Category Archives: Teaching

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?

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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.

Focusing the Mind, Practicing Attention in the One-Shot Library Session

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jill E. Luedke, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Temple University.

Scenario: Students arrive at the library instruction session, get seated, and log on to a computer. Where is their attention? Is it on what I have to teach them? More likely, they’re distracted by competing priorities like assignments, rent, relationships, work, or the allure of some electronic device. It seemed no matter how I would package the content, many of them were still unable or unwilling to receive what I was presenting. I realized that to be more effective, I first needed to focus the students’ attention.

As a teacher of lifelong research skills, it’s part of my responsibility to give students tools to help them handle their frustrations and preconceptions about research. How could I expect students to process what I was saying if their brains weren’t ready to receive the information? I began the experiment of devoting a few minutes of my sessions to guided mindful meditation. My intention by having students meditate at the beginning of class was not to turn them all into Buddhists. It was to help clear their mind-clutter and reduce their research stress. This practice in mindfulness was about preparing them to be receptive learners.

That may sound like quite a feat, but as a practitioner of yoga and meditation I had experience with the immediate and lasting benefits of these types of practices. Whenever I was stressed or feeling overwhelmed, I could take a few moments in my office to close my eyes, breathe, and “let go” before heading out the door to teach a class.

In class, I avoid the stigmas and stereotypes associated with meditation by referring to it as an “exercise” or a “practice.” I frame it in the context of addressing research stress. Watching the students, sitting with their eyes closed, is sometimes my only opportunity to know whether or not they are actually paying attention to me. Afterwards, we’re more ready to move forward with the rest of the curriculum.

I’ve noticed that engagement in my classroom activities has improved through the incorporation of meditation, especially when they notice their instructor participating. I’ve also found it to be a useful way to form a connection with students in the one-shot class. The responses I’ve received so far have been anecdotal, but positive. I frequently have one or two students who thank me or comment how much they liked the “meditation” (they give it that name). Inevitably, one or two students don’t participate in the activity, but they still sit, quietly, waiting patiently. One instructor told me, “At first, I thought, this is way too hippy dippy for me, but then I just went with it, and it was awesome.”

Good instruction may require incorporating unconventional pedagogical practices. For me, my teaching was influenced by a learning environment that wasn’t a traditional classroom. Trying something off-beat could appear misplaced. However, if this new technique is applied with authentic intention it can transform the classroom experience for both the teacher and the student.

I discovered that by leading meditation, my authentic self is a little brighter in these instructional sessions. Conducting something so “hippy dippy” in this unexpected context leaves me a bit exposed, but I’ve noticed it’s been a way for me to offer a little of myself to my students. I’ve found that this type of vulnerable offering says more about me than a story I could tell about myself in an effort to “connect” with my audience. I continue the personal mindful practices that help me be more present for my students. Complementing this, I’ve found the more I lead mindful practices for my students, the more focused and attentive we all are to each other. If deviating from the traditional notion of class time results in a more productive learning experience, then this is an experiment I intend to continue.

Further Reading:

Brown, P.L. (June 16, 2007). In the classroom, a new focus on quieting the mind. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/16/us/16mindful.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Parry, M. (March 24, 2013). You’re distracted. This Professor can help. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Youre-Distracted-This/138079/.

Tugend, A. (March 22, 2013). In mindfulness, a method to sharpen focus and open minds. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/your-money/mindfulness-requires-practice-and-purpose.html?smid=pl-share

Strategies for That Time Again

It’s that time of the semester again, the time when I find myself responding to requests by saying “When is this due? It’s that time again.” And beginning conversations with the same phrase: “How are you?” “Busy,” is usually the response. “Me too — it’s that time again.”

At my university the weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving are usually the busiest time for library instruction, the time just after midterms and when students are beginning to work on their final research assignments. This year enrollment is up at the college so we have an unexpectedly large number of library sessions for our introductory English Comp course. It’s a good thing — we love it when students come to the library! — though our Instruction Team is perhaps stretched a bit thin this semester, our classroom nearly constantly booked.

