The Importance of Librarians and Reading for Student Learning (According to Cognitive Psychology)

A  key insight from the cognitive science of learning, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham puts it, is that “comprehension depends on background knowledge.” Elsewhere Willingham states that “[c]ritical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge.” Why?

The idea is that our working memory – what we’re currently thinking about right now – has a limited capacity. I can only think about so many things at one time. So, if we have to remember a bunch of background facts, it’s hard to process and think critically about something new; our cognitive processes are all tied up trying to remember various facts, so we don’t learn nearly as much as we could. This is, btw, a great argument for any parents out there struggling to respond to their child’s claims that they don’t have to memorize facts, because they can just go look them up online. By doing so, your kids, in fact, are making learning new things seriously more difficult for themselves, and will end up behind other people who bothered to memorize stuff and don’t now have their working memory complicated by trying to remember their multiplication tables and solve a new algebraic equation, too. Simply put, the more we already know about something, the easier it is to learn more. This is why our students’ background knowledge has an enormous impact on their future learning: they not only avoid a messy kind of cognitive overload by having to look up facts all the time, but they can learn new things quicker because they’re connecting it to background knowledge they already have (and why, say, some students coming into college aren’t “smarter” than others, but some may have more background knowledge, which makes it easier for them to pick up new information).

I mention this because I just had to look something up in Willingham’s wonderful book Why Don’t Students Like School? to get some info for a grant I’m finishing up, and this passage caught my eye:

The effects of knowledge described in this chapter also highlight why reading is so important. Books expose children to a broader vocabulary than virtually any other activity, and persuasive data indicate that people who read for pleasure enjoy cognitive benefits throughout their lifetime …

The school librarian should be a tremendous resource and ally in helping children learn to love reading, and she is arguably the most important person in any school when it comes to reading.

I thought this would be of interest to librarians: given the basic 101 stuff about memory I outlined at the beginning of this post, librarians, especially school media specialists, can have a huge impact on students’ future learning and critical thinking, because the more one likes to read, the more background knowledge they’ll pick up. Reading good books not only has enormous emotional benefits, it has huge cognitive benefits, too.

Real interesting, I think, in explaining the crucial – and hugely substantive role –  librarians can play in education, and also another really interesting takeaway from the science of learning that librarians can apply, and use to advocate for, their work with students.

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“How Do Our Students Learn?: An Outline of a Cognitive Psychological Model for Information Literacy Instruction” – Out Now from Reference & User Services Quartely

An article Dani and I wrote – “How Do Our Students Learn?: An Outline of a Cognitive Psychological Model for Information Literacy Instruction” – was published yesterday by Reference & User Services Quarterly.

Here’s the abstract of the piece:

Effective pedagogy requires understanding how students learn and tailoring our instruction accordingly. One key element of student-centered pedagogy involves understanding the cognitive psychological processes according to which students learn, and to structure our teaching with these processes in mind. This paper fills in a gap in the current literature, by applying empirically grounded lessons drawn from the cognitive science of learning, and discussing specific applications of these lessons for information literacy instruction. The paper outlines a framework for information literacy instruction, grounded in the educational and cognitive psychology literature, for facilitating student retention and transfer of information literacy skills, two classic measures of student learning. Five specific principles and several strategies for promoting retention and transfer within information literacy instruction are outlined.

We are quite interested in how students learn, especially from the standpoint of adopting a learner/student-centered perspective. In order to be learner-centered, we must be empathic toward our students. Part of this involves understanding how students’ brains work when it comes to learning, what strategies help them remember and think critically about information, so we can tailor our teaching to where our students are at. Thus, although we offer a “scientific” model here, we believe these strategies are deeply empathic and humanistic: they take who our students are as human beings as central to our teaching, allowing us to meet our students where they’re at.

We think this approach can have a really positive impact on our students and our own teaching practices as librarians. As we say at the close of the piece:

Findings from the science of learning can refocus our instruction on student learning outcomes and enrich pedagogical practices. This cognitive model of instruction is intended to serve as a guide and inspiration for instruction librarians who want to engage in evidence based practice and leverage the findings of cognitive science to improve student learning outcomes. These five principles are broad enough that they can be applied to every type of information literacy session, including those done in online environments. The model is not meant to be prescriptive nor are the examples the sole way to apply these principles; indeed, one value of the framework as presented here is that it allows for infinite creativity in its applications. With this understanding in place, librarians are in the position to think of any number of innovative ways to develop specific learning exercises and lesson plans that will help students think about the deep structure of information within the context of research. This article should be the starting point for reflecting on how we teach and how we might support student learning more effectively.

It’s our hope that by filling in a gap in the current library literature – which is often based, in my view, on really outdated empirical views on learning, or infected by post-modern, abstract philosophizing with no real empirical support – that these concrete strategies driven by the current science of learning can point us toward a direction where we’re as serious as teacher-librarians about scientifically & psychologically sound, effective pedagogy, as we are about resources.

