All posts by acrlguest

Developing a Campus Framework for Digital Literacy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Julia Feerrar, Head of Digital Literacy Initiatives at Virginia Tech.

During the summer of 2016 my library began to envision a more coordinated effort around supporting digital literacy on our campus. We began by examining the scope of digital literacy at Virginia Tech and have since developed a framework to help us build towards a shared definition and language for our context.

For me this process has been a really interesting chance to reflect on the relationship between information and digital literacy (as well as media, data, and many other literacies), and to explore perceptions and needs around these literacies on my campus. Building towards consensus around a nebulous, multifaceted concept like digital literacy can be very challenging, but we’ve been able to have some exciting conversations and build connections across campus as we move towards shared understanding.

Our framework

As Alexander et al. illustrate in the NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy in Higher Education, Part II, definitions and frameworks for digital literacy vary, particularly in their emphasis on technical skills, critical thinking and creative abilities, and social or cultural competencies. Considering that these pieces can shift in different contexts, I think that it was important for us to begin with the what and why of digital literacy, before jumping into the how of digital literacy on our campus.

An initial task force within the University Libraries began the work of navigating existing definitions for digital literacy and identifying needs in our context. The task force was particularly influenced by Jisc’s Digital Capability Framework, which positions digital literacy as “capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and  working in a digital society.” We discussed these capabilities as including engagement with a variety of digital tools, types of content, creation processes, and decision-making. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education and  its emphasis on students as “consumers and creators of information who can  participate successfully in collaborative spaces” was also foundational to our thinking. It was important to us to think about digital literacy as flexible enough to include common or foundational skills related to critical consumption, creation, and collaboration, and to support learners in achieving their own goals for their digital lives.

Following the Libraries’ task force,  we drafted a framework graphic and sought feedback across the Virginia Tech community. We reached faculty and graduate students through existing professional development opportunities as well as by hosting a day-long digital literacy symposium, which also served as an opportunity to build community among those who support digital literacy at Virginia Tech. During these feedback conversations, we asked participants about any elements they saw as missing from the framework draft as well as where  they saw their work connecting to it. With all of this feedback in mind, we revised the framework to a final (for now) version.

Infographic illustrating Virginia Tech's digital literacy framework

This framework represents four aspects or layers for digital literacy at Virginia Tech.

  1. The learner at the center, who might engage with the other  areas in the framework in any combination or order.
  2. Core competencies that each include technical, critical thinking, and social aspects
  3. Key values that connect and contextualize the competencies. I see these as as particularly tied to the why of digital literacy and our hopes for our learners as engaged digital citizens.
  4. Multiple literacies that frame the outside of our framework. I think of the literacies as our lens or lenses on digital literacy.

Navigating literacies

Our framework approaches digital literacy as a kind of umbrella or metaliteracy that includes information, data, media, and invention literacies. While a particular class session, workshop, or online learning module might focus on one of these in particular, they come together to inform the way we think about digital literacy as a whole.

While I find this to be a useful way to think about the relationship between these several overlapping literacies, I want to acknowledge that it is certainly not the only way. As Jennifer Jarson points out in her 2015 post, many of us might conceptualize information literacy as the broader category that includes digital literacy. I think it’s possible to take any number of literacies into the foreground as a lens for others and I find that my own thinking shifts depending on the context. As individuals we might gravitate towards one literacy or another, perhaps depending on disciplinary background, but ultimately I think that looking at them in conjunction can help us to think more expansively about our hopes for our learners.

Our framework in action

Looking forward, our framework will guide the continued development of digital literacy initiatives. Within VT Libraries, I see this framework as helping us with two major activities: more strategically coordinating and sequencing our existing library educational offerings around digital literacy (course-embedded instruction, co-curricular workshops and events, new spaces and  technology for creation) and identifying areas for further development. More broadly, my hope is that our framework will also help us to continue to build shared language and shared vision for digital literacy learning as we continue to build partnerships in support of student learning.

