Tag Archives: pedagogy

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.

Can We Flip the Library Classroom?

Recently there have been lots of articles in my feedreader about “flipping” the classroom. This pedagogical strategy aims to reverse the order of operations in traditional lecture-based classes. Instead of the professor lecturing during class and the students completing homework in between sessions, proponents of flipped classrooms move problem-solving into the classroom, and often assign video captures of lectures as homework. Students may be given the chance to work in groups as they complete their assignments, and the instructor can circulate throughout the class in “guide on the side” style, providing individual attention to each student and working through questions and uncertainties during class time.

As an instructor who is not a fan of teaching lecture classes, the flipped model sounds good to me. Much of the discussion I’ve seen lately has raised interesting points about the place of technology, pointing out that while lecture videos may be useful, they’re not necessarily a required component of a flipped pedagogy. I will admit to one big lingering question (also raised in the blog post mentioned above): how can the flipped model be applied to discussion classes? In those courses students are typically expected to have completed assigned readings before coming to class, and class time is used to discuss issues raised by the readings and to review any points of confusion. I’ve heard many faculty lament their difficulty in convincing students to do their readings, which is a challenge that I’m not sure flipping the class can solve.

Can we flip the library classroom? With the move toward active learning in library instruction classes and away from more traditional, lecture-like demonstrations of research tools and strategies, in some ways we already have. But what about asking students to do some work before they join us in the library classroom? I’m sure many of us ask students to come to their library instruction sessions with a research topic in mind, especially for one-shots. We could ask them to view or read tutorials or research guides about the library catalog and databases before their one-shot, so they can jump right in once they get to the library. But will they do it? And are there other ways that we can take advantage of the flipped model to help students get more out of library instruction?

With so much of our library instruction dependent on one-shots for a variety of reasons, it seems like anything we can do to help students get more out of that single session is worth a try. I’m interested to hear about what’s happening with the flipped classroom model at academic libraries — are you using any flipped techniques in your instruction?

Considering Conferences

This semester I went to two academic conferences that weren’t library conferences. While I’ve attended conferences outside of librarianship in the past, both before I was a librarian as well as more recently, this is the first time in my library career that I’ve intentionally gone to non-library conferences. At both conferences I was making a presentation, which of course was a major factor in my decision to attend. But I highly enjoyed them both, and was pleased to find much of relevance both to my interests in librarianship as well as in higher education and the disciplines.

The first conference I attended this semester, the MobilityShifts conference at the New School (about which I wrote a brief wrap-up here on ACRLog), broadly addressed issues in teaching and learning, and specifically focused on mobility and education. This was a busy conference that spanned multiple days, and though it meant for a breakneck schedule I was able to see lots of great sessions. While there were presentations by and for librarians, I was most interested in the sessions that addressed bigger pedagogical questions. In our day to day work it’s easy to think only of the library — after all, that’s the physical and mental space in which we likely spend most of our time. But I found it incredibly valuable to have the opportunity to step back and consider the library as it relates to the whole of the college while I listened to presentations by classroom faculty, researchers, students, and more.

I also went to a discipline-specific conference this fall, the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, where I was part of a session on library ethnographies. Unfortunately I didn’t have as much time to spend at the AAAs as I had at MobilityShifts, but I was able to catch a few other sessions and had the chance to browse the exhibits, who were mostly scholarly publishers. I work at a college library so I spend much of my time considering student use of the library, and it was interesting to see the ways that researchers embedded in their disciplines consider issues of interest to libraries, like academic publishing, open access, and digital scholarship.

In the future I’d like to try to continue to head out to non-library conferences on occasion. Of course, a major factor that impacts our ability to go to conferences in any discipline is cost. As travel budgets are often slashed along with other belt-tightening measures at colleges and universities, it may not be feasible to attend to both library and non-library conferences. But if it is possible, I highly recommend it as a way to keep up with academia beyond reading the higher ed news and blogs. If you’ve gone to academic conferences outside of librarianship, what are some of the benefits you’ve found? Would you ever substitute a non-library conference for one that caters solely to our profession?

A Tale of Two Sessions

Not long ago I taught two library sessions for two introductory composition classes with the same professor and the same assignment on the same day. I love it when the schedule serendipitously works out to make that happen, in part because it gives me the chance to informally evaluate my teaching: both what I tend to cover and how I structure those sessions.

Like many librarians, I’ve struggled over the past few years to move away from me standing at the front of the class talking talking talking, so I can increase the amount of time for students to work on their own research during the library session. Students are supposed to come to the session having already selected a topic for their research assignment (though not all of them do, of course). I try to spend no more than 10-15 minutes each discussing and demonstrating internet research, the library catalog, and article databases, interspersed with 10-15 minute chunks of time for students to search on their own while I circulate to answer questions and offer suggestions.

