Leaders in Education Theory: Dr. Robert Bjork, Learning Researcher at University of California, Los Angeles

Aug 3, 2015 by Thasin Jaigirdar

Robert A. Bjork (PhD, Psychology, Stanford; BA, Mathematics, Minnesota) is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on human learning and memory and on the implications of the science of learning for instruction and training.  He has served as Editor of Memory & Cognition (1981-85) and Psychological Review (1995-2000), Co-editor of Psychological Science in the Public Interest (1998-2004), Chair of a National Research Council Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance (1988-1994), and Chair of the UCLA Department of Psychology (2003-2010).  He is a past president or chair of the American Psychological Society (APS); the Western Psychological Association; the Psychonomic Society; the Society of Experimental Psychologists; the Council of Editors of the American Psychological Association (APA); and the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology.  He is a recipient of UCLA's Distinguished Teaching Award; the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientist Lecturer Award, the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Service to Psychological Science Award; the American Physiological Society's Claude Bernard Distinguished Lectureship Award; the Society of Experimental Psychologists' Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award; and, together with Elizabeth Bjork, the James McKeen Cattell Award (“for outstanding contributions to applied psychological research”) from the Association for Psychological Science. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he has been selected to give the 120th Faculty Research Lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, during 2016.

Can you share your background leading up to your current role at UCLA?
I grew up in Minnesota, where I was the youngest of four boys born to my Norwegian Mother and Swedish Father.  I grew up in the Lake Minnetonka area of Minnesota and spent much of my non-academic time playing sports, going to church, and working as a caddy at a local golf course, an experience that led to a life-long interest in golf and to my being supported by an Evans (caddy) Scholarship during my undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota.  Inspired by a gifted high-school chemistry teacher, I began my undergraduate career at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, which had an outstanding undergraduate program in chemistry.  After my freshman year, however, during which I won St. Olaf’s freshman award in mathematics, I was forced—by financial difficulties (and by St. Olaf’s uncivilized practice of having Saturday classes)—to transfer to the University of Minnesota, to which I commuted from my parents’ home before, happily, being awarded an Evans Scholarship and moving to the Evans Scholar House on the Minnesota campus.

At the University of Minnesota, I switched to Physics and did well enough to earn Phi Beta Kappa and other honors, but in my senior year I became both disenchanted with physics, in part owing to its equipment-intensive nature, and intrigued with psychology.  On the advice a counselor, I switched my major to mathematics and met with Professor David LaBerge to discuss what the field of mathematical psychology might be all about.  I was captivated by LaBerge’s enthusiasm and spent a graduate year at Minnesota before transferring to Stanford University, which LaBerge considered the place to be for an aspiring young mathematical psychologist.  At Stanford—supported by National Defense Education Act and National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships—I spent my graduate career surrounded by wonderful mentors (William Estes, Gordon Bower, Richard Atkinson, and Patrick Suppes, all of whom went on to great distinction, such as being awarded the National Medal of Science [Estes, Bower, Suppes] and becoming Director of the National Science Foundation and President of the University of California [Atkinson]) and exceptional graduate-student colleagues.  It was a period during which there was great excitement about the potential of mathematical and computer models to capture the dynamics of human learning and memory.

After completing my Ph.D., I was hired by the University of Michigan where I then spent the first 8 years of my research career before moving to my long-term academic home, the University of California, Los Angeles, where I am currently Distinguished Research Professor.  At Michigan, I joined the Human Performance Center, directed by Arthur Melton, a major figure in research on learning and memory.  The Center was an intellectually vibrant place with an exceptional record of its graduate students moving on to be leaders in the field, and it was there that I met one Elizabeth Ligon, who became my wife and collaborator.  We were married in 1969 in New York City, where Elizabeth was a research associate and lecturer at Rockefeller University. (As a side note, we were married by the Reverend Cyril Jenkins, the same man who later married Kermit the Frog and Missy Piggy in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”)

How did you become interested in Academia, Cognitive Psychology, and learning and memory?
As a graduate student at Stanford, I began to get genuinely puzzled by certain aspects of the results we obtained in running experiments designed to test certain quantitative models we were working with at the time.  In an attempt to control for memory load in one particular task, for example, I introduced cues to participants that they could forget some of what they had studied, that they would not be tested on those items.  To my and others’ surprise, such an instruction eliminated the proactive interference from those items in the recall of subsequent to-be-remembered items.  That finding lead to a career-long interest in directed—that is, intentional—forgetting, the dynamics of which have become of strong interest not only to cognitive psychologists, but also to clinical psychologists, social psychologists, and neuroscientists. My research on directed forgetting eventually implicated inhibitory processes and led me to argue that retrieval inhibition and the loss of access to information in memory—that is, forgetting—play broadly adaptive roles in the functioning of human memory, including keeping our memories current.

