All posts by acrlguest

From Public to Academic: Reflections on a Transition

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Raymond Pun, Research and Reference Services Librarian at New York University, Shanghai, China. Tweet him anything @oboro85 (yes, he can tweet in China!).

As this spring semester is coming to an end, I finally have the opportunity to reflect on my first year working as an academic librarian. This is a unique position, because I also work abroad: New York University Shanghai, a portal campus that is affiliated with New York University. I joined the team on September 2013 and started working in Shanghai on November 2013.

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In the past I worked as a librarian in a public library for three years: The New York Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I worked in NYPL for a total of six years or so. It seems very fitting for me to write about my transition from public to academic in this post.

For the most part, I see some very strong connections in terms of similar service philosophies and standards, yet I also see the contrast of the work cultures and expectations. But it’s also true that I worked in two very uniquely situated institutions: a major public research library and a new academic university in China. It isn’t like I am comparing a branch library experience to a state university library one. However, I do want to share some of these insights despite the unique arrangements, to see how both worlds share a deeper affinity than they think.

During the interview process for my current academic position, I was asked about my background as a public librarian and how that background can translate into academic librarianship. It would be very difficult for someone to explain why he/she decided to move into academic librarianship if he/she had only been involved in the public library world. But then again, why apply for an academic library position?

In my case, I argued that I was very active in professional associations such as ALA, ACRL, ACRL-NYC, and I frequently wrote and presented my research. I provided reference services to scholars, students, grad students, and anyone working on a research project in NYPL. I’ve worked with Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Geniuses, HBO documentary filmmakers, New York Times journalists, U.N ambassadors, New Yorker writers, curators from the Huntington Library in California to the American Finance Museum in New York, and of course, undergraduates. I’ve had the opportunity to “embed” myself in academic courses as well, specifically in St. John’s University’s history departments, working along with Dr. Elaine Carey on various grant-funded projects on historical research for undergraduates.

So I felt comfortable with my experiences in NYPL to work in an academic library. However, I soon discovered that there are still many new things to learn once I got into the academic world. But after a while, it wasn’t all that difficult since my public library background did prepare me for this transition too.

First, the patron: the patron comes first. Of course, you want to show the patron how to find the items by him/herself so any teachable moment is an opportunity for any librarian to seize. NYPL and NYU definitely encouraged this behavior. Also if an item is not available, always offer alternative resources or suggestions. I learned that at NYPL: use ILL, METRO passes or any kind of open access resource that can substitute the item for the patron if possible. And finally, follow ups, which are nice either in person or by email. Public or academic patrons love librarians that care about their research progress. This is a sure way to develop rapport with the patron. From an academic side, this person may come back to use the library and may want to ask the librarian to teach their class. For the public side, this person may come back and also write an advocacy letter on behalf of the library when it goes through major budget cuts.

Second, service goals and committees: I think it largely depends on where you work and have worked. I see that my current institution fosters and emphasizes service and personal goals, which can be very useful to measure your progress and development. In the public library world, I had informal conversations about my projects and goals but never anything official. It was different there: I still accomplished a lot as a public librarian but I wasn’t being evaluated based on these service goals, and I was self-motivated to achieve them as well. As for committees, I served and am serving on various committees and I enjoy committee work because it lets me work with new people to collaborate and come up with creative or innovative solutions. Both emphasized collaboration and teamwork to support the library in various ways.

Third, schedules: this is obvious. Academic librarians will have busy moments during the semester such as midterm and finals week but they also have downtime or periods of recess where there are no students or faculty around. Unfortunately public librarians don’t have that luxury and every day is busy but different. For me, sometimes I like that rushed feeling where there’s always something to work on and something new to try, but now I also enjoy these periodic breaks: spring, winter, and summer breaks where I get to plan, reflect and think about new projects, ideas or solutions to work on. I get a chance to utilize that other side of my brain to think of better ways to improve user experiences. In the public library, I had to think on my feet and if there were opportunities for service changes, I reported them right away. There was not as much time to really reflect.

