Cultivating Connections: U-M's Impact on the Teaching, Mentoring, and Research of Dr. Moshe Naveh-Banjamin
When Moshe Naveh-Benjamin (PhD: 1981; Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri) first decided to join Michigan’s Experimental Psychology program in 1976, he did not have a lot of concrete information to guide him. While completing his undergraduate degree at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in those pre-Internet days, the only ways to gather information about international graduate programs were through a few sparse print publications, hearsay from fellow students and professors, and the occasional very expensive and logistically challenging international phone call. After availing himself of those three resources, he finally settled on Michigan and uprooted his life to come to Ann Arbor.
Upon arriving, he experienced a bit of culture shock. First there was the language barrier. While his studies in Israel had left him fluent in written English, it was less helpful in preparing him to converse on the fly with native English speakers. Then there was the weather: it was cold; it was gray; it was snowy (though he came to love the dreary Michigan weather over time). Then there were the other Michigan PhD students, who were kind and supportive but also brilliant to a sometimes-intimidating degree. Finally, there was simply the culture itself. People were into sports, for example—really into sports. Especially football, and not the kind you play with your feet (he eventually grew to appreciate that too).
Fortunately, though, the connections he soon formed with several U-M faculty and students helped him adapt to life at U-M and laid the foundation for his future work. Indeed, when speaking to Naveh-Benjamin about his time at Michigan and his subsequent career, the theme of cultivating connections—between students and faculty, between colleagues, and even between the contents of our own memories—emerges again and again like a continuous thread.
One of the most important of those Michigan connections was also one of the earliest: the relationship he formed during his first year with Bill McKeachie, who was a renowned teacher and a pioneering researcher on student learning styles. But what first stood out about McKeachie was simply his unpretentious approachability and his unwavering support for students and mentees. Of meeting him for the first time, Naveh-Benjamin recalls: “When I first came to Michigan, I was going to TA for one of Bill’s classes, so we arranged to meet. When I opened his office door, Bill was just sitting in front of his desk reading a copy of The American Psychologist. What was most interesting for me at the time was that he had his feet up on the table! I mean, for me he was just a very nice, approachable, and informal person. And this is despite the fact that he was the President of APA at the time! He had also just finished being chair of the U-M Psychology Department for almost 10 years. But he was very kind and asked me about whether I needed anything and so on—you know, given that I had just come from a different country. Bill was very supportive during my first year and throughout my years at Michigan.”
The warmth and support Naveh-Benjamin received from McKeachie and other Michigan faculty now serves as a model for how to mentor his own students and postdocs. “I think the way I was treated during this first year influenced a lot later on,” he says. “It really defined my way of treating new students and postdocs, especially foreign ones. I always try to provide them with as much support as possible as they ease their way into the program, in a similar way to how I was treated in Michigan.”
Unsurprisingly, McKeachie’s work in the classroom also made a lasting impact. Naveh-Benjamin was immediately impressed by McKeachie’s ability to form individual connections with students and keep them actively engaged—especially because he was able to do so even in very large classes.
“During that first year, I worked with Bill in a class of about 200 students,” Naveh-Benjamin says. “What really amazed me was his ability to lead at least half of each lecture through discussion, even with that many students. He would find ways to really engage with the students: asking questions, getting answers, writing some of them on the board, discussing, then going back to the students. That showed me how important it is to keep students actively engaged, which helps them obtain knowledge and receive, in a sense, a personalized experience in the course. Bill also tried to optimize his teaching based on his research into student learning styles. His findings showed that some students learn better when they receive a lecture, while others do better via discussions, for example. I learned then how important it is to use a mixture of approaches when teaching.”
In terms of research, McKeachie and Naveh-Benjamin nominally focused on different areas: Naveh-Benjamin on cognition and memory, McKeachie on educational psychology. But they soon noticed commonalities in those interests and began collaborating on research exploring the intersection of cognition, memory, and student learning. Those collaborations continued throughout Naveh-Benjamin’s time in the program and for many years thereafter, resulting in published research on the information processing mechanisms of test anxiety and the development of cognitive knowledge structures in college courses.
As Naveh-Benjamin’s graduate research developed, connections with several other U-M professors were also critical. Among them were John Jonides, Bob Pachella, Keith Smith, Judy Reitman, as well as Dave Meyer, Bob Zajonc, John Hagen, and Clyde Coombs in Psychology. Outside of the Department, Steve Stich (Philosophy) and Frank Harary (Mathematics) were also important in influencing his thinking.
Of those relationships, the one he formed with John Jonides was particularly noteworthy for its impact on his future research methodology. He recalls: “I didn't yet have much experience in research, and I learned a lot from John about how to approach questions related to memory. Since you can’t really see the actual processes of memory, which happen in the brain, you instead must infer them from people’s behavior. That requires you to rule out a lot of alternative explanations for those behaviors. John was really a wizard with that approach. He was able to come up with such specific, perfect designs that ruled out all or most alternative explanations. I was extremely impressed by that and have adopted it to use in my own research.”
But the theme of cultivating connections is important not only to Naveh-Benjamin’s teaching, mentoring, and collaborations; it is also a fundamental component of his approach to understanding human memory. His early work with Bill McKeachie, for example, showed that encouraging students to connect and contextualize new information with their existing knowledge structures allowed them to learn more quickly and better retain what they learned over time.
In recent years, that theme has continually manifested in intriguingly similar ways, even as a key research focus for Naveh-Benjamin and his lab has shifted from student learning to age-related memory decline. Interestingly, they have found that as people get older, their ability to remember individual details—for instance, a particular name or a particular face—often does not appear to diminish significantly. Rather, it is people’s ability to connect those details together into a unified episode—connecting the name with the face—that seems most affected by age-related decline. That means that an older person’s decreased ability to recall or recognize, say, the details of a particular dinner party may not actually be related closely to a reduced ability to remember those details individually. Rather, it is related to their declining ability to connect them all together into a kind of unified, self-reinforcing memory structure—a kind of constellation of connected individual memories. Having individual memories interlinked into those constellations makes them much easier to remember, especially if those memories can be connected with a person’s previous knowledge base when they are encoded.
Importantly, that means older people may be able to partially compensate for memory decline simply by taking a bit longer to reflect, rehearse, and consciously cultivate those connections between their current and past experiences. Which—speaking of connections—sounds a lot like Bill McKeachie’s approach in the classroom all those years ago.