Kathryn McCarthy, PhD: Improving Reading Comprehension with New Strategies and Technologies

Key findings: 

  • Different aspects of students’ prior knowledge are relevant to their future learning 
  • Instructional tools powered by artificial intelligence can provide personalized coaching to students 
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration among psychologists, computer scientists, and industry leaders can solve real-world challenges 

When did you learn to read? Are you still learning? We often consider reading a skill mastered in elementary school, yet research by Dr. Kathryn Soo McCarthy of Georgia State University shows that specific strategies and technological supports can help people of all ages to read and learn more effectively. Her award-winning research enhances our theoretical understanding of how we learn, highlights practical strategies for readers, and leverages novel technologies to offer individualized support to students. For these contributions, Dr. McCarthy has been recognized with the 2024 Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award from the Society for Text and Discourse.  

Dr. McCarthy’s interest in the science of reading began with her observation that multiple people could read the same text and comprehend it in vastly different ways. Since then, she has developed a framework for describing how multiple aspects of readers’ prior knowledge shape their ability to comprehend a text. While researchers and educators have long understood the importance of prior knowledge for supporting future learning, they typically assessed only the absolute amount of prior knowledge, such as scores on a test. Dr. McCarthy’s framework and lab-based studies have highlighted the importance of also measuring the quality of a person’s knowledge, such as their ability to organize and integrate multiple relevant concepts and ideas. She offers a metaphor for understanding the difference between the absolute amount versus the quality of knowledge: you may be very impressed with a person who answers every medical question correctly on Jeopardy, but still not want that person to be your surgeon. Dr. McCarthy’s research has brought this intuitive distinction into the science of reading.  

By applying her theory and the science of learning to instructional tools, Dr. McCarthy has shown that technology can fulfill the need for more individualized education. “We know that one-on-one instructional supports and feedback are the best ways of getting people to learn better, but obviously it’s just not possible to do that in a classroom in the real world all the time.” Artificial intelligence (AI) has allowed Dr. McCarthy to measure students’ understanding of a subject by having them periodically summarize their thoughts while reading a new text. Then, AI can analyze their responses and provide rapid, personalized coaching around strategies to enhance their reading and understanding. For students, this is like having a one-on-one conversation with a professor while preparing for class, in which specific gaps are pointed out and filled in as they read.   

Dr. McCarthy has thought deeply about the possibilities and challenges afforded by new technologies, and she recently published an article on the policy implications of artificial intelligence for students and teachers. She emphasizes that interdisciplinary funding can allow psychologists to work directly with software designers to iteratively design, test, and improve any new technology. Researchers need to keep pace with rapid advances in technology to ensure that students are truly benefiting from new ideas. From her own experience, the best advances have come when psychologists and computer scientists learn to “speak the same language” and collaborate to solve a real-world problem. She has been fortunate to receive funding from private organizations, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the National Science Foundation to support ongoing partnerships with software designers. In the future, she hopes that collaboration with industry leaders will help put research-backed technologies in the hands of students and teachers.   

Future Directions 

  • Identify key strategies and practices that lead to successful reading and learning in different academic disciplines 
  • Study individual differences in how students use and benefit from different strategies  
  • Implement evidence-based instructional tools and technologies through collaborations with industry leaders