Ghosts in the Library – A Collaborative Approach to Game-Based Pedagogy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mandy Babirad, Instructional Services Librarian at SUNY Morrisville State College, Heather Shimon, Science and Engineering Librarian at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and Lydia Willoughby, Reference Librarian, Research and Education, at SUNY New Paltz.

Mandy Babirad (now at SUNY Morrisville), Heather Shimon (now at UW-Madison), and Lydia Willoughby (SUNY New Paltz) created an instructional game called Ghosts in the Library (Ghosts) to use in English Composition I library sessions (Comp I) at SUNY New Paltz in Fall 2015.

The game aligns with established Comp I learning outcomes and includes self-directed learning, problem solving, collaborative learning, and peer review. In the game, students work in groups and use the library catalog and databases to research a notable person with ties to New York State (a “ghost” who is haunting the library), and then create a digital artifact based on that research to appease the ghost. The “ghosts” are people of color and women who have made significant contributions to New York State, yet are underrepresented in the historical record. With the library’s namesake of Sojourner Truth, and student protests against a predominantly white curriculum occuring in Fall 2015, the game was also an attempt to include marginalized voices within the library collection and course syllabi.

The primary goal for Ghosts was to frame a 75 minute one shot library instruction session with a pedagogy of possibility. Roger Simon[1], in work that drew from deep collaboration with Henry Giroux, thought about student-centered learning as a choice of hope, and teaching as an act of hope. “Hope is the acknowledgement of more openness in a situation than the situation easily reveals… the hopeful person acts.” (3) Being open to possibilities is the only mindful and clear choice for teaching librarians facing technology distraction and student disinterest in a required library session. Bringing in curiosity as play engages inquiry as an affective process that asks student and teacher to act and reveal a more whole self in the classroom.

Ghosts Game Play

The game has one central goal: to appease your team’s ghost so that the ghost will leave the library and our campus alone. Each team gets a ghost card, team members choose role cards, the team members then use the tool cards to hunt down information that will help them appease their ghosts, and the final and culminating component of the game is the team creation of a historical marker.

All game materials can be downloaded from the Ghosts research guide:

Players in the Ghosts game receive a packet that contains the following game materials:

  • Map of the Sojourner Truth Library (with corresponding key to call numbers to floors)
  • Worksheet for the game to be completed in class time (the worksheet contains the rubric that teams use to evaluate their work and the success of their historical marker at appeasing their ghost).
  • Game Rules (like all rules, this is probably more useful for the librarian and teachers, than it is used by students. This was a key element in our game design and creation process, though it is most likely the least utilized part of the game by actual players during game play.)
  • A Packet of Cards (each packet contains 1 ghost card, 3 role cards and a 3 tool cards.
    • Ghost cards are randomly given to each group and are all women and people of color from New York State history that have a tie to the Hudson Valley region.
    • The 3 role cards include a historian, a presenter and a facilitator. If the composition of the class that you are teaching needs the group to be divided into more than 3 people per group, you can double up on historian role cards. All role cards contribute to information gathering and drafting the text of the historical marker.
      • The historian takes notes on the worksheet and enters the team’s text on the historical marker that the team is working together to create.
      • The presenter is the person that presents the team’s historical marker to the class.
      • The facilitator keeps the team on track and ensures that all tool cards have been used in information gathering, and that the team’s work fulfills all the roles of the rubric.
    • The 3 tool cards correspond to the library research tools students use on the library website to conduct research.
      • A tool card for databases that guides students to Academic Search Complete to find scholarly articles
      • A tool card for the library catalog that helps them discover books
      • A tool card for reference resources helps students to find background and biographical information on their ghost using Gale Virtual Reference Library.

The final part of the worksheet is a space where they can draft the text of their historical marker, a synthesis of their respective roles and tools in the research process. Once teams have completed the worksheet, they go to our custom historical marker website,, to enter their text. Once they publish their historical marker and hit “Create,” their original text will appear on a digital artifact that looks like a ‘real’ NY State Education Department 1940. The artifact creation component of this game is designed to encourage student learning with a pedagogy that helps students connect to something ‘real’ and physical in the research process. Students present the historical markers, and all game players receive a ghost button and a FAQ zine about the library. Summary discussion concludes the session focused on what kinds of information the students gleaned from which kinds of library resources.

