Lumen Scholar studies the psychology of learning

Ask an expert in any profession to share how he learned his job and you might not get a good answer. Ask a novice the same thing, and you could hear a detailed response. Jonathan Mahlandt, the seventh student to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on the inaugural class of Lumen Scholars, wants to know why this happens, the answers to which may one day help classroom teachers better educate young students.

Elon senior Jonathan Mahlandt (foreground) with his Lumen mentor, psychology professor Thomas Green.

Psychologists recognize two learning pathways: explicit, or deliberate learning, and implicit, or incidental learning. Mahlandt, a native of Maryland inducted this week into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, worked closely with psychology professor Thomas Green to expand the body of research in this field.

Mahlandt often gives an example of explicit learning by describing a child who is instructed by a teacher to place a period at the end of each sentence. A child who places a period at the end of his sentences because he notices them in books learned the rule implicitly.

Why is this important? Citing published research, Mahlandt explains how people who learn things implicitly learn them faster, and remember them longer, than skills or knowledge learned explicitly through direct instruction.

Using money from the prize, Mahlandt traveled to Scotland to study implicit and explicit learning among professional golfers. He returned to the United States and, in collaboration with Green, devised his own lab experiment to test reaction time in pattern recognition on a computer screen.

Some test volunteers were told about the pattern. Others were not. A third group – what Mahlandt labels a “novelty group” – starts with no knowledge of the pattern. Halfway through the test, volunteers are given the pattern, and the changes in their response times are measured.

“That’s the thing that makes this experiment unique,” Mahlandt said. “We’re trying to get them to articulate what they’ve learned and force them to acknowledge what’s concrete. We’re forcing them to move from the implicit to the explicit.”

The broader implications are what ignite Mahlandt’s intellectual curiosity. The experiments, he said, can help educators best determine when they should allow young students to learn skills on their own, and when to interrupt that learning process with direct instruction.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon’s historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

“He’s extraordinary,” Green said of Mahlandt. “In summary, his academic skills are more in line with what one would expect with a top level graduate student or, maybe, even a faculty member. What really impresses me the most about him is that he’s the full package, he really has all the academic skills, the social skills, the interpersonal skills, and he’s really a caring, hardworking individual.

Mahlandt described the Lumen Prize as a type of encouragement in the face of struggles and setbacks. “Getting the prize was half a scholarship, half a mandate,” Mahlandt said. “I could have done much less and got my thesis completed. It kept me vigilant.”

The graduating senior described Green as a great friend and valuable mentor who supported the research while voicing constructive criticism when needed. “We have a very candid relationship,” Mahlandt said. “He lets me know when he thinks I’m wrong, and I let him know when I think he’s wrong. It’s really a productive, healthy thing we’ve got going.”

The end goal is to publish a paper in a scientific journal. Even if that fails, he said, the research has helped prepare for more immediate ambitions, including the pursuit of a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Thanks in part to the Lumen Prize, Mahlandt has accepted an offer to earn his doctorate at the University of California at San Diego.

– Daniel Koehler ’12 and Eric Townsend, Office of University Relations