Hurry up and Reflect! February’s Dynamic Duality

February, the shortest month of the year, has always seemed pretty rushed and hectic to me.  Holidays and observances like Superbowl Sunday (yay Seahawks!), Groundhog Day, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day jostle for our attention.  Students at my university are studying for midterms, and the Research Commons is starting to get busier and noisier at the quarter progresses.  We also have all of our largest public events of the quarter scheduled in in February; on the docket this month we have installments of our Scholars’ Studio and CoLAB programs, as well as a session in a popular speakers’ series.  A lot of people I know have February birthdays, including myself and my boss.  Oh…and I’m scheduled for jury duty next week, so there’s that.  Where’s a leap year when you need one?

Is it possible to find time for reflection in all of this chaos? At many institutions, February marks the mid-point in the academic year, so reflection is not only appropriate, but necessary. Since my position is not tenure-track, I don’t have codified avenues for evaluating and reviewing my performance so far this year.  But I can benefit from many of the tools that my tenure-eligible colleagues use.  Updating my CV, maintaining a file of thanks and kudos I have received, and beginning to plan conference proposals that illustrate my work so far, are important tasks that I need to make time and space for.

My earlier mention of Groundhog Day perhaps seems a bit silly and off-handed, but in fact, it provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind the moment.  Our current rodent-based divination ceremony is often presumed to derive from other, more ancient festivals, like Imbolc, which celebrated the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and marked an occasion for reflection, scrying, and omen watching.  My aforementioned litany or February holidays can offer a series of fruitful starting points of small acts of contemplation; on the nature of community, on social justice, on bringing love and passion into our daily practices, on grounding oneself in the foundational values of our American institutions.

A typical February contradiction:  The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it's freakin' cold!

A typical February contradiction: The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it’s freakin’ cold!

On a more personal level, I feel grateful that I’ve settled in to my position now to the extent that my daily routines are becoming more natural and comfortable.  I know when the best times for me to arrive at and leave work are, and what times of day I am most productive.  I’ve figured out which yoga classes work best with my schedule.  Always at the back of my mind is the notion of bringing more contemplative practice into my daily work.

The time for learning the ropes of my position and department has more or less passed…it feels like the second half of my first year as a professional librarian will be a time for action.  The spectre of “imposter syndrome” is still strong… I don’t expect to ever fully rid myself of it, but I do now feel comfortable enough in my role to embrace the rare quiet moments at work as times for reflection and passivity, rather than panicking because I don’t have enough to do! I’m looking forward to the second half.


The Sweetest Fruits are Further Up

Part of my experience as a first year academic librarian has also been my experience as a new tenure track faculty member. As a part of this tenure process for library faculty, I must go through an annual reappointment review. The review includes my direct supervisor, as well as a committee of tenured library faculty. This committee provides feedback and input in preparation for “going up” for tenure and promotion – which will happen in about four and a half years for me.

To this end, over the past week, I’ve been compiling my checklist for annual review. In thinking about what I’ve done in the half a year that is under review and submitting my 33 (!) page checklist (that includes publications and appendices), I started thinking about what made me feel good about turning in my first checklist.

Really, it’s simple – don’t go for the low-hanging fruit. I know I talked about this some in the first post I wrote here at the ACRLog, but it struck me again. Pleasure and pride in your work come not from doing “just enough” but from exceeding the expectations set for you as a first year academic librarian. A work-life balance is important to maintain (see my last post) but when you are at work, it’s important to take pride in the quality of that work.

I’ll freely admit that the first year in any new job – especially one with comparatively different duties than one’s previous jobs – is difficult. But it’s important to learn the expectations for you that will be reviewed by not only your supervisor, but also informally or formally by your peers and colleagues in the library. Talk to people, get a clear understanding of these expectations, and then exceed them.

For me, this meant passing up a few opportunities to serve and being perhaps a bit selective in what I chose to do to perform service for the profession. Right after I started in this position, there were several local and regional service opportunities I passed up, knowing that the expectation was for local, regional, or statewide service. That waiting and knowledge of expectations paid dividends when I applied for, and was accepted to, an international group working on revising the ISBN.

I’ll close with a piece of advice one of my friends gave me several years ago: that you begin in the manner you intend to continue in. The statement is perhaps a bit convoluted in syntax, but to me it is a reminder to the bar of expectations is set by your actions early, so it’s important to set a good standard early to both set professional perceptions of yourself in the workplace, as well as compelling you to do the best work you can.

PS – In honor of “library shelfie” day yesterday, here is a photo of technical services where I work shortly after our building opened in 1968:

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page,

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page,

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.

Navigating a New Campus

One of the challenges I’ve encountered as a new academic librarian – that I’m sure other new professionals can relate to – is navigating the campus outside the library. I don’t mean physically navigating (although we all may get lost in a new building every once in a while), but figuring out the connections between various units and departments.

This particular issue stands out for me because I haven’t had to deal with it before – or at least, not in a very long time. Although I was in my last position for only a little over a year, I already knew the library and the university very well by the time I started in that position. This was the university I attended as an undergraduate, where I worked as a student assistant in Interlibrary Loan for my four years at the school, and later went on to work part-time in Special Collections while I was in graduate school. By the time I was a full-time employee, I was already familiar with the library and many of the people who worked there.

Having gone to school there as an undergraduate gave me a lot of prior knowledge about the university, which meant I didn’t have to worry about “figuring out” the campus when I began working there in my first full-time library job. Thanks to my experience as a student there, I already had a thorough understanding of how the campus worked in so many aspects – colleges and degree programs, various units and departments, the traditions and history of the school, and the general sense of “who does what around here.” In comparison to my previous experience, it’s clear now just how helpful it is to have that knowledge of the whole campus – something I’m sure I took for granted at the time. Now that I’m in a new position at a different university, I no longer have the advantage of already knowing “how things work” and “who does what.”

Getting a sense of the campus at large is something that has to be learned and pieced together over time. Not everything is going to make sense right away, which is why it is so important to ask questions, and to ask many people. I think that is an obvious bit of advice for anyone, but it can’t be said too much. My point of “knowing your campus” and “figuring out how things work” may be coming across a bit vague – that’s because it’s different for everybody and varies depending on the academic institution, and the individual’s job and responsibilities.

My recent venture into working with International Programs is an example of what I’m talking about. There is no one at the library designated as a liaison to International Programs, so I have taken on the project of looking at how we are currently serving international students and how we might serve them better. Upon investigating the International Programs website, I discovered that it consists of several sub-units, and it was unclear who I should contact to talk about creating a connection between international students and the library.

Although I didn’t fully understanding the structure of International Programs or who I should contact, I still had to take some sort of action to get the ball rolling (in this case, starting string of emails asking the same questions to multiple people didn’t seem like the best course of action) . Fortunately, I saw that the International Students Orientation was coming up soon, and was able to get myself on the agenda for a 5-10 minute presentation. I’m really excited that I was able to talk to the students at orientation, and it was great way to start strengthening our connection with this student community – now they have at least had an introduction to the library and know that they can ask librarians for help. It was also helpful for me as a chance to meet someone from International Programs in person and have a quick conversation, the result of which was a better understanding of International Student and Scholar Services (a sub-unit of International Programs) and knowing who I should contact next.

In a situation where I wasn’t sure how to get started on something due to being unfamiliar with the organizational structure, I was able to learn more about the campus unit by literally getting my foot in the door and showing up. It takes time to learn your campus and get a better idea of the bigger picture, but it definitely helps to jump on opportunities to get involved with, collaborate with, or even just have a conversation with people outside of the library.

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.