2016 James McKeen Cattell Fellow

Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork

University of California, Los Angeles

Robert A. and Elizabeth L. Bjork have spent their lifetimes making critical contributions to the study of learning and memory, with special emphasis on issues of education and training. In the early 1990s, they introduced the concept of desirable difficulties in learning to describe a curious but fundamental pattern of results in many studies. Briefly, a variable that facilitates learning on an immediate test (say, having students block practice on one type of problem relative to intermixing types of problems during learning) can have negative effects on a delayed test (interleaving helps on such tests). Fast learning may, in some cases, lead to fast forgetting. Counterintuitively, introducing certain types of difficulties into the process of learning (like interleaving problems) can slow initial gains but lead to more durable learning for the long term.

These observations are crucial because students and teachers develop their studying and teaching strategies from observing immediate performance. Yet if immediate performance is often negatively correlated with long-term retention, students and teachers may be acquiring the wrong lessons about good learning strategies. Thus, the principle of desirable difficulties helps to explain why students adopt study strategies that are ineffective—the strategies often work reasonably well in the short term on immediate assessments.

The Bjorks have made numerous other contributions to the study of learning and memory. They are leaders in the study of directed forgetting, of retrieval-induced forgetting, and of metamemory, to mention but a few areas. These topics have their own application, which makes this award even more deserved.

See Robert and Elizabeth Bjork’s award address presented at the 2016 APS Annual Convention in Chicago.