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Sidney L. Pressey (1888–1979)

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Father of the teaching machine, author of the first book on standardized testing, and founder of the Division on Adult Development and Aging of the American Psychological Association, Sidney Leavitt Pressey was an innovator. Although twenty-first century educators and psychologists are constantly rediscovering Pressey's contributions to their fields, few are aware of the range of topics that he explored.

Pressey was born in Brooklyn, New York; his father was a minister in the Congregational Church and his mother was a teacher. Because of his asthma, the family eventually moved to a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, where he spent most of his childhood and youth. He received his B.A. from Williams College, his father's alma mater.

Although he majored in American history, a course in social psychology led him to attend graduate school at Harvard University in 1912. At Harvard he studied with several notables, Robert M. Yerkes chief among them. With Yerkes's assistance, Pressey became an intern at Boston Psychopathic Hospital while still in graduate school. During his internship he met Luella Cole who, for fifteen years, would be his wife and collaborator.

After receiving his doctoral degree in 1917, Pressey obtained an appointment as a special research assistant at Indiana University. After four years, he accepted an invitation to Ohio State University as an assistant professor and remained on the faculty of Ohio State for the next thirty-eight years, achieving the rank of full professor in 1926 and retiring from the university in 1959. During his retirement, Pressey remained very productive, authoring eighteen papers between 1959 and 1967.

Pressey was rather unique because he grounded his research in the problems that he encountered on a daily basis, rather than in theory or prior research. This "grounding" was evident very early in his career. While interning at Boston Psychopathic Hospital he studied ways of empirically differentiating among psychotics, alcoholics, and "feebleminded" individuals.

During his four years as a research assistant at Indiana University, he began studying children whom modern psychologists would term as having below normal IQs, but soon became interested in those possessing superior abilities. This research led to the publication of several journal articles and Introduction to the Use of Standard Tests. Following World War II, he returned to this line of research and published Educational Acceleration: Appraisals and Basic Problems. By "acceleration" Pressey suggests a means of accommodating the needs of academically gifted students.

During his initial years on the faculty at Ohio State University, he was concerned with the quality of graduate education, particularly the teaching of psychology. He investigated the study methods used by superior and failing students in an attempt to identify the most effective and least effective methods. He designed a teacher education program, the central feature of which was a project involving actual work in the school or with young people.

After retirement he would declare:

Now at the age of eighty, I am still battling long-continuing gross faults in our schools which first irked me as a boy in the grades. Trained as a laboratory psychologist, I was soon declaring the laboratory too piddling artificial and psychology either too biological or too theoretical to come helpfully to grips with major human problems. (Pressey 1971, p. 231)

Finally, as he aged, he began to study aging. Initially, he reflected on his experiences with the experiences of those he had studied at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital. Eventually, his writing became more personalized and introspective. He initiated the first American Psychological Association division–on maturity and old age–in 1945 to 1946.

Although Pressey's impact on educational thought and practice was substantial, it could have been even greater had he not been so far ahead of his time in so many respects. Pressey invented and patented the first teaching machine in 1924, fully thirty years before B. F. Skinner's popularization of teaching machines. Skinner based his machine on the behaviorist theory of learning that was prevalent at the time, and Pressey was amazed by the learning theorists' ignorance of the body of research concerning learning in school. He criticized Skinner and his associates for applying concepts derived primarily from rats that had learned to run mazes and students who had memorized pairs of letter combinations. Pressey was a cognitive psychologist who rejected a view of learning as an accumulation of responses governed by environmental stimuli in favor of one governed by meaning, intention, and purpose. In fact, he had been a cognitive psychologist his entire life, well before the "mythical birthday of the cognitive revolution in psychology" (Bruner, p. 780).

In commenting on Pressey's second autobiography, Geraldine Clifford wrote that "despite Pressey's participation in national meetings, his even greater national involvement in work on aging, and his frequent visiting teaching posts at various campuses, the impression persists that his environment was essentially an immediate one: that of his institution, department, his courses, his students, recognized duties." Clifford concluded: "Sidney Pressey probably would be an idol of today's students–clamorously seeking from their professors involvement, dedication to teaching, meaningful guidance, and personal concern–as he indeed was to many among earlier generations of students" (p. 275).


BRUNER, JEROME S. 1992. "Another Look at New Look 1." American Psychologist 47:780–783.

HOBBS, NICHOLAS. 1980. "Obituary: Sidney Leavitt Pressey (1988–1979)." American Psychologist 35:669–671.

PRESSEY, SIDNEY L. 1949. Educational Acceleration: Appraisals and Basic Problems. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

PRESSEY, SIDNEY L. 1967. "Autobiography." in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 5, ed. Edward G. Boring and Gardner Lindzey. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

PRESSEY, SIDNEY L. 1971. "Sidney Leavitt Pressey, Part I: An Autobiography." In Leaders in American Education, ed. Robert J. Havighurst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

PRESSEY, SIDNEY L., and PRESSEY, LUELLA C. 1922. Introduction to the Use of Standard Tests. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book.

PRESSEY, SIDNEY L., and PRESSEY, LUELLA C. 1926. Mental Abnormality and Deficiency. New York: Macmillan.


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