The game was tested with library staff, librarians, and student staff before being used in the classroom for the Science and Technology Entry Program program and for one Comp I in Spring 2016. Ghosts launched as a pilot in Fall 2016. Since that time, the game has continued as pilot for Comp I sessions in Fall 2017. Ghosts has been taught in roughly 42% of Comp I sessions since its launch. The assessment and feedback that we have is based on the worksheets from students, a survey given to faculty and students

Student, Teacher Feedback on Ghosts

We found that student input on the worksheet question, “Why did you choose this?,” to be the most valuable question to assess student learning. Even though only 52% of students reported that they would definitely use the resources from Ghosts again (and 42% reported ‘kind of’), their worksheets suggested otherwise. The student worksheets demonstrated skill in describing the research process in detail, showing an ability to evaluate information sources and needs. Even so, only 35% of student reported that the game had value to their course assignments, and 48% said that the game was ‘kind of’ valuable to their course work. There is a disconnect between the students ability to reflect on their own research and their view of the usefulness of those skills. Meaning, that as with all library instruction, the value of learning systemic thinking struggles to be visible and relevant to course assignments when structured in required sessions. The students were describing their research process, but not equating that task with the value of learning how to research. Interestingly, 71% of students definitely felt included while playing the game, and 31% ‘kind of’ felt included.

In the future, more evaluative questions will be posed in both the worksheet completed during the game and the post-assessment. The final product, the historical marker, won’t have a word count. Editing the marker down to 50 words took up a lot of time and stressed some of the students out which in turn may have influenced their evaluation of the game. The game could be tightened up and the worksheets could be transferred to online forms, so that the game is more of an online tutorial, which would facilitate flipped learning and provide the opportunity to use class time to have a more discussion based session informed by the work that was done outside of class. An idea for a follow-up assignment include writing a letter or postcard to your ghost describing how you research their history and what kind of things you found to encourage students to again practice being descriptive of their process. It is hard to get students to reflect on process; it is not practiced and it is rarely evaluated or asked for in their graded assignments.

The code for the historical marker would not have been possible without the work of software developer Andrew Vehlies. He created the marker from scratch in consultation with the librarians and posted the code on Github (available here) so that other history enthusiasts can benefit from his work. Once the code was developed and posted publicly, library technician (and human grumpy cat) Gary Oliver was able to post to local servers so that it could be used by students. Many thanks to instruction coordinator Anne Deutsch, at SUNY New Paltz, for letting us pilot Ghosts in the first place, and for supporting the game development in the library instruction program.

[1] Simon, R.I. (1992). Teaching against the grain: Texts for pedagogy of possibility. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Pink Labor and the Reluctant Librarian

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Siân Evans, Information Literacy & Instructional Design Librarian at Maryland Institute College of Art.

“One of the hardest things to admit is that you’re not doing okay. We want to be always glowing and effusive, charming and graceful but most of us hide little pits of darkness, ever growing and receding, in our guts.” – A thing I wrote when I was 27, in a collection of essays called “Built to Last: A collection of essays on sex, love, and feminism that I liberated from my ex-boyfriend’s blog,” published by D.I.Y feminist press, Pilot Press

“I don’t know how to be. I don’t know if I’m a librarian, a career that feels like a calling to most. Librarian with a capital L. I’m not sure if I really like helping people that much.” – A thing I wrote in my journal when I was 32, in 2015.

What is the relationship between these two things I wrote? I’m going to admit, right off the bat, that I’m not entirely sure. But, given that I’m writing an essay about mental illness and gendered affective labor, I’m going to take a cue from a gorgeous memoir written by an acquaintance of mine, and explore these things that weave in and out of each other for me all at once in a messy (but perhaps radical?) way.