I also became very interesting in the dynamics of retrieval processes in human memory.  Early during my years at Michigan I was able to demonstrate that the act of retrieving information or procedures from one’s memory is a “memory modifier” in the sense that retrieved information becomes more recallable in the future than it would have been otherwise. That is, retrieving information from human memory is not like retrieving information from a compact disk or other man-made device, which leaves the information is essentially the same state it was before, but, instead, alters the state of the system.  We were later able to demonstrate that retrieving information not only makes that information more retrievable in the future, but also makes competing information—that is, in information associated with the same cue or configuration of cues—less recallable. Basically, my students, collaborators and I were among the first to emphasize that using our memories shapes our memories, not only by making retrieved information more recallable in the future, but also via retrieval-induced forgetting of competing information. From a practical standpoint we were also among the first to argue that the potency of retrieval as a learning event has broad implications for the optimization of instruction.

That people tend to think of recalling information from memory simply reveals that the information exists in their memory, but tend not to understand that the act of recalling has important consequences, is only one of a number of ways that people seem to misunderstand themselves as learners.  Research in my laboratory on how people think they learn, versus actually learn, has demonstrated that our mental models of ourselves as learners and remembers are faulty in some fundamental ways, which, among other things, means that optimizing instruction requires unintuitive innovations, including introducing what I came to call “desirable difficulties” for the learner.   Such difficulties include varying the conditions of instruction and practice, versus keeping them constant and predictable; spacing repeated opportunities to study some to-be-learned information or procedure, versus massing those opportunities (such as cramming); using tests, rather than re-presentations, as learning events; and interleaving, rather than blocking, the study or practice of the separate components of some to-be-learned task.  Desirable difficulties are difficulties because they pose challenges that appear to slow the rate of learning; they are desirable because they can enhance long-term retention and transfer.  To the extent, though, that learners interpret their performance during the learning process as a valid index of learning—which, in our research, they typically do—they can prefer poorer conditions of learning over better conditions of learning.  Instructors, too, are susceptible to interpreting performance as learning, which can make them prone to choosing less-than-optimal conditions of instruction.

Based off your research, what are 2-3 changes you would like to see in science education in the world today?
I think science teachers, perhaps understandably, are prone to teaching the way they were taught.  Doing that may be fueled in part by an explicit attitude, such as “if it was good enough for me, it is good enough for these students,” but can often be a product of simple not thinking of any other options.  As I remember Carl Wieman (nobel laureate in physics) saying in a talk once, physics is often taught the same way it was taught decades/centuries ago and that physics teachers should adopt the same approach to their teaching that they adopt towards their research.  Different methods and ideas should be tried and tested, analogous to the way physicists test their research ideas, and teachers need to draw on the evidence base, which consist largely of findings from cognitive science.

Beyond introducing desirable difficulties such a variation, spacing, testing (low stakes), and interleaving, science educators need to remember that all new learning is a matter of linking the new ideas/facts/concepts up with what is already known.  Making contact with what students already know is crucial.  It is crucial, too, for learners, based on what they know and cues presented by a teacher, to generate information and procedures, rather being presented or shown information and procedures.

What are some best practices for individuals trying to learn a new skill?
That is a good question, but a good answer takes too many words.  What I can say is that, in the domain of motor skills, it is critical—after getting the fundamentals correct, such a grip, stance, and so forth—to practice in an optimal way.  Doing so, though, involves overcoming certain faulty intuitions, one of which is that repetition we stamp some skill into your “muscle memory.”  Instead, you need to introduce conditions of practice that introduce the desirable difficulties I referred to earlier, such as variation, spacing, generation, interleaving.  Motor schemas that support skilled performance are in the brain, not the muscles.  If you write you signature in the normal way on sheet of paper and then write your signature with a piece of chalk on a blackboard in letters a foot tall, the two signatures will look identical when scaled to the same size, even though completely different muscles are involved in the two cases (when writing your signature on a blackboard you need to immobilize the hand/finger muscles you use when writing your signature on a piece of paper).

I see that you have conducted previous research on the topic of forgetting. Would you mind sharing some of your findings on the topic and how forgetting might not be as bad as we tend to paint it in society?
People tend to think of learning as building up something in memory and forgetting as losing some of what was built up.  That conception is not only over simplified, it is in one sense exactly wrong: The very same things that create forgetting actually create opportunities to reach new levels of learning.   Changing the environmental context from study to test decreases one’s ability to recall what was learned—that is, produces respects exactly wrong—but if the to-be-learned information or procedure is restudied, rather than tested, the change in environmental context can enhance learning.  Similarly, increasing the delay from initial study to study will decrease recall, but if the material is restudied, rather than tested, the increased delay will enhance long-term recall (which is the spacing effect).

Aside from that consideration, forgetting is crucial to the overall functioning of human memory.  Basically, our memories are characterized by essentially unlimited storage capacity, but definite limitations on how much of what is stored in our memories is retrievable at any given point of time in any given context.  When we stop accessing information and procedures from our memory they become inaccessible—that is, non-recallable—but remain in storage.  Overall, that is adaptive for two reasons.  One reason is that we do not want everything to be accessible.  If, for example, we were to be asked for our current home address and every home address we have ever had then came to mind, after which we would have to decide which address is current, the process would be slow and tedious.  A second reason is that what tends to be accessible from our memories is information/procedures that are most associated to the current environmental, interpersonal, and body-state cues, which tends, statistically, to be the most needed information and skills.

Cover Image Source: https://robinheyden.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/robert-bjork-remembering-forgetting-and-desirable-difficulties/