective states (Nelson 1986). In sum, the levels-of-processing theory is suitable for examining cognitive changes in children's processing as a function of their stage of development.

Piagetian theory predicts differences in the total number of concepts in the knowledge structures of children at different age levels. Information processing research suggests that know edge structures may also vary qualitatively between age groups. These differences are likely to occur in terms of the relative mix of the structural and semantic concepts they contain. To provide a relatively direct measure of these characteristics of knowledge structures, we used a modified repertory grid procedure and a set of directed probes to which children responded freely in their own words. Our objective was to determine the extent to which the knowledge structures of first- and fourth-grade children differed.


Subjects and Stimuli

Forty children (20 boys and 20 girls) participated in the study. Subjects were recruited from the first and fourth grades of two elementary schools in central. Pennsylvania. Half of the Ss were six, and half were nine years old. These ages fit into the two Piagetian stages frequently referenced in the literature ages two to seven (or preoperational) and ages seven to eleven (or concrete operational). The interviews were conducted in either an unused classroom (n=26) or in the living room of a private residence (n=14). Full-size, unopened boxes of dry, breakfast cereals were selected as the stimuli for this study. Cereals have received attention in past public policy decision making and also rank relatively high among products requested by children (Ward, Wackman, and Wartella 1977). The nine cereal brands used in this research were selected from a range of nutritional quality ratings obtained from Consumer Reports and from labeling information and promotion programs of cereal brands.

Measurement Procedures

Since standard questionnaire procedures for measuring knowledge (e.g., multiple choice tests) seemed unable to provide the desired detail about the contents of knowledge structures, free response measures were used. Although verbal reports probably provide incomplete and inaccurate representations of children's actual knowledge, they have provided useful indications of the structure and content of knowledge (Nelson 1986). One approach to measuring children's nutrition-related knowledge structures was adapted from the repertory grid procedure introduced by Kelly (1955) and used by Olson (1980; Olson and Sims 1980) in cognitive research in consumer behavior. As recommended by Wells (1965), we used product packages as probes to activate relevant knowledge concepts from children's memories. After all test items and instructions were pretested in pilot sessions with children in both grades, we used the cereal packages and the imagery instructions, "Close your eyes and tell me what you see when you think of cereal," as probe cues in the repertory grid. This method was found to be effective in working with young subjects since it allowed them to respond in their own words and to elaborate their responses if they desired to do so. We treated the concepts elicited in the repertory grid procedure as direct indicants of children's preexisting knowledge.

Individual interviews were conducted with each child by a female interviewer. The subjects' verbal responses to questions and probe cues were tape recorded. The children did not seem to be apprehensive of, or intimidated, by the recording equipment. The repertory grid task was introduced as follows:

"I'd like you to pretend that you are in the cereal aisle of a grocery store and are trying to decide which cereal to buy. I'm going to show you three cereals at a time, and I'd like you to tell me how you think the cereals are alike or different from each other. I'm interested in what you already know about the cereals and what you can tell me about them just by looking at the package."

Three sets (triads) of three cereal brands were presented. For each triad, the child was first asked to think of ways that any one cereal differed from the other two. Throughout the task, interest in the cereal itself (i.e., the contents) was stressed. When no further distinctions were offered, the child was asked to describe ways in which the three cereals were alike. When no further comments could be elicited, the next triad was shown.

Another measure of nutrition knowledge was derived from a set of questions dealing with children's knowledge about specific nutrition concepts including calories, vitamins, and the perceived nutritional quality of cereal. The subjects' responses to these broad questions were analyzed in terms of whether they gave an answer and, if so, how accurate their responses were. We also collected other information from the children's parents (prior to interviewing the children) that might effect the children's knowledge about dry breakfast cereals. These measures, which included television viewing, familiarity with and use of cereal, and demographic data, were taken to assess the impact of various experiences besides age on children's knowledge structures.


Quantitative Differences in Knowledge Structures

Cognitive structures vary in dimensionality, defined as the number of concepts in the knowledge structure of interest. Dimensionality was measured by counting the total number of responses elicited for the breakfast cereals across all three repertory grid triads. We observed significantly fewer concepts in the repertory grid responses for Grade 1 compared to Grade 4 (means equal 15.3 vs. 22.9, respectively, p.=.05). As expected from Piaget's cognitive development theory, fourth-grade children provided more total responses (an average of 7.6 or 49.7 percent more) than the youngest group. While the older children seem to have more extensive knowledge about breakfast cereals, it is not known whether this difference is due to their more mature cognitive development or to their exposure to more consumer information over a longer period of time.

Despite the greater dimensionality of fourth graders compared to first graders, there was a significant overlap in the number of responses elicited for each of the three triads. Thus, the superior dimensionality of the older children was not universal. Not all fourth-grade children had more concepts than all first graders, nor were all first-grade children always in the lowest group. Rather, in each grade level we found some children with relatively extensive knowledge structures and others with low amounts of knowledge.

Qualitative Differences in Knowledge Structure Content

The abstractness of knowledge structures is reflected by the relative amount of sensory level (concrete, structural, episodic) versus semantic (general, abstract) knowledge they contain. All of the responses to the repertory grid task were coded as either structural or semantic. Some of the children's responses were structural and sensory including descriptions of the cereal boxes, mention of ingredients displayed on the package, specific words printed on the package, and premium information. In contrast, semantic responses reflected judgments or inferences, personal feelings, or references to parental advice. A greater proportion of the latter types of concepts implies more abstract, semantic knowledge which affects information processing.

