Category Archives: Teaching

Getting Started with Instruction

This semester marks a significant step for me as I’m finally getting into doing instruction sessions on my own. Throughout last fall, I observed a lot of instruction sessions from several librarians and across a range of subjects. I also co-taught a handful of classes with a colleague, but it wasn’t until this month that I took on my own instruction sessions. I’m really glad I did some co-teaching already, because I was definitely nervous at the time and it’s good to have that out of the way now (for the most part).

In a short span of time I have done a handful of sessions, and not one of them the same. I started writing detailed reflections of all the instruction I have done so far – what I did, what worked, what didn’t work, what I would do differently next time, etc. – and while that is incredibly useful for me personally, I will refrain from posting the entire detailed accounts here! However, I will give a quick run-down:

  • So far I have done one-shots for two sections of Rhetoric, a course that’s required of all undergraduate students, but which can vary a lot depending on the instructor. For one section, their assignment was concept-mapping and researching potential careers based on their majors; the other section needed to find images to use for a visual analysis. Like I said, interesting stuff going on that was fun to work with!
  • I did a workshop in collaboration with TRiO, an organization that works with first-generation students. Part of the goal was to send them out into the stacks in a safe, no-pressure situation, so that they can avoid the “panic moment” later on when they really need to find something. Attendance was pretty low as expected, because it wasn’t required for a course, but some good discussion came out of it nonetheless.
  • Large groups of middle school students visit our library throughout the year to do primary research for the National History Day competition, and on one occasion I gave a 15-minute introduction. I kept it simple with just basic information and demonstrating SmartSearch – it was fun to switch gears for a bit for a much different audience than usual.
  • And most recently I gave an Express Workshop on how to use and make infographics. Express Workshops are weekly 30-minute workshops held in an open area in the Learning Commons, with a different topic and presenter every week.

I’m glad to have such a variety of classes to work with – for one thing, it keeps things interesting, and for another, I think it’s more challenging (in a good way) than if I were repeating basically the same session. However, the planning has been difficult at times.

A lot of the difficulties may come down to time management and figuring out my own process. I planned ahead as much as possible, but often felt like I was really getting prepared when time was down to the wire. I wanted to have lesson plans laid out a good deal ahead of time and prevent the stress of procrastination, but it was difficult for me to focus on future sessions when there were others to take place first – especially since these were my actual first instruction sessions ever. I think my planning problems stem in part from the fact that this is a much busier time of year than I expected it would be!

I can’t wait to get to the point where I’ve done enough instruction that I’m more confident with the whole process, from planning, to delivery, and assessment. When planning a session I consider many possible options and what would be most effective, and then still tend to question my decisions on what to include and how to conduct the session. I already feel a little more confident in my teaching abilities than I did even a month ago, and I know that the rest will take some more time and practice.

Does anyone else have similar concerns? Do you plan ahead, or do you work better under pressure? How much time does it take to plan a session?

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.