Learning through and from Language

November 20, 2019

(photo by Megan Bean / © Mississippi State University)

News comes at us all the time, from Twitter, CNN, websites, newspapers, YouTube videos, TV, etc.  How do we determine which sources are credible, and how do we channel only those sources to form opinions?

Laura Allen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, wants to understand how people take in, filter, and comprehend blasts of news from multiple sources–on topics as varied as global warming and vaccine safety.  Allen is a recipient of a 2019 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award.  She was nominated by the Society for Computers in Psychology.

In one experiment, she might ask participants to read multiple texts and prompt them while they are reading to verbalize their thoughts.  “We get on-line processing; not just what was learned after the fact,” she says.

In another, she has participants (mostly students at UNH) write argumentative essays based on conflicting texts as a way to understand how prior knowledge influences text interpretations.  “We can infer things about people based on the way they produce language,” she explains.

A significant amount of research exists on single-text comprehension—back in the days before the Internet, when encyclopedias were the first go-to reference.  Her research on multiple sources builds on this existing knowledge.

In addition to theoretical research, Allen is working on ways high schools and colleges can use her findings to aid in instruction—and in particular to help struggling students gain a better grasp of language. 

With a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, Allen is developing a writing assessment tool for students, teachers and researchers.  The tool evaluates the student’s writing and offers strategies for improvement.

 “We focus on formative feedback,” she explains, such as suggestions for essay organization and language sophistication rather than zeroing in on grammar and spelling.  For example, the tool might recommend the essay focus more on how ideas are connected.

The tool is not intended to replace teachers but to give students feedback with greater frequency than teachers typically are able to provide. 

A teacher version of the tool would give teachers feedback on what a majority of students struggles with.  This would allow the teacher to create lessons intended to address problems at a group level.  The teacher would receive individualized feedback as well.

We know from research that students need to be writing way more frequently than they are, Allen says.  While her tool is “not as good as the teacher,” she says, it will give them the immediate feedback on a daily basis to help the revise and polish their essays and improve their writing at a faster pace.

Allen says she hopes to have the tool ready for interested schools and colleges within a few years.