Intelligent Tutor technology helps students increase reading comprehension

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bonnie J.F. Meyer has dedicated her 44-year career to helping students improve their reading comprehension skills. But as the years went by and the field of education continued to change, she realized the importance of using technology in instruction.

In 2001, Meyer, a professor of educational psychology in Penn State’s College of Education whose research focuses on the learning sciences, developed the first web-based tutoring program to teach fifth-graders about the text structure strategy to improve comprehension of nonfiction. 

In 2003, she and Kausalai "Kay" Wijekumar, a former Penn State College of Education graduate student and current professor at Texas A&M University, adapted their earlier instruction with older adult tutors coaching fifth-graders into web-based lessons delivered via an intelligent tutoring system. Known as the Intelligent Tutoring of the Structure Strategy (ITSS), the web-based tutoring system focuses on teaching the text structure strategy, an educational model Meyer developed in 1975, and includes a cartoon-like, talking tutor.

“The text structure strategy is a different approach to comprehension than what traditional textbooks recommend,” Meyer said, adding that instruction about the strategy has been continually refined over the years. “It helps students better organize their reading by focusing on text organization. These text organizations or structures include compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution, sequence, description and nested mixtures of these organizations.

“The content of the lessons, the text structure strategy, has been my life’s work,” she said, adding that a study she led in 1980 found that good comprehenders use the strategy. That study, published in Reading Research Quarterly, is among the top-five cited articles from the publication in the past 50 years.

“Structure strategy has been well-tested and shows that students have significant improvement in recall of the contents of expository text as well as production of good summaries,” she said. “We also have had teachers note improvement in the quality of writing of students who learn and use the text structure strategy.”

When the structure strategy was developed more than 40 years ago, its effectiveness and transfer to everyday reading of nonfiction was examined with younger and older adults through multiple grants from the National Institute of Aging and the National Institutes of Health. 

In later years, proficient older adult tutors provided tutoring to children learning the structure strategy in web-based lessons. This approach was expensive, Meyer said, because the researchers had to recruit, train, mentor and monitor tutors. That’s why Meyer and her colleagues decided to change direction and make use of advances in technology to help make structure strategy more effective and accessible to school-age readers.

“The core of the instruction has basically remained the same,” Meyer said. “It’s just the technology, the tool we use to get it out to the schools, that has changed. Affordances of technology have increased our outreach and impact on students in grade four through middle school.”

For a while, she continued to use human tutors to work with children. Although the content was available online, students followed content instructions on their own and then received feedback from the tutors. Feedback also was available within the online instruction so students could look to see their progress. However, the process wasn’t perfect.

After years of work with other intelligent tutor models and refining web-based instruction with the text structure strategy, ITSS came to fruition. The unique tutoring model provides students with interactive activities and allows for modeling and practice as well as more consistent instruction across different learners.

“The wonderful thing about the model is that it can work with thousands of students at once and give consistent online learning instruction,” Meyer said. “That is something we could never do before.”

A valuable characteristic of ITSS for learning is that it provides immediate feedback to students.

Not only does that feedback give students instant results, it also allows for Meyer and her team of researchers to do comparisons and conduct trials to evaluate the effectiveness of ITSS. “We learned a lot about how to improve ITSS and were also able to do various studies. For example, we were able to look at whether students were more successful if they chose their own text topics for practice lessons,” she said. 

In 2011, her research progressed even more.

“We conducted a study where we individualized the model more so that we could quickly, in real time, see how a child was performing within a lesson and then assign what the next lesson should be in terms of text difficulty and familiarity of content,” Meyer said. “We were able to see if students were actually able to understand and comprehend the particular content or the relationships between the ideas.”

The best outcome Meyer has seen from her research is that the combination of structure strategy with an intelligent tutor is working.

“The research is having an impact,” she said. “Awareness and strategic use of text structure are important skills of good readers, and we have found that these skills can be taught to students who haven’t picked up these skills on their own. 

“Reading is one of the most important vehicles children have for obtaining information. Whether or not they retain information depends not only on the skills of the writers presenting the information, but also on the skill of the children in mentally organizing the ideas.”

Since establishing the web-based groundwork for ITSS 16 years ago, Meyer and her colleagues have secured more than $10 million in grant funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and they have no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“We have completed four IES grants and are in the middle of the fifth grant. We just keep expanding, extending and improving the idea,” she said. “The basic text structure strategy instruction is the same — just who you’re reaching and how you improve the delivery varies.

“To get something that really works using technology, you need to make sure you have a comprehension strategy that works and we have years of strong basic and applied research, plus collaborations with people, that have made it possible to get text structure strategy out there.”

Bonnie J.F. Meyer, professor of educational psychology in the College of Education Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated October 25, 2017