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At age 17, Bryan entered Indiana University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1884.
Bryan earned his Ph.D. from Clark University in 1892.
He initially taught Greek at Indiana before being appointed assistant professor of philosophy and acting instructor of English in 1985. he was appointed professor in philosophy from 1887 to 1902.
He was elected APA President in 1903.
Bryan had been christened William J. Bryan but when, on July 11, 1889, he married Charlotte A. Lowe, he took her last name as his middle name and from that time he was known as William L. Bryan.
Bryan did his initial work on the relation between reaction time and intensity of stimulation, as well as on the development of voluntary motor ability in children. However, he is most famous for his classic experiments on human Morse Code learning. Those studies revealed "plateaus" in learning curves and suggested that acquisition of a complicated skill involves successive mastery of a hierarchy of habits. The project was one of the first to provide data on the role of automaticity in human learning and memory, a hot topic in contemporary cognitive psychology.