Our class sessions are 75 minutes long — this is a lot to do in 75 minutes. I’ve tried to work around those constraints by seriously abbreviating my demo and looking for ways to interject more information while students search on their own. For example, I won’t mention that spelling counts or talk about the difference between keywords and subject headings in a catalog search, but when a student asks me how to revise a search when she hasn’t retrieved any results, I’ll answer her question so the whole class can hear.

Sometimes, though, the class is quiet and the students don’t ask many questions. In these cases I always feel somewhat strange: I walk around the room a bit, but I don’t want to pace back and forth like an old-fashioned school marm monitoring an exam. I check in with the students who look like they’re lost (or Facebooking), but that can be hard to do with students who don’t seem interested in my help, and some of them are genuinely, quietly doing their work. Sometimes I stand in front of the class fiddling with the computer or looking at my notes. This is what happened in the second class I taught last week, and it feels awkward.

But sometimes the less talk more search strategy works really well, which also happened last week. In the first class students were talkative and interested, volunteering answers to my questions during the demos and spending time on their own searches in between. However, there was a wide range of student preparation for the assignment in this class, with some students still working to narrow down a topic and others ready to go. Additionally, several students came to the session with obvious prior experience searching for sources for academic work. In this case I was able to give each student a small amount of personalized attention, which let me suggest topic narrowing strategies to some and advanced search strategies to others.

I chatted with the course professor after both classes who mentioned that in her experience the afternoon class is just a quieter group of students overall (I’d originally suspected post-lunch digestive sleepiness). But it’s still a challenge — what’s the right balance of talking and search time? Will I ever be able to shake that weird, conspicuous feeling while students search and I just stand there? What are some other ways that I can encourage students to open up and ask the questions that I suspect they have?

A Full Day of Information Literacy

Last week I went to the ACRL New England chapter’s Library Instruction Group (NELIG) annual program Meeting Digital Natives Where They Are: New Standards for the New Student. This was my first conference entirely devoted to library instruction, and it was great to have the opportunity to think and talk about information literacy all day.

The morning started off with keynote speaker John Palfrey, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and author (with Urs Gasser) of Born Digital. The book reports on the results of their interviews, focus groups and surveys with the oft-discussed millennial generation, exploring the way these kids relate to information, one another and institutions. I won’t recap the book (or transcribe the piles of notes I took), but here are a couple of takeaways I found most relevant for academic libraries:

  • Credibility is a huge issue for us adults: we fear that kids are highly susceptible to misinformation on the internet. But Palfrey’s research found that most kids don’t use information from Wikipedia verbatim or uncritically. Most use it to get an overview of a topic, and then head to the references at the bottom of the page to find more information. I use Wikipedia like this all the time in my teaching so I found this to be quite encouraging.
  • The digital generation has an incomplete understanding of intellectual property. It’s true that many of them do download and share music illegally (and they realize that it’s illegal). But they don’t know that there are legal ways to use copyrighted materials–fair use–so they hesitate to use them to remix or mashup content. This is a great opportunity for librarians to help students learn about ethical use of information.

I haven’t read the book yet, but after seeing Palfrey speak I’ve added it to my summer reading list. There’s some innovative supplemental material too: they asked kids to create podcasts interpreting each chapter of the book. The video he shared with us was fascinating and well worth a watch.

Next there were two breakout sessions, each with multiple presentations. Full disclosure: I was a presenter in the first session, where I discussed a classroom game I’m developing to teach students how to evaluate information. Many thanks to all who attended my session and contributed to our lively discussion. The one down side is that I missed the other presentations, though I caught up with them on the program website and NELIG blog.

During the second session I went to The Big Picture: Visual Storytelling in Library Instruction, presented by Nicole E. Brown and Erica Schattle of Emerson College. They shared an innovative approach for library instruction that uses images to tell a story to introduce students to research. They present information to students in three ways:

1. their slides contain images (only!): first a few slides to introduce a metaphor for research (in this case, learning to swim), and then several that illustrate the process of research
2. their spoken narrative describes the steps taken while doing research
3. their handout provides details on information sources students can use for their research during the library session

By modeling the process of research they were able to inspire students into action, and after this short introduction students spent the remainder of the session actively searching for information on their topics.

The final session featured Clarence Maybee and Charlotte Droll from Colgate University who presented The Crossroads of Learning: Librarians and IT Professionals Banding Together to Embed Information and Technology Literacies into Undergraduate Courses. They described two student projects–a podcast and a poster session–in which librarians and instructional technologists collaborated with course professors. Both the podcasts and the poster session encouraged students to step out of their comfort zone and added a public dimension to their work. Students were more engaged with these projects than with a typical research paper, and seemed to work harder, too.

By the end of the day I was fading fast, since I had to wake up at 5:30am to get the train up from NYC. But I was glad I went: it was a fantastic program (kudos to the organizers!), and I really enjoyed spending the day geeking out on information literacy. I came away with lots of ideas for my own instruction, too, and I can’t wait to try them out.