Kathryn Spoehr

Professor & Associate Chairperson
(401) 863-2693
Office Location: 
Metcalf 256
Research Focus: 
Human problem solving and reasoning, computer-based learning


Kathy Spoehr is Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences (where she serves as Associate Chairperson) and Professor of Public Policy at Brown University. Spoehr received her A.B. degree at Brown University in 1969 magna cum laude and with honors in mathematical psychology. She did graduate work in cognitive psychology and computer science (artificial intelligence) at Stanford University, where she was awarded the A.M. degree in 1971 and the Ph.D. in 1973, both in Psychology. Spoehr joined the Brown faculty in 1974 as a member of the Psychology Department and was a founding member of the Executive Committee of the then Center for Cognitive Science. In 1986 she moved to the newly formed Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences where she served as chairperson from 1991 to 1993. She was the Associate Provost for Budget and Planning from 1982-85, served as Dean of the Graduate School and Research from 1993-96, and as Vice-Provost and Dean of the Faculty from 1996-1999, and Executive Vice-President and Provost from 1999-2001.

Research Summary:

Vocabulary Addition to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy

The Vocabulary Addition to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is a new NAAL component being developed to assess the adequacy of adult Americans' vocabularies for purposes of reading and writing different types and levels of text.

Research Interests:

Assessment of adult vocabulary literacy

Learning from computer-based systems

Higher education policy and strategy

Kathy Spoehr's primary research focus is twofold. One project, funded by the National Center for Education Statistics, is making use of insights from cognitive science and computational linguistics to inform the development of a new set of tasks to assess vocabulary knowledge at the national level for the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Designed to test both vocabulary breadth (how many words does a person know?) and vocabulary depth (does a person know all of the meanings of those words that have multiple meanings?), the new assessment tasks will be administered to a large national sample in 2008.

Spoehr's second area of research focuses on the cognitive principles underlying optimal design for and use of computer-based learning environments. One aspect of her work investigates how multimedia technology can improve teaching and learning. This research explores how direct conceptual links make the relationships between concepts explicit, permit students to acquire new concepts and information, and help them explore and construct relationships between concepts. It also provides a basis for basic research issues, such as: What cognitive mechanisms underlie the acquisition of expertise in complex conceptual domains such as history and literature? What are the educational and cognitive consequences of using hypermedia instructional environments, and how can student-produced hypermedia be used for educational assessment purposes? This work has also led me to the development of a conceptual restructuring model for how humans learn from multimedia systems.

Her past research examined the memory representation and conceptual structure underlying the storage and retrieval of basic arithmetic knowledge. Neural net models of arithmetic performance developed in conjunction with empirical research in the lab suggest that two basic features of cognitive representation for this domain give rise to human-like performance: an analog representation of numerosity and a structured organization of arithmetic facts. Research in her laboratory has shown the importance of these characteristics of representation to producing the response time and error patterns shown by humans retrieving arithmetic facts, and has also shown how such representational characteristics might be learned.

Because of her previous experience as a university administrator, and her involvement as an advisory board member and participant in Brown University's Futures Project, Spoehr also carries out research in higher education policy and practice. The Futures Project focused on the mission of public higher education in an increasingly competitive and changing world environment, and on the policy and strategy implications of this new environment. Her current research in this area focuses on (1) the impact of performance budgeting/funding on institutional performance; (2) the development of new institutional strategies in the face of policy changes, and (3) the evolving role of private institutions in the changing higher education landscape.