Forth, community partnerships: public libraries are engaged with their communities for the most part. I think academic libraries have the potential to partner with their communities outside the institution and I know some are already doing that. For obvious reasons, the public library needs to foster these community partnerships with schools, prisons, senior centers, etc., but academic libraries don’t really need to. In my current position, I feel like I am doing “community partnerships” where I am closely working with the Career Development Center, Public Affairs, Office of Student Life, Academic Resource Center, and Development. The people that work in these departments are staff of the university, however, they typically aren’t the library’s clientele. I collaborate with these different groups so that I can learn more about their roles in the university and they learn more about the library and most importantly, we learn to enhance our services and support to the students and faculty.

I definitely enjoy my work as an academic librarian now and I also feel grateful that I had the opportunity to work as a public librarian, to share my knowledge with the public and anyone who needed help. The transition wasn’t all that bad after all but I also happen to be an optimistic person when it comes to change! If you have also made the transition from public to academic or from academic to public, I would love to read your comments about your transitioning experiences or insights!

Librarians Meet the Commissioners, Live: The Middle State Accreditation Standards Revisions Redux

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

If the recent town hall meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in Albany, New York had been a boxing match, you might have easily concluded that the librarians won in a forceful effort to help shape the revision of the accreditation standards document. One third of all those who stood up to speak spoke in defense of the work librarians do on college campuses across the region.  Furthermore, not all of those who spoke were librarians.  Librarians had allies among the classroom faculty present.  One history professor closed out the comment period with an impassioned call for all to recognize the seductions of the latest trends as not having the tested value of some of what has been with us for centuries.  In particular, he referenced libraries.

The overwhelming response of librarians to the call for action in the ACRLog post of January 27, 2014 and other forums had a resounding effect.

While some may feel librarians and library concerns dominated the open discussion at the MSCHE meeting – one speaker from the audience, not a librarian, elicited a laugh from all when she introduced herself and made a particular point of saying that she was not a librarian – in an odd sort of way, it might be argued that libraries lost some ground in this critical round with the Middle State Commissions.  Yes, there was a victory, and a strong victory it was.  The chair of the steering committee, in a conversation before the proceedings, in introductory comments to the assembled audience, and throughout the open comments period, apologized for the omission of the words “information literacy” from what will become the new Characteristics of Excellence.  It was a mistake, he said.  An embarrassment.  We were wrong and we are going to correct it.

The Middle States Commission, the same accrediting body that Steven J. Bell had called “a good friend to academic librarians…an early adopter of specific language in its standards addressing information literacy as a desired learning outcome,” had made a boo-boo and was more than ready to make it better.

Information literacy was in.  But libraries were out.  So were laboratories, art studios, physical education facilities, and any other tangible objects, for this is a standards document focused on the student learning experience and not on the counting of things. Never mind that certain things, ranging from large, physical facilities and infrastructure (including infrastructure that allows for learning in a non-physical or virtual setting) to the smaller tools of education from brushes to beakers to books, play an indispensable role in the educational process.  As the president of the Commission warned those present, any attempts to be specific and proscriptive in the new document would endanger the future viability of the accreditation process.  Counting library books, in particular, was noted as an out-dated methodology, something to be steered clear of in a modern evaluation of a college.  A number of other vitals have dropped from consideration. Faculty is a word less used in the current proposed standards. Faculty used to be covered as a standard of its own.  According to the Commission, some of their members do not employ faculty.  So faculty are not required to make a college and neither are libraries.

Most librarians would agree with the Commission that counting books is not a fair way to measure the adequacy of a college.  Librarians are the first to acknowledge that we own less and less of what we consider to be our collections and lease more and more. Our big e-book packages see titles come and go, often with the result that we will give up on cataloging whatever books are in an electronic package to save ourselves the effort later of removing titles from the OPAC. Counting these books as a way to define our libraries would be like counting each raindrop as it falls, and then disappears on a lake, or worse, down a drain.

