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Thomas O. Nelson died unexpectedly on January 14th 2005 following open-heart surgery to repair an aortal aneurysm.
Tom was born in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in Roselle, New Jersey. He completed his undergraduate degree at Trenton State College in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1970 at the University of Illinois where Charles Osgood was his mentor. He then completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University with Gordon Bower as his sponsor. In 1971 he accepted a position at the University of Washington where he was promoted through the ranks to Professor and where he remained until 1995. During that time he also held part-time appointments at the University of California, Irvine. In 1995 he moved to the University of Maryland where he became Area Head of the Cognitive Psychology Program, a position he held at the time of his death.
Tom made outstanding contributions to experimental and cognitive psychology not only as a creative scientist, but also as a teacher and as an editor. He became interested in memory research and methodology early in his career, and he maintained that focus throughout his life. He will be remembered best for his seminal publication with Narens (Nelson & Narens, 1990) which provided a conceptual framework that served to guide subsequent research on metacognitive processes. This archival paper outlined how various monitoring and control processes interact during encoding and retrieval of information. It gave coherence to, and energized, the then-fragmented research on metacognition.
In a broader sense, the Nelson and Narens paper gave impetus to the evolution of memory research from a focus on subjects who respond mechanically to experimental controls to a focus on individuals who consciously and continuously monitor and control their cognitive activities in accord with the perceived demands of a situation. The paradigmatic shift to a focus on cognitive processes had been initiated much earlier, but the Nelson and Narens paper and the ensuing programmatic research provided concepts and tools essential for an objective study of the metacognitive processes that guide and influence learning and memory processes.
It is not possible in this brief account to do justice to Tom Nelsons’ multiple and substantive contributions to memory research, especially to metaconition. Two examples, however, may serve to illustrate the range and the impact of his research program which was funded by a succession of grants from the National Institutes of Health. First, his highly influential research with John Dunlosky (e.g.,Nelson & Dunlosky, 1991) showed that individuals make far more accurate predictions of their future recall of memory content if their predictions are delayed after the content has been studied, rather than assessed immediately.. This important discovery continues to stimulate scholarship aimed at clarifying the underlying metacognitive processes.
The second example is Tom’s paper with Gonzales (Gonzales & Nelson, 1996) which focused on quantitative assessment of the relations between metacognitive indicants and their relationship to other indicants of learning and memory. This paper discussed the limitations of available statistics and showed why the Goodman-Kruskal Gamma coefficient should be the measure of choice under most circumstances. Ultimately, following the publication of the Gonzales and Nelson paper and several others published by Tom Nelson and his collaborators, the Gamma coefficient became a standard measure in research on metacognition.
As a teacher and mentor Tom was responsible for attracting a number of outstanding scholars to the field and for the post doctoral training of others. Among these are John Dunlosky, Ken Malmberg, Colin McLeod, Martin Meeters, Tom Schreiber, and Jim Van Overschelde. Tom’s courses on methodology and on the philosophy of science were famous for their excellence and rigor.
As an editor, Tom was recognized for his devotion to the field and for his high standards. He served as Associate Editor of Memory & Cognition, subsequently, Editor of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, a position he held at the time of his death.
Among the honors Tom received during his career was a Senior Career Development grant awarded by NIH to support his coordinating activities in support of metacognitive research, and a coveted Humboldt Scholarship in Germany.
In addition to being a gifted researcher, mentor, and editor, Tom Nelson was an outstanding mountaineer who participated in a Mount Everest expedition, and a competent athlete who enjoyed playing basketball, skiing, sailing and biking. He was a very talented man who will be missed and remembered by students, colleagues and friends, and his work will be known and respected by future generations of psychologists. Tom is survived by his parents, Ruth and Arthur Nelson, and by two children, Jake, and Ashley.
Gonzalez, R. & Nelson, T.O. (1996). Measuring ordinal association in situations that contain tied scores. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 159- 165.
Nelson, T.O. & Dunlosky, J (1991). The delayed-JOL effect: When delaying your judgements of learning can improve the accuracy of your metacognitive monitoring. Psychological Science, 2, 267-270.
Nelson, T.O. & Narens, L. (1990). Metamemory: A theoretical framework and some new findings. In G.H. Bower (Ed). The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 26, 125-173. New York: Academic Press