Remembering Robert Glaser

Robert Glaser, founding director of the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Pittsburgh, passed away on February 4, 2012.

Born on January 18, 1921, Glaser grew up in New York City, and earned a BS in chemistry from City College of New York in 1942. During World War II, he worked in the Army Air Corps Aviation Psychology Program, developing tests to identify pilots suitable for combat missions. The team and its head were awarded the Legion of Merit in recognition of “the outstanding contribution. . . made to winning the war.” After completing his military duty, Bob returned to Indiana, finished his MA in Experimental Psychology in 1947, and earned a PhD in Psychological Measurement and Learning Theory in 1949. He held positions early in his career at the University of Kentucky and the University of Illinois, before settling in Pittsburgh in 1952, first joining the American Institutes for Research, and in 1956 becoming a faculty member of the University of Pittsburgh.

Bob Glaser’s scholarship was extensive, and his influence on both the science of learning and the development of a field of application for this science was significant. Bob showed laboratory and experimental psychologists how their work could make a difference in the world, and he taught educa­tors to build a scientific base for their efforts. A set of core questions and preoccupations marked his work from the beginning to the end; these were the nature of aptitudes and individual differences, the roles of testing and technology in education, and training adapted to individual differences. On each of these topics, Bob wrote influential papers and edited widely read collections.

Bob demonstrated an extraordinary ability to locate key issues, to identify seminal ideas, to consider the best work being done, and to formulate an emerging set of problems that would mobilize and organize the work of others. As early as the 1960s, Bob saw possibilities for using computers to enrich the instructional process. With me, he studied problem solv­ing and intelligence. With colleagues Alan Lesgold and James Pellegrino (1979), he undertook analyses of performance demands on aptitude test items. In the 1980s, he joined with LRDC colleague Micki Chi in the study of novices’ and ex­perts’ problem solving and mental representations of physics problems (1981).

Over and beyond his own major contributions to research in these areas, the capacity to detect emerging trends in scholarship, to give them voice and shape, and to support and encourage the work of many others in order to build a science — marked Bob’s leadership to an unusual degree. Nowhere is this more evident than in the institution — LRDC — that he founded in 1963. At the time, LRDC was one of the first institutions to investigate learning, instruction, and schooling for the improvement of educational practice, and one of the first universities in the country to receive federal funding for the study of educational methods in the nation’s schools. A steady stream of visitors from European universities joined LRDC’s postdoctoral fellows in long-term and lively scholarly exchanges and joint projects.

A prolific author and esteemed colleague, Bob received accolades throughout his career. In 1992 he was recognized with the APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award. APA’s 1987 Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychol­ogy may have captured his contributions eloquently: He was lauded for “uniquely combining advances in psychological theory with issues of instructional theory and practice, thereby defining the field of instructional psychology. His seminal work on criterion referenced testing and the cognitive analysis of aptitude and subject matter expertise has laid the foundation for a science of instructional design.”

-Lauren B. Resnick

Professor Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Pittsburgh

Drew Gitomer

Rose and Nicholas DeMarzo Chair in Education
Rutgers University

I was, and continue to be, a student of Bob’s. That identification does not change with degree, employment, or even death. And I have always known that this identity is not limited to those with whom Bob had a formal advisory role. Though Bob’s influence on so many throughout the fields of cognitive science, educational measurement, and instructional theory is profound, I want to share a few remembrances of how he created a Learning Research and Development Center that was the ideal environment in which young researchers could learn their craft and apprentice into the profession.

He took students seriously and had a genuine interest in our work. The ubiquitous question to every student he ran into, “So tell me, what did you learn today?” was not idle chatter. He really wanted to know and took notice of what you said, often drawing connections between your work and that of colleagues. And of course, what he was doing was pushing us to get out of the self-absorbed world of the graduate student; he recognize that so much of the action happened at the intersection of ideas and as a result of collaborations — collaborations that might have seemed serendipitous to students but were often choreographed by Bob.

He pushed us to refine our ideas. When sharing your work with him, he would ask a question that cut to the core of your research. So, you would work on that problem and at the next meeting get a question from an entirely different angle. I was not the only student who wondered, “Can’t he make up his mind about what the problem is?” Over time, we came to realize the gifts of intellectual caring and modeling he was sharing.

And then he went further. He did everything in his power to make sure that students and post docs had a chance to get their share of applause by inviting us to give talks, co-write papers, or sit in meetings with people who would become important to our careers. He left quite a legacy and a challenge for all of us to carry on his explicit and implicit teachings.