Indeed, the visible physicality of the academic library has been on the decline since the end of the card catalog, through the advent of CD-ROMs, to standardized access to databases through the internet. Nonetheless, Jason Kramer, the Executive Director of the New York State Higher Education Initiative, a library lobbying and advocacy group, made a forecast at the MSCHE town hall meeting this past April first.  If the physical functions of what libraries do—the thoughtful selecting and the collective acquiring of and providing access to resources on the behalf of many—is not taken into equal account with the established and now well-accepted role of librarians as key in the educational path towards information literacy, legislators will see this as an opportunity to deny funding for library resources.  It will be April Fool’s Day for many days going forward and it will be libraries who are the ones who will have been duped. In other words, if higher education standards documents make no mention of the need for a college or a university to acquire valuable, and sometimes costly, information resources as one way in which they are defined as an institution of higher learning, then those elected officials who see that tax dollars make their way back into the economy will pass over libraries as fully-prepared to do their job with little more than access to Google.

Perhaps the match between the librarians and Middle States Commissioners in Albany was not a win for either side but rather ended in a tie.  The Commission accepted that it must add information literacy back into the document; librarians are ready to make the case for expanding their role to include other things library.  According to the New York rules of boxing—and this has been a face-off in the New York State capital, an official will often decide on a winner when there is a tie based on which contender appears to be in “better physical condition.” Librarians will do well for the future of education and all learning if we begin to step forward and acknowledge once again the very real physicality of the profession we serve.  Libraries are very much about concrete, tangible goods, services and spaces without which, the incorporeal, but totally laudable goal of assisting learners on their path towards information literacy could not be achieved.

Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, Associate Director for Library Applications and Knowledge Systems at University of Maryland, Baltimore, Health Sciences and Human Services Library. This post was originally published on our sister blog, ALA TechConnect.

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

Accreditation Standards & Libraries: A Dangerous Ride Down a Devolving Course

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE, or, Middle States) is looking for feedback on the proposed revisions to the Characteristics of Excellence, the MSCHE accreditation standards. If you work in a college or university in an area that comes under Middle States jurisdiction, have or know of a child who attends one of the affected schools, or care about the future of higher education, add your comments to an online survey by January 31 or take the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting scheduled at one of several locations in the region throughout the spring of 2014, and be sure your voice is heard.

The Middle States standards set the bar for the accreditation of colleges in five states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If adopted, the new standards will shape what higher education looks like in four of the eight Ivy League universities, the top two largest U.S. colleges as measured by enrollment, nine Historically Black Colleges, and the first college in the United States dedicated to the education of the deaf, among so many others. The number of students who will be affected is extraordinarily large and diverse. In contrast, the number of standards by which Middle States will measure a school is dramatically shrinking to half the number established the last time the standards underwent a comprehensive review.

According to the MSCHE, “[i]n response to extensive feedback from member institutions and experienced peer evaluators, the Steering Committee attempted to streamline the standards, eliminate redundancies, and focus on clarity and brevity.” What Middle States has done in the process of streamling their standards is to eliminate any mention of libraries from the new plan and entirely eliminate a carefully crafted integration of the teaching work librarians do from the “Educational Offerings” of a college or university (current Standard 11), the “General Education” goals of in institution (current Standard 12) and any “Related Educational Activities” a school was designed to offer (current Standard 13).

The long journey academic librarians have taken to reshape instruction in research to reflect the goals of information literacy, and further, to bring academic institutions on board so that they might understand the broadened role libraries have to play in higher education has been purpose-driven, far-reaching and effective. According to the American Library Association (ALA), when it last looked, each one of the six accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation includes “language in their Standards that stress the importance of teaching [information literacy skills] abilities in colleges and universities.”

Unfortunately, since ALA did its review of the most widely accepted accreditation standards in 2011, some things have changed. What Middle States is moving towards in its proposed new and briefer guidelines, may be, in fact, part of an unwelcome trend in a backward direction.  The most recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges Handbook of Accreditation, published in 2013, leaves information literacy out of Standard 2, “Achieving Educational Objectives Through Core Functions” and only implies the existence of a library in Standard 3, “Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability.”

As higher education in the United States moves into a period of a fuller integration of pedagogy with technology, a time where researchers struggle to find their way through the onslaught of an information overload (be it a uniquely modern problem or not), and every college administrator from the president on down is quick to remind faculty of the increasing calls for accountability, will libraries continue to be counted?  Libraries and the work librarians do must remain central in every institution of higher education.  Let your voice for libraries be heard.  Respond to the MSCHE survey today.

Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Outreach, and Alyssa Archer, Instruction Librarian at Radford University.

