Category Archives: Higher Education

Postings about the higher education industry.

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.


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.

learningpyramid2 learningpyramid3

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?








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.

Shared Governance and Library Faculty: Jazzing Academic Community

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sue Wiegand, Periodicals Librarian at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

As Commencement season draws near, I thought again of lines from Dana Goia’s poem: “Praise to the rituals that celebrate change…Because it is not the rituals we honor/but our trust in what they signify…” It’s been two years now since I served as Chair of our Faculty Assembly, the first librarian here to be elected to this role. Commencement is a ritual celebrating academic community — when we come together to celebrate the culmination of the academic year and our successful graduates. I think the ideal of academic community — all of our voices blending to make plans and create respectful discourse for mission-based decision-making — is what “shared governance” is all about. It’s a kind of jazz — a participatory blend of traditions, always changing — as well as a shared trust.

How many librarians participate in jazzing shared governance at their institutions, given the disparity of appointment categories at academic libraries? My “historic” 2009 election to be Chair-Elect of our shared governance body, Faculty Assembly, made me think more about this. I may be incredibly idealistic to be thinking in terms of academic community and shared governance at all, let alone as a librarian, a profession still subject to debate on its status, still sometimes considered a woman’s profession (well-behaved librarians don’t make history, right?). Higher education itself is on the very precipice of change in many of its hallowed traditions, and can ill afford more confusion. Could shared governance survive a librarian leading Faculty Assembly? Well, I had a lot to learn, but yes, we survived, with a lot of support from my faculty friends. Jazz is improvisational, after all. It absorbs and transforms tradition, and gives a participatory voice to all.

Are librarians faculty? Yes — in some academic institutions. Are we tenure-track? Yes — again, in some places. Can we earn promotion? You guessed it — maybe, maybe not, depends on where you are.

According to the Joint Committee on College Library Problems (including ACRL, AACU: American Association of American Colleges and Universities, and AAUP: American Association of University Professors), in a report issued in 2012: “Faculty status entails for librarians the same rights and responsibilities as for other members of the faculty. They should have corresponding entitlement to rank, promotion, tenure, compensation, leaves, and research funds.” I like the dual reference to rights and responsibilities. ALA and ACRL have also weighed in with their guidelines, the Standard for the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure of Academic Librarians. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the question periodically; two examples are from 2008 and 2013. The comments sections often show a nice variety of perspectives on the subject, and incidentally on the academic tenure system in general.

Obviously, mileage varies a great deal on this one, and each tradition has its adherents. For me, having faculty status and earning tenure was a valuable experience that led to increased collaboration with classroom faculty, in both collection development of library resources and library research instruction. These include my favorite topic of conversation, scholarly communication — how it informs collection development as well as guiding research instruction for library resources — leading to informative discussions. The bittersweet part for me is that librarians here earn tenure, but are not eligible for promotion. It seems as though every place has its own ethos — its own distinctive style — about what seems to work best for them. Tradition rules.

Should librarians participate in shared governance? In my experience, the answer to that is an unequivocal yes — the experience is so rich, and the opportunities for interaction with classroom faculty so rewarding, I think librarians should let their voices be heard in their academic communities whenever possible. Shared governance and faculty status lets the librarian voice be heard, lest students enter the library to do research and find “there’s nothing there to support it,” says Deanna Wood, quoted on Inside Higher Ed. Yet, opportunities to contribute to shared governance and partnering with faculty vary as much as the opinions about librarian status. Should librarians stay in their place, the library? Which committees should they be eligible for? Does faculty status matter? How might the faculty status of librarians and their contributions to scholarship and shared governance enhance the educational mission and improve student learning in the academy? More research is definitely needed.

Still, for me, sharing the anxiety of figuring out what to do to be a full academic citizen involved getting to know my fellow faculty travelers on that uneasy road in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. After a fair amount of committee service over the years, when the question arose of putting my name on the slate for Chair-Elect, the first of my many protests was that I didn’t want to be Chair of Faculty Assembly — I was told that that was the first criteria! A Philosophy professor answered another protest of mine — that no one would vote for me — making me see that it wasn’t about me, but about being willing to make the commitment that underlies the “academic community/citizenship” rhetoric (I’m not a philosopher, so I’m paraphrasing here — what he actually said started with “So what?”). So I put my ego on the line, and was surprised and pleased to find that even a librarian could be elected to lead the Faculty Assembly at my academic institution.