With so much instruction this semester it’s easy to feel somewhat out of control, like we’re spending our time being more reactive than active and less intentional about instruction than we’d like. Our Instruction Team’s usual strategy for instruction is to tie it closely to students’ course assignment, to allow students time to work on their course-related research during the library session, to try to incorporate active learning whenever possible. But when things get busy it can be challenging to meet these goals. With all of the additional sections there are a large number of adjunct faculty who are new to the college, and it can sometimes be difficult to get in touch with them to discuss the session beforehand. Sometimes an instructor’s schedule will change; what seemed at the beginning of the semester like a library session date that fit well with students’ work on research assignments suddenly isn’t anymore. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, a class comes in without an assignment, the instructor requesting an orientation lecture that’s not closely tied to their research for the course.

My colleagues and I have given lots of thought to these intro English Comp sessions, the backbone of our library instruction program. We’ve created student learning outcomes, we have a short assessment, we think hard about how the session can meet the needs of our students as they begin to build their information literacy competencies in college. But when the classroom is booked straight through from 9am-5pm most weekdays, when we can’t find an hour during the week for our whole team to meet, I wonder how we can preserve some time for reflection and intention. What strategies do you use to build in time for thinking on and discussing instruction at your library, even when the semester’s at its most scheduled?

Shifting the Focus: Fostering Academic Integrity on Campus

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Elise Ferer, Humanities Liaison Librarian at Dickinson College.

When I was in library school I did not see clear links between my role as a librarian and promoting academic integrity on campus. I knew plagiarism was bad (who doesn’t?), but what could a librarian do about it besides teaching how to cite properly?

As a new librarian at my institution I was asked to work on the annual report on our online academic integrity tutorial that all incoming students are required to complete. After spending time with the tutorial thinking about it and seeing the data we were collecting, I began to notice some of its inherent flaws and welcomed the chance to improve and refresh the tutorial during the 2012-2013 academic year. While it is still not perfect, I think we have begun to address some of the problems with how academic integrity is addressed on college campuses today and shift the focus from one of blame to responsibility for one’s actions.

When we were starting to discuss how to revise the tutorial, my partner on the project brought up the idea of shifting the focus, from an accusatory nature that concentrates on complying to rules and negative consequences to a tone that emphasizes the personal responsibility and the integrity that students should possess or develop as part of the privilege of attending college. It did not take much argument on her part to convince me that this was a good idea, as my personal philosophy is to treat students like adults with real responsibilities to uphold. In shifting the tone of the tutorial we were trying to appeal to students’ moral responsibility and hopefully their desire to ultimately do the right thing. We also acknowledged that students are adults and can make cogent choices, and remind them throughout the tutorial of the reasons they should make sound moral choices.

Ultimately, why is this important? Why should we try to create integrity in our student body and not just present the consequences as a deterrent? As much as plagiarism and citing sources are within the realm of academia, once students enter the workforce they will have opportunities to act ethically or to take the work of others and cheat to get ahead. They should be held to an ethical standard as college students in the hope that these skills will follow them in their career or to the next step in their education. In my mind, it is better to give a tangible, positive reason to do the right thing rather than threatening students with consequences that only exist within the walls of our college. The academic integrity we are trying to instill also ties into standard five of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education which state that students should understand the “economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information.”

It is often said that when we raise our expectations for students in the classroom they will rise to meet us. I prefer to be optimistic and believe that students will respond positively to these tactics. I think we are doing a disservice to our students by assuming they will cheat or plagiarize; I like to believe they are innocent until proven guilty. Even the previous title of our tutorial (I Thought I Could Get Away with It…) placed assumption that students would take the easy way out and do the wrong thing.

Personally, academic integrity was not an active interest until I started exploring our community standards, other tutorials, and started working to make our tutorial more engaging and interesting to students. There is still work to be done in this area, but there are some amazing resources out there (like this video from Norway), and while some students still maintain they learned all of this in high school, there are still areas that bear repeating. Academic integrity, citation practices, and plagiarism are all sticky subjects, and we all want students to do the right thing both at our college and long after they leave us.

Flipping Out: Reflections Upon Landing

Last month, I shared my plans for creating “flipped” library instruction sessions. Now, after wrapping up my last flipped session, along with several conversations with my colleauges, and the opportunity to co-facilitate a “Flipped Classroom” faculty workshop, I am still digesting and evaluating all that I have learned. However, there are a few key takeaways that are bubbling to the forefront of my mind and actively shaping the rest of my instruction this semester.

“Did you know the whole section would be about my topic?”
Or – Understanding the flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning

As I planned my flipped sessions, I struggled with understanding how flipped instruction is related to “active learning” and/or “problem-based learning. The library instruction program at my university already places a heavy emphasis on incorporating active learning exercises into our sessions, and we regularly attempt to tie library instruction directly to the course research assignments. This means that as I worked on my flipped session, I found myself modifying some existing in-class activities to promote deeper levels of understanding, rather than starting from scratch.