Here’s a link to the article: if it doesn’t work for you for whatever reason (the link is kinda weird; or you’re not an ALA member; or your institution doesn’t subscribe to the journal; or whatever), drop me a line and I’ll e-mail you a copy, at least until RUSA sends me a cease and desist order. And even then I’ll still probably do it, because they should be open access, anyway.


Filed under Education, Library Instruction, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

Things Truly Fulfilled People Understand (and Some Implications for Library Practice)

Something that interests me an enormous amount, professionally speaking, is applying insights from psychology – particularly, psychological findings relating to the meaning of life – to our library practice, both in terms of helping our students learn, and our own attempts as to make our work meaningful as library professionals. So, for example, much of my scholarly work has been devoted to applying research from existential psychology, and current empirical research in the psychology of motivation and learning, to helping our students learn information literacy skills. If authenticity, or being one’s true self in one’s daily life, is a central (or perhaps the central) thing that motivates us to want to do things – and we learn to the extent that we are motivated to learn – then it stands to reason (as many studies have shown) that we should try to increase our students’ ability to bring their true selves to their their schoolwork, because this will make their work more meaningful, which will in turn increase their learning.

I’ve also written on the blog about, for example, the major regrets of the dying and how reflecting on them in our practice might help us make our work as librarians more meaningful. In a similar spirit, I recently came across a short little article I really liked about “12 Things Truly Fulfilled People Understand” that I thought had some interesting implications for our work as librarians.

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“That’s Not the Way We Learn”: Obama on “The Coddling of the American Mind”

I posted recently about the unfortunate cultural and educational phenomenon of “vindictive protectiveness” – a kind of political correctness increasingly enforced by people too sensitive to hear ideas that they disagree with – and now the President himself has weighed in on the issue:

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.

“Because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds from you … I started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind,” he said. “Sometimes I realized, maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded; maybe I didn’t take this into account; maybe I should see this person’s perspective. That’s what college, in part, is all about.”


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Teaching and Expertise

Well, again to return to teaching: Experience is very important. It comes only with time. I have time behind me so I venture to teach and say to students, “I don’t really know a hell of a lot more than you do except I’ve been around longer and I do have experience and if I can articulate it some of it will rub off and do you some good.

-Walker Evans

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Classroom Rules

My dearly beloved wife is starting a new year teaching (6th grade) and is laying out some classroom rules.

I’ve never been, let’s say, a particularly avid fan of rules, but I really liked these and asked her permission to post them here. So here they are, the

ARCH Qualities:

Accountable students understand that everything has a consequence: good or bad.

Accountable students take responsibility for their actions and the outcomes that follow. Accountable students don’t blame others.

Accountable students know they won’t always make the right decisions and that’s okay. Accountable students own up to their mistakes and try to make the situation right and accept what follows.

Accountable students know that they can only control themselves and their actions.

Resilient students understand that hard work leads to success, not “being smart”.

Resilient students are unafraid to ask for help: from the teacher, from other students, from other adults in their lives.

Resilient students know there’s nothing wrong with not being good at something right away. A resilient student isn’t afraid to ask a question or give a wrong answer. Resilient students enjoy the process of learning something new.

Resilient students know that if they gave up learning to ride a bike because they got a few bruises, they wouldn’t know how to ride a bike today.

Resilient students try hard and stick with it.

Caring students try to understand other people. A caring student knows that each person they meet deserves respect and kindness.

Caring students reach out when someone else is having a hard time, even if that person is not their friend. They understand the power of a kind word or action.

Caring students are brave enough to offer help. Caring students strive not to bring anyone else down. Caring students don’t use their words or actions to bring anyone down.

Honest students don’t pretend to be anything they are not.

Honest students don’t change themselves to please anyone else: they are honest about who they are to themselves and to others.

I was, if I may say so myself, extremely impressed by Mrs. Klipfel’s articulation of these values, what with her hodgepodge of growth mindset, autonomy-support, empathic caring, and existentialism. They embody qualities of character not only necessary for learning in the 6th grade, but for lifelong learning, and personal fufillment. I think they’re also a really interesting example of how we can build in a growth mindset directly into the structure of a classroom and one’s classroom management policy.

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Crossing to the ~Dark Side~ or, Librarians Working for Vendors, and Why It’s Actually Pretty Awesome (Guest Post by Emily Gover)

Finishing library school in 15 months and transitioning into a professional job two years after the 2008 collapse wasn’t easy. It took me nine months from graduating library school to starting my first job as a web services librarian at a small college in the South. It took me five months from starting my first job in the South, to leaving it for a vendor in New York. I left my job for the same reasons many people leave their job: Being closer to my family, and higher pay. Yet, part of me felt guilty.

I mean, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be an honorable public servant, someone who cringes at the very thought of working for a profitable, capitalist entity, right? At least, that’s the vibe I picked up from mutterings of jaded colleagues. Librarians embody freedom of information, for all… how could I go and work for (and condone) The Man—and the greed for power and money that comes along with it?

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