“If I have to sit through YET ANOTHER freaking ‘professional development’ session based on these cockamamie theories, I am going to pluck my eyeballs out and throw them at whatever charlatan the administration hired to conduct said session.”- professor on an online academic forum discussing learning myths, including the pyramid.

Some educational myths just can’t be killed. Case in point: the learning pyramid.

If you’re  involved with student learning, you are probably familiar with the Learning Pyramid. This diagram breaks down different modes of learning and argues that more active modalities are better for long-term learning: we remember10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, and so on, all the way up to 90% of what we do.

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Just in the last few weeks, we have witnessed two experts in separate presentations (one in librarianship, the other in education) refer earnestly to the pyramid.  And while we didn’t gouge our eyeballs out, it made us both wince. This is a zombie learning theory that refuses to die.  Whether it’s called the Cone of Learning or the Learning Pyramid, or demonstrates retention rates by another graphic, it keeps getting its head methodically removed by a dedicated cadre of researchers, yet rises up again in search of more brains. In this post, we’ll review the history of the pyramid, why it’s wrong, and why it never dies.

History of the Learning Pyramid

Edgar Dale, an expert in audiovisual education, created a model in his 1946 book Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching that he named the Cone of Experience to discuss various modalities/channels of imparting information. His cone did not refer to learning or retention at all, instead modelling levels of abstraction: words being the most abstract in his model, at the top of the cone, and real-life experiences the most concrete, and at the base of the cone (Lalley & Miller, 2007, p. 68). Take a look at the image below left: note that there are no percentages listed, this is purely a theoretical model. Dale did not value one mode over another, but argued for a wide variety of modes depending on context (Molenda, 2004, p. 161). Researchers speculate that Dale based the Cone on an earlier theoretical graph (below right) from 1937’s Visualizing the Curriculum, by Charles F. Hoban, Charles F. Hoban, Jr., and Samuel B Zisman.

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Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience from the first edition of Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, a model of abstract to concrete experiences.  

The probable inspiration for the Cone of Experience, from Visualizing the Curriculum, Charles F. Hoban, Charles F. Hoban, Jr., and Samuel B Zisman (1937, p 23)

Unfortunately, this conceptual model took on a life of its own. While Dale included caveats in the several editions of his work that the Cone was a theoretical model, and that multiple modes could apply to situations depending on the context, his work was ripe to be misused as a practical tool. As Michael Molenda notes, by the third edition of Audio-Visual Materials in Teaching in 1969, Dale had to include a full six pages of disclaimers regarding the cone, titled “Some Possible Misconceptions.”

Despite Dale’s warnings, the Cone of Experience was misapplied and renamed the Learning Pyramid. However, there is no conclusive evidence to back up these average retention rates. How did this happen?

learningpyramid4learningpyramid5

 

 

 

 

 

 

Examples of what the Cone of Experience became. The links to the images above have been removed to protect the mistaken. They are just two examples of the hundreds found on a simple Web search.

Who first came up with the retention rates associated with the learning pyramid is murky, but researchers have theories. Molenda (working with several sources) believes the development involved Paul John Phillips, an instructor working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Training Methods Branch during World War II. Phillips returned to work after the war to the University of Texas, where he trained members of the petroleum industry. The University of Texas records tie Phillips to the retention rates used in the pyramid. However, when Michael Molenda contacted both the University of Texas Division of Extension and the archivist at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, they could find no research regarding the percentages.

In Molenda’s history, the learning pyramid with retention rates was first published in a magazine article in 1967, by D. G. Treichler. The author included no citations or evidence to back up the retention rates, but Molenda suspects that they probably they came from Phillips, as he distributed training materials to the industry while at UT.

However, the current propagator of the learning pyramid is the unassociated NLT Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, which claims to have research from the early 1960s which supports the pyramid, but has lost the evidence. Will Thalheimer points out in an excellent post on the pyramid, that this lack of evidence negates all credibility. Even if research were conducted at one time, we cannot trust it. The context has been lost, as well as the ability to retest the method and examine it for errors.

Why the Learning Pyramid is False

Beyond its sketchy background, the learning pyramid should raise concerns:

  1. What kind of research results end up in such tidy percentages, all multiples of 10?
  2. How would one even develop a method for testing such broad claims?
  3. Do we really believe a learner can remember 90% of anything?
  4. Can an activity be separated from its content and be given credit for learning?