As compared to the first graders, the fourth-grade children provided more semantic (72.4 percent more) and structural (33.9 percent more) responses. The differences between the two groups of Ss for the semantic responses were marginally significant (means equal 6.15 for Grade 1 versus 10.40 for Grade 4, p=.0 ). These results imply that older children have a greater amount of relevant information in memory. As children add new information to their knowledge structures, the amount of semantic knowledge increased from 32.0 to 46.0 percent of the total (p=.07), while structural knowledge decreases from 68.0 to 54.0 percent (p=.03). Their greater semantic knowledge makes a richer knowledge base for the alder children.

Nutrition-Related Knowledge

Responses elicited during the repertory grid task were further coded as either nutritional or not nutritional. Most (60 percent) nutrition-related responses tended to be semantic. Overall, fourth-grade children provided twice as many nutrition-related responses as did the first graders (means equal 7.75 and 3.85, respectively, p<.02). In terms of the structural versus semantic distinction, fourth graders provided three times as many structural nutrition responses as did the first graders. There was a less dramatic increase in the number of semantic-related concepts (45.9 percent more) from the first to fourth grade group. Thus, the older children appear to have a more extensive base of nutrition knowledge at their disposal. First-grade children provided mainly semantic responses thus suggesting that even young children may be capable of processing nutrition information for consumer products at a deeper, more meaningful level than has been recognized in the past.

Other Measures or Nutritional Knowledge

Finally, we used three questions to measure children's general nutrition knowledge: "What is a caloric?", "What is a vitamin?", and "Is cereal nutritious?". Responses were analyzed in terms of whether or not a response was offered and, if so, whether the response could be considered reasonably accurate. A similar categorization scheme was employed by Jacoby, Chestnut, and Silberman (1977). Nearly all children at both grade levels agreed that all or some cereals are nutritious. Differences by grade level were found in responses related to calories and vitamins. Fourth-grade children provided reasonably accurate responses (with 75 and 100 percent accuracy for the calorie and vitamin questions, respectively). In contrast, first-grade children appeared to have a poorer understanding of calories and vitamins, although their understanding of vitamins was better than for calories (with only 20 and 60 percent accuracy). These results suggest that fourth-graders are probably able to make more accurate inferences about these concepts based upon their more extensive general nutritional knowledge.

Basis for Knowledge Differences

A close analysis of the data suggest that the age differences in knowledge concepts in the repertory grid procedure were due largely to the low mean number of total responses provided by the first-grade girls, where the cell mean was 11.3. The mean responses for the other subgroups were 19.3, 22.4, and 23.3 for the Grade 1 boys, the Grade 4 girls, and the Grade 4 boys, respectively. These differences seem to be a function of two experience-related factors that were reported in the background questionnaire completed by the children's parents. The first-grade girls had significantly fewer product-related experiences than the other subgroups in terms of the number of brands usually on hand and the number of mornings per week that cereal is eaten. The means for these variables for the Grade 1 girls were 2.8 and 2.4, respectively, as compared to 4.3 and 4.4 for the Grade 1 boys, 4.5 and 3.8 for the Grade 4 girls, and 4.0 and 4.1 for the Grade 4 boys. This finding suggests that the knowledge structure content reflects differences in product experiences rather than in age-related, developmental variables alone.


The present study investigated the content of children's knowledge structures for dry breakfast cereal and related nutrition concepts. The knowledge structure approach based on levels-of-processing and information processing theory that we used did not impose simple age-related differences on children's information processing abilities. As expected, a clear distinction between age levels/grades based on dimensionality alone (as measured by the number of concepts in memory) did not-emerge. Although the older group did have a greater number of concepts in memory, we observed a considerable overlap in the number of responses provided by the first- and fourth-grade children.

We found even fewer differences between age groups/grades in the abstractness of their knowledge structures. The older children seemed to have more semantic as well as more structural concepts in memory. However, it was interesting to note that as the overall amount of knowledge in memory increased with age (and experience), the percentage of semantic knowledge increased with a corresponding decrease in the percentage of structural-level knowledge. Perhaps this result was due to the older children's conceptual ability to create semantic relationships based on the available structural knowledge in memory.

In the special case of nutrition knowledge, we found that even six-year old children possessed some knowledge about nutrition-related concepts. Although their knowledge was not as extensive as that of the nine-year olds, the younger children's nutrition-related responses did comprise 25.2 percent of the total product distinctions they elicited. However, the older children provided twice as many nutrition-related responses as the younger group.

In terms of levels-of-processing theory, these results suggest that even young children possess some semantic content in memory and, therefore, have some ability to process information at a semantic level. Also, even young children possess semantic nutritional knowledge structures and can employ their nutrition knowledge when faced with consumer information processing tasks. These results suggest that the extent of children's knowledge structures and their potential for processing consumer information may have been underestimated in past research. Moreover, these results suggest that actual product-related experience may have an equally important impact on knowledge structures as age-related developmental influences.

While these results provide a useful perspective on the ability of children to process consumer information, it is important to consider the possible limitations of the generalizability of this study's findings due to the small sample size and nonrepresentative sampling of our subjects. Nevertheless, the triad elicitation procedure used in the research appears promising for use in the study of children's memory content. Additional research needs to be devised to replicate and further explore these possibilities.


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Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania
Jerry Olson, Pennsylvania State University
R. Dale Wilson, Michigan State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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