Doug Nelson Biography

Doug Nelson received his bachelors degree in 1962 from the University of Virginia, where he studied with Bill Battig. From there he went way north, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied with Wolf Brogden and received his Ph.D. in 1967. Doug's dissertation looked at paired-associate acquisition, and even then he was interested in the role of pre-experimentally acquired knowledge on learning and memory in the laboratory. In 1967 he came to the University of South Florida, which was a new university with little history or tradition but seemingly great potential (and an assurance that he wouldn't get frostbite while walking to class). Doug and the Psychology Department at USF turned out to be a good match, and he spent 40 years of an extremely active research and teaching career on the Tampa campus. Doug was involved in bringing a Ph.D. program to the Psychology Department and mentored the program's first graduate, Dr. David Brooks, in 1974. He received numerous honors and awards for his outstanding research throughout his career and was awarded the title of Distinguished Research Professor in 1994.

group photo
David Brooks, Doug Nelson, Richard Borden, and Joseph Wheeler
(click to enlarge)

Doug's research has informed our understanding of human memory in many domains, including serial and associative learning, the pictorial superiority effect in memory, levels of processing, and, most recently, the role of prior knowledge in memory for experimentally acquired information. Doug's theory on why pictures are easier to remember than words - the Sensory-Semantic model - suggested that it is the physical distinctiveness of pictures relative to words that contributes to the superior recall of pictures. This theory, originally published in 1976, continues to be widely cited despite its age. Doug's research on the importance of sensory information in memory for pictures led him to question the leading theory of memory available at the time - the Levels of Processing theory. His research suggested that sensory information about words was not simply encoded in a shallow and fleeting manner, but played a major role in the memorability of the stimulus words. These findings led to a long-term program of research on the role of prior knowledge in cued and free recall and recognition. He developed a model, Processing Implicit and Explicit Representations (PIER), to describe the individual contributions of unconsciously activated prior knowledge and explicit encoding activities on memory for recently experienced stimuli. This research was made possible by over 20 years of collecting the University of South Florida Word Association Norms, which have been used extensively by researchers throughout the world and are now archived on the Psychonomic Society website. Doug's research on PIER, and its quantitative version, PIER2, has established that the wealth of information brought by the learner to the laboratory is not simply noise to be ignored or eliminated. Instead, this prior knowledge can be quantified and serves as a significant predictor of recall and recognition. This festschrift will illustrate the important role of prior knowledge and its measurement in understanding human memory performance.


Doug's Vitae