(Mental Illness)

And that’s the thing about feelings and what we call them, they’re messy at best. In The Glass Eye, Jeannie Vanasco explores her various diagnoses and self-diagnoses, musing on how they often seemed wrong or even arbitrary. I’ve been diagnosed as moderately depressed and, in one case, a psychiatrist made an offhand, confusing but ultimately unexamined comment about the potential of borderline personality disorder.* I tend to side with a Foucauldian way of thinking: that all diagnoses serve the function of classification and, ultimately, control; i.e. “reign in those pesky women and make them productive!” And, besides, what do diagnoses really mean outside of the meaning we give them?** Do they ultimately do justice to the feeling?


Thankfully I’m not the first to write publicly about mental illness in librarianship, nor the first to note the gendered component of depression and anxiety disorders. That is well-documented. But I do think these are conversations that we need to continue to have, as hard as they are. And, especially in higher education because, as Lisl Walsh has pointed out, academia is “irreparably ableist” when it comes to mental health.

Anecdotally, I also know this need for discussion to be true. Over a glass of wine with a librarian friend, I cautiously mentioned that I was working on a very personal essay about mental illness and library instruction. She responded, “I’m basically your target audience.” In a field of largely women, I imagine she’s not alone.

(Pink Labor)

So two things happened to me at once: I participated in Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby’s interview project on the gendered labor of library instruction coordination and I got really, really depressed. I’m not saying these two things are necessarily linked but I’m also not saying they’re not linked. As bell hooks points out, in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (and I’m paraphrasing horribly here): the moments in which you become aware of your own oppression and the oppression of others are often incredibly painful. And there’s no going back. The veil has been lifted. So, we read. And we learn from what others have said before.

I’ve been doing feminist work for maybe my whole life but was only introduced to the concept of “pink labor,” “affective labor” or “emotional labor” (oppression has many names!) in 2014, when I co-organized a series of speculative conversations at a DIY feminist gallery space in Brooklyn.*** I was aware of the genesis of the term, of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s seminal work on flight attendants and bill collectors. I knew what it meant: that in absorbing other people’s emotions while suppressing your own for the benefit of an employer, you’re doing an invisible form of labor that is affective or emotional, and largely gendered (hence “pink”). But I hadn’t thought much about how it might affect me.

So I read more.

In reading one of the most canonical (if we can even use that term for such a niche field of study) articles on emotional labor in librarianship, I was struck by two things: (1) feelings and (2) names. The study describes the emotions expressed by librarians in reaction to the teaching experience as “ranging from joy and satisfaction […] to feelings of misery” (emphasis my own). I found myself coding the names of the pseudonymous librarians interviewed by whether or not they made positive or negative comments about their own teaching:

Coding article text
Coding article text

Steve and John, it seemed, were thoroughly impressed with themselves. While Kerri, Melissa, Amy, Colleen, Fran and Sandra had mixed feelings.**** I know that students’ reactions to teachers are often gendered, which may also account for these highly critical self perceptions because when you’re repeatedly told you’re not as good, of course you don’t feel all that good. And I also know that impostor syndrome in librarianship is real…

Tote bag with caption
Tote bag with caption “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”

But I couldn’t help but draw loose mental connections between the statistics on women’s mental health and the affective labor of largely gendered professions, like librarianship, social work, nursing, and so on. But those threads are still so, so loose. And I’m not sure where they’ll lead me.


What I do want to explore is the potential for liberation. Always.

Emily Drabinski and Karen P. Nicholson have both written about the connections between the capitalist commodification of time and how the genesis of the term “information literacy” is rooted in neoliberal ideals of the university as a space of production.  Nicholson, in particular, argues for an adoption of the principle of feminist slow scholarship to challenge this:

“Slow scholarship — which applies to academic work in the broad sense to include teaching, research, and service — resists the accelerated, fragmented time of the neoliberal university, along with its audit culture, intensified work order, and ‘fast, take-way, virtual, globalized, download/uptake’ pedagogies. Feminist slow scholarship seeks to re-envision the university itself by challenging structures of power and inequality and calling attention to the value (and toil) of academic labor.” (p. 31)

