Research Biography of John R. Anderson

John R. Anderson, Richard King Mellon Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University is an exemplary recipient for a prize that is intended to honor “a significant contemporary contribution to the formal analysis of human cognition”. For the last three decades, Anderson has been engaged in a vigorous research program with the goal of developing a computational theory of mind. Anderson’s work is framed within the symbol processing framework and has involved an integrated program of experimental work, mathematical analyses, computational modeling, and rigorous applications. His research has provided the field of cognitive psychology with comprehensive and integrated theories. Furthermore, it has had a real impact on educational practice in the classroom and on student achievement in learning mathematics.

Anderson’s contributions have arisen across a career that consists of five distinct phases. Phase 1 began when he entered graduate school at Stanford at a time when cognitive psychology was incorporating computational techniques from artificial intelligence. During this period and immediately after his graduation from Stanford, he developed a number of simulation models of various aspects of human cognition such as free recall [1]. His major contribution from this time was the HAM theory, which he developed with Gordon Bower. In 1973, he and Bower published the book Human Associative Memory [2], which immediately attracted the attention of everyone then working in the field. The book played a major role in establishing propositional semantic networks as the basis for representation in memory and spreading activation through the links in such networks as the basis for retrieval of information from memory. It also provided an initial example of a research style that has become increasingly used in cognitive science: to create a comprehensive computer simulation capable of performing a range of cognitive tasks and to test this model with a series of experiments addressing the phenomena within that range.

Dissatisfied with the limited scope of his early theory, Anderson undertook the work which has been the major focus of his career to date, the development of the ACT theory [3]. ACT extended the HAM theory by combining production systems with semantic nets and the mechanism of spreading activation. The second phase of Anderson’s career is associated with the initial development of ACT. The theory reached a significant level of maturity with the publication in 1983 of The Architecture of Cognition [4], which is the most cited of his research monographs (having received almost 2000 citations in the ensuing years). At the time of publication, The ACT* model described in this book was the most integrated model of cognition that had then been produced and tested. It has had a major impact on the theoretical development of the field and on the movement toward comprehensive and unified theories, incorporating separation of procedural and declarative knowledge and a series of mechanisms for production rule learning that became the focus of much subsequent research on the acquisition of cognitive skills. In his own book on Unified Theories of Cognition, Alan Newell had this to say: “ACT*, is in my opinion, the first unified theory of cognition. It has pride of place…. [It] provides a threshold of success which all other candidates… must exceed”.

Anderson then began a major program to test whether ACT* and its skill acquisition mechanisms actually provided an integrated and accurate account of learning. He started to apply the theory to development of intelligent tutoring systems; this defines the third phase of his research. This work grew from an initial emphasis on teaching the programming language LISP to a broader focus on high-school mathematics [5], responding to perceptions of a national crisis in mathematics education. These systems have been shown to enable students to reach target achievement levels in a third of the usual time and to improve student performance by a letter grade in real classrooms. Anderson guided this research to the point where a full high school curriculum was developed that was used in urban schools. Subsequently, a separate corporation has been created to place the tutor in hundreds of schools, influencing tens of thousands of students. The tutor curriculum was recently recognized by the Department of Education as one of five “exemplary curricula” nationwide. While Anderson does not participate in that company, he continues research developing better tools for tracking individual student cognition, and this research continues to be informed by the ACT theory. His tutoring systems have established that it is possible to impact education with rigorous simulation of human cognition.

In the late 1980s, Anderson began work on what was to define the fourth phase of his research, which was an attempt to understand how the basic mechanisms of a cognitive architecture were adapted to the statistical structure of the environment. Anderson (1990) [6] called this a rational analysis of cognition and applied it to the domains of human memory, categorization, causal inference, and problem solving. He utilized Bayesian statistics to derive optimal solutions to the problems posed by the environment and showed that human cognition approximated these solutions. Such optimization analysis and use of Bayesian techniques have become increasingly prevalent in Cognitive Science.

Subsequent to the rational analysis effort, Anderson has returned his full attention back to the ACT theory, defining the fifth and current phase of his career. With Christian Lebiere, he has developed the ACT-R theory, which incorporates the insights from his work on rational analysis [7]. Reflecting the developments in computer technology and the techniques learned in the applications of ACT*, the ACT-R system was made available for general use. A growing and very active community of well over 100 researchers is now using it to model a wide range of issues in human cognition, including dualtasking, memory, language, scientific discovery, and game playing. It has become increasingly used to model dynamic tasks like air-traffic control, where it promises to have training implications equivalent to the mathematics tutors. Through the independent work of many researchers, the field of cognitive science is now seeing a single unified system applied to an unrivaled range of tasks. Much of Anderson’s own work on the ACT-R has been involved relating the theory to data from functional brain imaging [8].

In addition to his enormous volume of original work, Anderson has found the time to produce and revise two textbooks, one on cognitive psychology [9] and the other on learning and memory [10]. The cognitive psychology textbook, now in its fifth edition, helped define the course of study that is modern introductory cognitive psychology. His more recent learning and memory textbook, now in its second edition, is widely regarded as reflecting the new synthesis that is occurring in that field among animal learning, cognitive psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.

Anderson has previously served as president of the Cognitive Science Society and has received a number of awards in recognition of his contributions. In 1978 he received the American Psychological Association’s Early Career Award; in 1981 he was elected to membership in the Society of Experimental Psychologists; in 1994 he received APA’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award; and in 1999 he was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Science. Currently, as a member of the National Academy, he is working towards bringing more rigorous science standards to educational research.

[1] Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1972). Recognition and retrieval processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 79, 97-123.[2] Anderson, J. R. & Bower, G. H. (1973). Human associative memory. Washington: Winston and Sons.[3] Anderson, J. R. (1976). Language, memory, and thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.[4] Anderson, J. R. (1983). The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.[5] Anderson, J. R., Corbett, A. T., Koedinger, K., & Pelletier, R. (1995). Cognitive tutors: Lessons learned. The Journal of Learning Sciences, 4, 167-207.[6] Anderson, J. R. (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.[7] Anderson, J. R. & Lebiere, C. (1998). The atomic components of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.[8] Anderson, J. R., Qin, Y., Sohn, M-H., Stenger, V. A. & Carter, C. S. (2003.) An information-processing model of the BOLD response in symbol manipulation tasks. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 10, 241-261.[9] Anderson, J. R. (2000). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications: Fifth Edition. New York: Worth Publishing.[10] Anderson, J. R. (2000). Learning and Memory, Second Edition. New York: Wiley.