In one class, I had enough time to ask first-year students to search the catalog for a book about their research topic, go into the stacks to find their book, bring the book back to class, and then debrief about the experience with their classmates. It was much more effective, and quite frankly more fun, to talk about LC Classification and Subject Headings after one student spontaneously exclaimed – “I picked TWO books about my topic because I realized THE WHOLE SHELF was about sports technology!”

After this experience, I’ve come to understand my flipped classroom as a vehicle for creating additional space for active learning in the classroom. Of course, there is no such thing as “the” flipped classroom, and other interpretations of the flipped classroom abound. For me, the providing students with a pre-class “lecture” foundation on which they can build upon with active learning in the classroom was more successful than trying to cram both tasks into the regular class time.

“Oh… those videos before class weren’t optional?”
Or – Students might not complete the pre-class work. And that’s O.K.

Of course, this ideal “flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning” assumes students come to class prepared. And a frequent concern about the flipped classroom is: “What if students don’t complete the pre-class work?” Unfortunately, there will always be students who come to class unprepared, and considering what the consequences will be for students if they don’t complete the pre-assigned work is important. Our students are smart – they learn quickly whether preparing for class is really necessary. Designing in-class assignments which require the prior knowledge gained through the pre-class homework is one way to show students it’s worth their while to come prepared.

In practice, other “consequences” for failing to complete pre-class work may mean students must complete the pre-class materials during in-class time before they are allowed to continue to the more interesting and challenging application exercises. We know some students may still struggle through class, since exposure to the pre-class activities does not necessarily guarantee students achieved any level of mastery with the material. In my sessions, I tried to purposefully use group activities in-class to emphasize peer learning, assuming students who completed and understood the material could be models for students who did not. Additionally, students were encouraged to review pre-class video materials if needed, and to ask questions as they worked through their activities.

The short quiz I paired with my pre-class material helped me monitor how many students completed pre-class work and how well they understood the material. In each of my flipped class sessions, over 3/4 of the students completed the work before class; I considered this to be a relatively high success rate. It was also helpful to go into the in-class session knowing the bulk of the class had at least attempted the pre-class work and where the problem areas we really needed to adress might be.

“But… aren’t you going to talk first?”
Or – Students are also curious about the lack of direct lecture in class.

Students often comment in their course evaluations or session feedback that library instruction should include more time for activities and less time devoted to lecture. As a new instructor, I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that creating active-learning based instruction that allows students to “discover” answers to questions or build their own skills is frequently harder than falling back into the “sage on the stage” routine. Of course, there is also no guarantee that students will use class time appropriately when given the requested discussion or problem-based activities. So I was extremely interested to find out how students would respond to the lack of direct, in-class instruction in the flipped sessions.

During my first flipped class, I decided to give a “quick” review of the pre-class material before students started on their activities. Big mistake, since the “review” quickly turned into a regular lecture. However, during my second flipped class I simply asked students to come in and get started on their activity, reminding them they should work together and review the video materials or ask questions, as necessary. At first, they were confused about not starting with a lecture, however they eventually dove into the activity with success. And encouraging students to first attempt the activity allowed me to eventually review only the concepts that the majority of the class was consistently struggling with (for instance, correctly combining both “ANDs” and “ORs” in a complex database search). Overall, this session was much more enjoyable for both myself and my students, and it was one of the few times I left our session confident that class time was used to its fullest advantage.

Talking about teaching has value.

My final point of reflection is not limited to “flipped instruction,” but has grown out of conversations with my colleagues inspired by our participation in the flipped project. Given heavy instruction loads, faculty or student expectations, and other pressing projects, it’s easy to fall back into comfortable patterns of the same ol’ library session. Sometimes, simply carving out the time to talk about teaching seems like a luxury we cannot necessarily afford. Given the increasing emphasis on instruction in academic libraries, our mission to arm students with multifaceted critical information skills, and the trend toward providing evidence that our instruction adds value to the library and our parent institutions, deeper discussions about teaching and pedagogy can’t just be a luxury – they should be the reality.

I am lucky to have a job where I am encouraged to think about teaching, talk about teaching, and take calculated risks to grow as an instructor. Incorporating new pedagogical strategies like the “flipped classroom” is just one example of how this might happen.