A beginner’s guide to: Professor Robert A Bjork

A beginner’s guide to: Professor Robert A Bjork

What is he best known for:

Professor Robert A Bjork (image source: UCLA College)

Being an internationally renowned expert on learning, memory and forgetting – his research focuses on the implications the science of learning has for education.

Quick facts:

Born: 1939

Nationality: American

Professional bio: Professor Robert A Bjork

Where does he work:

​Bjork is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California and a principal researcher at the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. He was previously president of the American Psychological Society (now the Association for Psychological Science). He gained his PhD from Stanford University in 1966.

What's it all about:

Focusing on what makes learning effective in the long-term, Bjork has written that forgetting is erroneously regarded as "the sworn enemy of learning". Instead, he suggests, learning and forgetting have a symbiotic relationship, as forgetting can actually help memory. He says that if humans had unlimited mental storage and the ability to remember everything, this would lead to jumbled recall. So we need to forget things in order to recall new information.

He applies this theory to education, arguing that pupils need to understand how to learn effectively outside of the classroom, which involves working out which information is important to remember and what can be forgotten. Learning how to learn is vitally important once pupils leave school and head into higher education or work, where they will be required to be self-motivated learners.

What does he research:

Bjork's research crosses many disciplinary boundaries, but his main focus is on forgetting and learning. His recent research, for example, has demonstrated that people are susceptible to both "mis-assessing and mis-managing" their own learning. In other words, we fool ourselves into thinking we have learned things that we haven't.

He argues that there are "conditions of instruction" (learning and teaching techniques) that can rapidly improve short-term learning performance and can make it appear as though we are learning, but that do not actually support long-term learning. However, there are also many conditions of instruction that can appear at first to create difficulties for the learner and make learning feel slow, but that actually enhance long-term learning. He calls these "desirable difficulties", as they engage learners in more challenging processing. 

What he says:

"The most important message is that learners should break away from the misconception that the most effective ways of learning are those that make learning easy. The experience of having to expend effort, generate errors, or work hard to achieve understanding should not be interpreted as evidence of one's inadequacy as a learner, but, instead, as important steps towards actual long-term learning and comprehension."

What others say:

Bjork's international renown speaks for his reception in the world of psychology. He work is widely cited in academia, and his accessible style has made him a go-to for journalists in education and psychology.

Why you should consider reading more:

With an accessible – but still rigorous – style, Bjork's writing is the right sort of challenging to help readers commit his ideas to memory. His work could be particularly interesting to educators keen to move beyond teaching "to the test".

Top reads:


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