So, back to the beginning. Back to feelings. In her take on surviving academia with mental illness, Walsh writes “Do I even have the right to write this story? is a voice in my head today, as I think about what I need to be doing on a Sunday morning to prepare for Monday…” Simply getting out of bed, reading an email, writing a sentence, let alone teaching can be a struggle for those of us who experience varying degrees of mental illness. When my friend Veronica interviewed me for her project, I told her it felt cathartic. I didn’t realize just how wrong it had felt to admit that teaching took almost everything out of me sometimes, that students’ blank stares, colleagues’ insinuations that my feminist, critical pedagogical methods were futile, and just the sheer number of instruction sessions (57, roughly 50% of all instruction this semester) may precipitate bouts of depression.

What kind of liberation is possible? Critical pedagogy asks us to be vulnerable with our students, but what if we already feel so very vulnerable, as if some imaginary membrane between us and the world barely exists? Where is the space for a radical, open vulnerability in the increasingly neoliberal academic landscape? Walsh’s suggestions for what inclusivity for academics could look like line up perfectly with the premise of slow scholarship. The one that stuck with me the most is simply acknowledging that academics (and librarians) with disabilities (of all kinds) exist. In meetings, in the classroom, in daily conversation. For me, this has involved being open about my feelings. It has also involved being intentional about making space for reflection as part of my teaching praxis, and demanding that that space be recognized as what it is: labor.

In other words, more of this. And more of this.***** Taking the time.


*I attributed these perhaps unprofessional comments to my psychiatrist’s problematic gender politics because some might argue that BPD is the new hysteria, in that 70-71% of those diagnosed are women.

**This is not to deny the usefulness of psychiatric medicine and of diagnoses (I benefit greatly from my access to mental health care), but rather to highlight that it is not a linear path from the (imaginary) Dark Ages to now but rather a complex social history that is peppered with scientific advances but also informed by patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and many other structures of domination. There’s SO much written on this, but you can start with Foucault!

***Epic thanks to my love Jacqueline Mabey for sharing her curatorial genius with me and to shero Kate Bahn for introducing me to this concept and for continuing to be the radical, feminist, punk rock economist and wonderful friend that she is.

****Note that this is not a quantitative study but just my initial reaction to reading the article. Of course, we cannot assume gender based on name (look at mine!), nor can we assume that the authors selected names that corresponded with the gender identity of the participants.

*****But does this boss really care about her or just care about her productivity? Do any of under late stage capitalism? Damn the man! 😉

Tales of the Undead… Learning Theories: Learning Styles

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Outreach, and Alyssa Archer, Instruction Librarian at Radford University.

“I need to drop this class because I’m a visual learner and my professor doesn’t use PowerPoint.” – A student, overheard by one of the co-authors

What do we mean when we say learning styles?

Learning style theories propose that there are certain methods that will enable students to improve their learning. Individual students have innate learning styles that can be discovered and categorized, and when these styles are properly matched with specific pedagogical techniques, academic achievement will increase. For example, a visual learner will benefit most when images are used in class, while an audio learner will achieve more if the same content is provided aurally.

Unlike the Learning Pyramid myth that we addressed in a previous post, where all variations in the theory of the pyramid can be traced back to one common point, there are many learning style theories that have developed independently of each other. You are probably familiar with at least a few. One of the most popular learning styles theories is the VARK: Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic, put forward by Neil Fleming (Fleming & Mills, 1992), adapted from Stirling’s VAK. Others include Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory; Dunn, Dunn & Price’s Learning Style Inventory Honey & Mumford’s LS theory with the categories of Activists, Pragmatists, Theorists, and Reflectors.

While learning style theories do not have one central root like the Pyramid theory, they do have similarities. Hyman and Rosoff (1984), identified four common traits in learning style theories: 1) they try to find out what an individual’s learning style is, 2) categorize it using broad categories 3) match it with a teacher versed in that category, and 4) educate teachers to conduct steps 1-3, thereby repeating the cycle and ensuring the theory’s longevity. In Coffield et al.’s systematic review (2004), they categorized over fifty learning style theories by their key concepts, as shown below.