Many distinguished authors have gutted the pyramid’s claims. Educational expert Daniel Willingham provides excellent arguments against the pyramid related to oversimplification; providing an optimal learning experience does not boil down to the instruction method. There are many different variables that impact learning.

Our field has also tried to dispel the myth. In her book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, Char Booth explains another danger of the pyramid, that relying too heavily on the idea of mode strips away designing instruction for differences in context and content (2011, p. 41). Booth’s anecdote about how she embraced the pyramid because of its implications for student engagement illustrates another flaw with it. The pyramid is a visual sighting. If we only remember 30% of what we see, then a picture of the pyramid should not have such a dramatic memory impact on so many people.

What’s the Harm?

As the opening quotation exemplifies, many teaching faculty members know the learning pyramid is false. If you bring it up to them, you will greatly diminish your credibility. (Because the pyramid is so popular, though, we also suggest you tread carefully if a professor speaks of it in a positive way!)

The pyramid also leads one to believe that mental activities themselves produce set amounts of learning. But this mindset fails to address the quality of the mental activity. A librarian might decide to implement a peer coaching activity because the pyramid says teaching others is the best way to remember something, but if the students don’t have the appropriate knowledge, they will probably just end up confusing each other. You should never design a lesson just so students are “active.” As Bill Cerbin states in his essay on active learning research and it’s implications for college teaching, “Active learning is most effective when the experience supports students to interact with and reflect on the subject matter in substantive ways.”

The Lure of the Pyramid

Despite the pyramid having been debunked in many venues for decades, it continues to show up in educational presentations and literature. How people learn is a complex topic, complicated by advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology research. It’s natural that we should seek commonalities in learning. As the authors of the white paper “Multimodal learning through media” state, “The person(s) who added percentages to the cone of learning were looking for a silver bullet” (2008, p. 8). Shortcuts to ‘what works’ would be especially tempting to librarians who do not have extensive training in education.

In the library field, both of us have attended presentations where the speakers used the pyramid as a quick way to reinforce the importance of engaging students during class. “Remember, people learn better when they are doing!” we are exhorted, as the famous image appears in a slide. The “short cut” is not only a way to simplify complicated processes to ourselves, but to rapidly convince others that student activity is a worthy goal.

Finally, the pyramid speaks to us. When discussing the pyramid with other instructors, we often find ourselves agreeing to the “truthiness” of it: intuitively, it just feels right. Of course being active and participatory should lead to more learning than does more passive activities, like reading or listening. Who among us has not sat in an auditorium during a lecture (library or otherwise), surrounded by sleeping audience members? In fact, the research supports that lecture is of limited use when it comes to retention of material; people’s minds tend to wander after a short period of time. It seems common sense to conclude that methods alternative to lecturing would be better. And if we already believe that other methods are better, then when we view the learning pyramid, confirmation bias kicks in, prompting us to not question premises that support what we already believe.

Grains of Truth

So should we throw away the learning pyramid? Although we hope we have debunked the idea of that different methods of teaching will lead to set percentages of learning, we think this myth does address some valuable ideas:

1.    Memory matters. One of the best ways to measure learning is to assess the retention of material covered. We should continue to survey the literature on memory and retention, such as the 2013 article, “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.”

2.    Think multimodal. As has been mentioned, Dale did not intend to create a hierarchy of mental activities, but to suggest there was a continuum from which to choose. People’s attention spans are short, but they do tend to retain more when the instructor mixes it up: interspersing short lectures with peer collaboration, or after reading a passage, interacting with an online tutorial.

3.    Student engagement. The literature strongly supports that active learning exercises promote students thinking and caring about the material. This greatly aids retention, but it also helps lessen library anxiety and gives students a more positive feeling about the library sessions.

Final Words

Since the 1960s, experts have been trying to convince people that the learning pyramid is bogus. But for every article written exposing its weaknesses, there seem to be dozens of instances where it is invoked as truth in presentations, websites, and trade publications. We hope that having read this post, you will join the forces of pyramid slaying and base your instructional choices on valid research, not educational myths.