Robert Glaser received an honorary doctorate from McGill University in 2002. From left to right: McGill Chancellor Richard Pound, McGill Professor Susanne Lajoie, Robert Glaser, and McGill Principal Bernard Shapiro.

Susanne Lajoie

McGill University

Robert Glaser was an internationally recognized scholar who helped define the field of instructional psychology by linking theories of learning, cognition, instruction, and assessment. The continuity in his research stemmed from his belief that all learners should be able to achieve their goals and that everyone should be able to be an expert at something. He believed in the road to competence and encouraged his colleagues and students to find their own path and to enjoy the journey.

I had the privilege of being a post-doctoral fellow at the Learning Research and Development Centre while Bob was the director. Even though decades have passed, I still remember the quality of his leadership, mentorship, and generosity. Bob helped create a community of engaging and engaged individuals who were passionate about advancing the field of learning and development. The community worked together in creating cutting-edge research and played together at holiday time laughing at and with each other. It was a rare day that Bob did not make the rounds and talk to his colleagues. He had a thirst for ideas and helped foster them by asking, “So did you discover something new today?” and “Are you having fun?” When Bob asked a question or made a comment, you listened. On one of his visits to my office he said “You’re spinning in circles.” I thought, “Oh no — what did I do wrong?” He laughed and pointed to my chair, which I had literally spun into the floor. Bob’s sense of humor was priceless. Bob introduced me to new ideas, new people, and helped me find my path. The road to competence was sometimes a tough climb, but when he told you, “You done good kid,” you felt like you could fly. Basically, Bob made people feel like they were part of something special and that they each had something to contribute to the greater good.

McGill Chancellor Richard Pound and Robert Glaser.

I asked my fellow post-doctoral siblings for their insights. Val Shute said, “As my post-doc advisor and lifelong friend, Bob was unsurpassed. He was also an academic rock star.” I agree. You would see Bob at annual meetings and academic groupies would surround him. Leona Schauble pointed to “how intellectually generous this man was — basically devoting all of his time and efforts to advancing the field as he understood it and supporting the development of beginners that he believed could come to contribute to it.” As the years flew by, Bob still kept track of people, their new ideas, their careers, and their families..

Bob received at least five honorary doctorates, one that I had the pleasure of spearheading from McGill University. I end with Bob’s own words from his commencement speech, where he inspired the audience about the road to competence:

“[W]ith the education you have just received and with further opportunities to use what you’ve learned in your lines of work and professions, you will develop  organized knowledge and ways of seeing situations that will enable you to successfully solve problems, and engage in difficult and challenging tasks. You will also become very good at monitoring your own understanding and performance within your area of expertise. As you gain experience and apply yourself to your career, you will develop these forms of competent performance…A cautionary note is that building expertise takes time…it is not going to happen overnight. Practice and experience are key…I hope that my remarks will stimulate you to reflect on your daily activities, and on how you might be able to allocate more of your time and resources to those activities that are critical to your continued improvement, and above all, to the achievement of your most desired goals.”

Sigmund Tobias

Eminent Research Professor, Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology
University at Albany, State University of New York

More than 40 years ago I spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) supported by the U.S. Office of Education. I had heard a great deal about the mix of basic and applied research going on at LRDC, and knew that Bob Glaser was largely responsible for it. Seeing the work firsthand was heady stuff for this then-young associate professor building a career in educational psychology and educational research. It stimulated my work in more ways than I am probably aware of even now.

The many projects and the talented people whom Bob had attracted to the Center were intellectually exciting, but my most memorable experiences involved two interactions with Bob. I was working on an article for publication and, as a courtesy, sent a copy of what I thought was the final draft to Bob. A few days later, Bob called me into his office to discuss my manuscript. He had gone over it line by line, and there was hardly a paragraph that had escaped without his questions or comments. It was a valuable experience, and one I have tried to transmit to younger colleagues and students.

On another occasion, Bob and I were talking about motivation and related constructs. He said that all the talk about self-realization sounded fine. However, he had never completed a manuscript without worrying about having made some error or omission that someone else would subsequently point out. Such errors, Bob continued, were often inevitable but he wanted to be the one to point them out first in his own manuscripts, rather than have some critic or reader do it later. It was another valuable lesson among the many I learned from Bob Glaser.

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