Fig. 1 Learning style theory categories (Coffield et al., 2004 p. 19)

While there are many different theories behind learning styles, we will use the general phrase “learning styles,” meaning students benefit most when the teaching mode aligns with their particular style.

Higher education literature is full of articles and books about learning styles, and how instructors should tailor their classes to suit different styles in order to support student learning. A quick search in the Library, Informations Science, and Technology Abstracts database showed over 100 articles about learning styles published in just the last 5 years. Many educational articles and websites suggest librarians incorporate different modes of teaching into their learning in order to appeal to the different learning styles.

Another sign that learning styles have gained wide acceptance is its inclusion in Google Snippets, which provides excerpts at the top of a Google search results page. While Google has had issues with offering incorrect information for many different searches, it is feasible that a casual searcher would see this image and assume it to be factual.

Fig. 2 Screenshot of a Google search results page for learning styles

Why are learning styles theories false?

Quite bluntly, despite many studies, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that meshing the learning style with teaching mode improves student learning. The absence of positive evidence has left the door open for supporters of various theories argue that their favored theory works for them, falling into the trap of confirmation bias. In an excellent article from 2015 discussing why these theories persist, Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi explain that learning style theories will not die, because “it is impossible to prove something does not exist.” The authors go on to critique two core components of any of these theories. One, the assumption that despite different environments, an attributed individual learning style is consistent. Two, that regardless of that environment or what is being taught, if the individual’s learning style is matched, their learning will improve.  There have been systematic reviews, some including meta-analysis, with rigorous methodologies that have come up empty-handed.

There is a dearth of foundational, scholarly, peer-reviewed literature underpinning learning style theories. Stahl (1999) provides an excellent critique of the lack of peer-reviewed foundational references in Carbo’s Reading Styles Inventory theory, Fleming’s 1992 article on VARK references an article published in a current affairs magazine the New Zealand Listener, and the list goes on. In the (very interesting!) book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, ” authors note that decades of research has failed to provide reliable ways to assess people’s styles, evidence as to whether you can train teachers to adapt their teaching to such styles, or even what constitutes a learning style (pp. 95-96).

Several years ago, Willingham increased his longstanding reward for a researcher proving a learning style theory produces meaningful learning benefits from $1,000 to $5,000. There has as yet been no winner, with a design proving such theories are sound, but not for lack of trying. But why should this be a surprise? Learning style theories ultimately fall apart due to their own processes. By creating categories through cherry picking key attributes, then trying to fit individuals to these labels to elicit positive learning outcomes, they ignore the many other factors that influence learning.

The lure of learning styles

Despite many publications and presentations debunking learning styles, the myth continues to endure.  Pashler et al. argue that we are instinctively drawn to tests that group people into different categories, like the Myers-Briggs test, despite little proof that such tests are valid. We like to group others, and we like to take quizzes about ourselves. A quick Google search brings up many free versions of the Learning Styles Inventory. We can see the pop culture version of this fascination in Buzzfeed quizzes like “Which Harry Potter character are you?” or “What kind of natural disaster are you?

Librarians may be drawn to learning styles as a way to connect to students we only see once or twice. We don’t have the opportunity to get to know students in our library sessions very well, limiting our ability to tailor the workshop to those students’ particular strengths and interests. But if we design our classes to appeal to all different learning styles, then we could say we are being responsive to different students’ needs.

The commercialization of learning styles has also kept them alive. Some publishers include learning style surveys as activities within textbooks, especially texts aimed at “first year experience”-type classes. In these works, identifying one’s learning style is presented as a strategy to become a better student. This situation is a bit of a chicken-or-egg one: do textbooks include learning styles because instructors demand them, or do instructors teach learning styles because the textbooks include them? Either way, their inclusion understandably leads to the students’ and instructors’ assumption that learning styles are accepted and uncontroversial.

What’s the harm?

