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Arizona State University’s Danielle McNamara was named an American Educational Research Association (AERA) Fellow for 2018. McNamara is a professor in the Department of Psychology and with the Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning.
Since 1916, the interdisciplinary AERA has promoted the scientific study of education and learning. AERA fellows are recognized as having given longstanding contributions to the field.
“It is an honor to be named a fellow,” McNamara said. “I was not formally trained in educational research, so this award is also an honor for all the people who trained and mentored me and for those with whom I have worked.”
McNamara had long been interested in education before she became an educational researcher.
“Many of the students in my high school did not finish, and that always stayed with me,” she said.
McNamara holds an undergraduate degree in linguistics, a master’s degree in clinical psychology, a doctorate in cognitive psychology and worked as an English teacher in France for five years after college. McNamara credits the James S. McDonnell foundation with starting and solidifying her career in educational research. She received two grants from the foundation to apply cognitive psychology principles to education.
“Being funded by the McDonnell foundation was an excellent opportunity for me,” McNamara said. “For six years after my doctorate, I was surrounded by researchers who were applying cognitive principles to educational practice, which effectively prepared me to conduct educational research.”
Now, McNamara leads the Science of Learning and Educational Technology (SoLET) lab at ASU. The core motivation behind McNamara’s research is changing behavior to improve education. The SoLET lab studies what features of an educational text make it challenging or accessible to students. Based on the findings from experiments in the lab, McNamara creates practical tools for use in the classroom. The tools are accessible on the internet and are free to use. The SoLET educational tools interweave linguistics, understanding languages and interpersonal interactions.
“I am not just a linguist, computer scientist, psychologist, or educational researcher,” McNamara said. “I have to be all of those things at the same time because my research combines all of those scientific disciplines.”
The educational tools McNamara has developed are widely used and are geared towards students from elementary school up until the first two years of college. The Coh-Metrix Common Core Text Readability Assessor gives teachers additional information about text difficulty, which can help them choose appropriate reading material for their students. The SoLET lab also developed iSTART, a game-based tutoring system for older students, and Writing Pal, an interactive game for high school students to improve their writing skills.
McNamara was nominated to be an AERA fellow by Gale Sinatra, professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California.
“Danielle’s goal is to improve educational opportunities for students who would otherwise struggle,” Sinatra said. “And she has made important theoretical and practical contributions about what makes certain kinds of texts challenging for readers.”
McNamara moved to ASU in 2011, joining researchers from many disciplines who conduct educational research.
“We are very proud of Danielle. This is quite an accomplishment, characterizing many years of innovative research,” said Steven Neuberg, foundation professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. “It is unusual for a psychologist to earn this designation and we are very proud to have her in our ASU psychology family.”