Transformation — can the rituals that celebrate change and tradition encompass jazz harmony in shared governance and even librarian participation? Does our trust in the significance of academic citizenship invite us to think more deeply about the role and opportunities of librarians in the academy? I’m thinking about this as we prepare for Commencement here. Do we, to quote Goia again, “…dream of a future so fitting and so just/that our desire will bring it into being?” How do librarian status, service, and shared governance play out at in your academic community?

The Polymer Librarian?

Happy 2013 everyone, it will be incrementally different than 2012.

In my new position one of my primary responsibilities (depending on whom you ask, THE primary responsibility) is providing support to our departments of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Akron is the historic home of the rubber industry and the regional research focus on rubber has expanded and evolved over time to encompass all aspects of polymer research. University of Akron has the only Polymer College in the United States, so while there are many fine polymer graduate schools, none of them carry quite the administrative gravitas of polymer science at Akron. To put it in perspective there’s a building for polymer science and another building for polymer engineering. It is the university’s strongest research field.

Which leaves me in a strange place for subject work. There are, relative to a subject like chemistry, relatively few librarians supporting polymer science and there’s a correspondingly thin literature on the subject. Also, chemistry resources for polymers usually don’t have quite the same functionality (for example, you cannot order polymer substance results by molecular weight in SciFinder). So there are few colleagues to talk to and not a whole lot to read. (But shout-out to Nico Adams for his work on polymer informatics – very interesting stuff.) The final issue is that one department is a few blocks away and the one next door is physically locked to me, which is a problem when your liaison style could accurately be described as “just barge in on them”.

So what to do? I’ve tried, with mild success, stalking the faculty at their seminars and I was able to do a presentation to one of the graduate student organizations. I’ve fielded a few research questions well and received some praise. I had a productive meeting with one department chair, while another has so far eluded me (his research is going gangbusters, so no hard feelings).  But I need to do more.

My current plan is to focus my research on our polymer collection, most likely by a citation analysis. Perhaps it’s a bit pedestrian, but my thought is that scientists will appreciate a data driven approach to meeting their needs. Also, I did work in a research lab and supporting researchers so when I see a problem, I look for ways that data collection and analysis can solve it.

So does anyone out there have any other (hopefull better) ideas on engaging my highly specialized research faculty in a locked tower? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.

Digital Badges for Library Research?

The world of higher education has been abuzz this past year with the idea of digital badges. Many see digital badges as an alternative to higher education’s system of transcripts and post-secondary degrees, which are constantly being critically scrutinized for their value and ability demonstrate that students are ready for a competitive workforce. There have been several articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing this educational trend. One such article is Kevin Carey’s “A Future Full of Badges,” published back in April. In it, Carey describes how UC Davis, a national leader in agriculture, is pioneering a digital open badge program.

UC Davis’s badge system was created specifically for undergraduate students majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Their innovative system was one of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition (sponsored by Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation). According to Carey,

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

As opposed to a university transcript, digital badges could provide a well-rounded view of a student’s accomplishments because it could take into account things like conferences attended and specific skills learned. Clearly, we’re not talking about Girl Scout badges.

Carey seems confident that digital badges aren’t simply a higher education fad. He believes that that with time, these types of systems will grow and be recognized by employers. But I’m still a bit skeptical over whether this movement will gain enough momentum to last.

But just for a moment, let’s assume that this open badge system proves to be a fixture in the future of higher education. Does this mean someday a student could get a badge in various areas of library research, such as searching Lexis/Nexis, locating a book by its call number, or correctly citing a source within a paper? Many college and university librarians struggle with getting information competency skills inserted into the curriculum in terms of learning outcomes or core competencies. And even if they are in the curriculum, librarians often struggle when it comes to working with teaching faculty and students to ensure that these skills are effectively being taught and graded. Perhaps badges could be a way for librarians to play a significant role in the development and assessment student information competency skills.

Would potential employers or graduate school admissions departments be impressed with a set of library research badges on someone’s application? I have no idea. But I do know that as the amount of content available via the Internet continues to grow exponentially, the more important it is that students possess the critical thinking skills necessary to search, find, assess, and use information. If digital badges do indeed flourish within higher education, I hope that library research will be a vital part of the badge sash.