Because learning styles are not supported by research, you run the risk of diminishing your credibility by including them in conversations with other teaching faculty or other knowledgeable colleagues. Candice recently attended a pedagogy conference; in one session, the presenter mentioned “learning styles” in passing and the whole crowd groaned. (Conversely, because people can become very invested in learning myths, we recommend you respond tactfully if an administrator or professor speaks positively about learning styles.)

The learning styles myth can also be harmful to people’s perceptions of their own or others’ abilities. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset found that many people believe that personality, intelligence, and talent are things people are either born with–or not. As Dweck puts it, “They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that.” Teachers and students who have a fixed mindset will view learning styles as natural limitations. You simply can’t expect someone–or yourself–to learn something if it’s not in the correct learning style. As Professor Frank Coffield said in an interview, “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.” We see this self-limiting viewpoint expressed in the opening quote, and believe it is an unhelpful concept.

Grains of truth

Can we salvage anything from the idea of learning styles? Although we hope our debunking has successfully removed “learning style” from your pedagogical teaching statement, we leave you with this advice:

  1. Accept that learners do have preferences and strengths. Some people read quickly; some love mechanical tasks. (Interestingly, at least one study showed a very weak correlation between learning styles and learning preferences.) It is important to understand that no one teaching method will work for everyone. As Pashler et al. state, “it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another. One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student” (p. 116).
  2. Flip learning styles to teaching modes. The different modes (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) need to change as your subject matter does. If you are teaching someone how to drive a car, we really, really hope you are giving your student a kinesthetic experience and not simply verbally explaining how to drive. On a more library-specific topic: when we teach about incorporating sources into your paper, we use the analogy of music sampling. This is most effective when we play the songs we discuss. Consider which mode might be most effective to what you’re teaching (while also considering student accommodations, of course).
  3. Think multimodal. There is evidence that learners benefit when instructors mix the modes up: a little lecture followed by a pair-and-share, a visual demonstration and then some hands-on practice. Changing up the modes will appeal to different students’ strengths and preferences, and will increase attention in the class.

Final words

Hopefully, you now consider yourself armed with the tools to help put an end to the myth of learning style theories. And what about the next time you hear a student or colleague voicing an opinion about learning styles, similar to the one we quoted in the beginning of our post? You will have solid, research-based arguments to counter their beliefs, and well-founded pedagogical teaching methods with which to replace their misguided learning style theory.

Information in the Indignation Age

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

As a librarian, I worry about the ways that emotion, especially anger, influences our interactions with information. So much of our political discourse is intended to arouse indignation, and I’m concerned about indignation’s impact on one’s ability to learn. Higher education needs to become more intentional about preparing students for inflammatory discourse as a potential hazard in the information landscape.

An important Pew study offers a lens for understanding the cyclical relationship between our media habits and the increasing political polarization of the United States. The short version is that media consumers spend more time with media that confirms their political outlook, and that ideological reinforcement makes one less receptive to dissenting views. The degree of outrage and distrust in our political discourse makes this dynamic quite unsettling. A quick perusal of the online comments following any major news story shows that media-driven ideological reinforcement is not leading to higher rates of polite disagreement – AkronKittyLuvver is out for blood.

A subsequent Pew study confirms the tension. Researchers found that Democrats and Republicans tend to associate negative character traits with members of the opposing party. A strong contingent of Democrats say that Republicans are more dishonest compared to other Americans. An even larger percentage of Republicans say that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that the other side is more closed-minded compared to other Americans. We are all-too-ready to make hostile judgments about those whose perspectives differ from our own. What does this self-righteous antagonism mean for our capacity to learn about complex and evolving issues?

Indignation in both the media and in personal communications is particularly worrisome because it signals to one’s audience that the matter at hand is so grave and so morally charged that there is no room for alternative perspectives. Attempts to present other points of view will be met with resistance or even hostility, so there is little point in sharing a different opinion (unless you take moral offense at the indignant person’s thinking, in which case you can vent your own sense of outrage).

But is indignation necessarily the enemy of open-mindedness and open discussion? In True to Our Feelings, philosopher Robert Solomon presents a more nuanced view of anger and indignation. According to Solomon, anger arises when we have been hurt or offended in some way, and it manifests itself as an impulse to level blame against the offender. While anger can operate on a strictly personal level (“his loud talking is distracting me and it’s making me mad”), indignation implies that the offense oversteps important considerations of justice and morality (“his loud talking in the quiet area of the library is rude and unfair”). The sense of transgression involved with indignation can make a difference in the level of vehemence with which indignation is felt or expressed. Indignation involves more than simply being offended – it is being offended and having justice on your side (or at least feeling that way).

Because indignation is wrapped up with one’s understanding of justice and morality, it is not the sort of emotion that one can get over easily. Moving past indignation may require a revised estimation of the line between justice and injustice, and that sort of reexamination is hard to undertake in today’s polarized environment. The indignant mind presents fertile ground for confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and other obstacles to learning.

But Solomon also points out that anger and indignation have their value. For one thing, the ability to experience and express these emotions is essential to maintaining our personal dignity, to stand up for ourselves or to stand against unfairness. As Solomon puts it, “[T]here are times when one is a fool not to get angry, not only because the situation calls for it but because otherwise one degrades oneself as less than a fully functioning human being.” Indignation puts energy and backbone behind our convictions.

Furthermore, for Solomon (and for Aristotle), anger is not inherently irrational. Instead, anger is rational when it fits the occasion, when it is directed at the right parties, and when it is proportional to the offense (neither an overreaction nor an underreaction). Forward-looking considerations are also crucial for assessing anger’s reasonableness. Solomon emphasizes the strategic qualities of emotions, especially their impact on how we relate with others. Does one’s style of anger fit with one’s long-term interests, or is it better to revise (or even abandon) one’s current strategy?

Considering indignation in this strategic light, I find a theoretical home for my worries. For example, indignation is irrational if its heat and hostility get in the way of negotiating to address the conditions that inspired indignation in the first place. Indignation is also irrational if it entrenches the indignant person in righteousness to such a degree that they cannot consider other points of view or continue to learn about the circumstances of the offending injustice (which, in the case of political disputes, are probably quite complicated).

Can indignation foster learning? A sense of outrage might lend urgency to one’s investigation of an injustice, driving one to learn more quickly or more deeply than an investigator without the same sense of passion. Amia Srinivasan points out that anger is part of really understanding oppression, a matter of viscerally apprehending the gulf between the way things are and the way they should be. A vital educational message for these polarized times is that learning is a crucial lens for reflecting on the reasonableness of one’s indignation.

Rational indignation cannot become so all-encompassing that it crowds out dispositions to learn. Indignation motivates learning when it is combined with intellectual courage (a willingness to face ugly situations squarely, without rationalizing them away or exaggerating their severity) and with epistemic humility (a clarity about the limits of one’s perspective and a consistent recognition that one can always learn more).

Media-inspired indignation is an information problem, a potential pitfall that higher education should help students prepare for by exploring a range of important questions:

  • How do partisan media, indignation, and intellectual autonomy relate to one another? Does media-inspired indignation stimulate or stifle curiosity about politics?
  • How does indignation over political matters define one’s relationships with one’s peers? With other groups?
  • When political leaders and campaigns use rhetoric to inspire indignation, how does that work to their advantage?
  • Is indignation worth the costs? Political discussions in the media typically address exceedingly complex conditions that impact vast, diverse groups of people. Given the uncertainty involved in policy making, when we weigh the likelihood of achieving a satisfying political resolution against the consequences of being angry at our neighbors, is the antagonism associated with indignation justifiable? If not, what attitudes are more appropriate?

To be clear, my concern is not ideological. If one’s beliefs place them in the far reaches of the ideological spectrum, that may be perfectly legitimate, as long as those beliefs stem from the careful, iterative consideration of the best evidence available. But when I look at the polarization data from Pew, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I worry that indignation contributes to a cycle that drives us ever further from the ideal of informed political participation. Our students need to reflect on this dynamic – they need to demand better of their politicians, their news sources, and themselves.

(Though perhaps, not too indignantly.)