The learning pyramid: true, false, hoax or myth?

The aim of this post is to investigate the question of whether or not the learning pyramid (see following figure – click to expand) is true or false, or perhaps a hoax, myth, misdirection, useful model and/or theory based on verifiable research.

In the end, I confirm my belief that it is a hoax/myth. I don’t believe it is useful in guiding the design of learning and teaching, in fact, I believe it to be destructive. It aims to provide a simplistic and wrong basis on which to guide design, when such design should be guided by and engage with a recognition that teaching is complex, difficult and contextual and can’t be improved by silver bullets

What do you think? (I do recognise that my direct opposition in the last paragraph is likely to significantly limit alternate perspectives, but I though I’d best be clear of my view given the prevalence of the figure.)

The learning pyramid

Origins of the post

A colleague from my current institution has recently been attending the Jossey-Bass Online Teaching and Learning conference and has been blogging her reflections. In her first post on the conference Wendy mentions a presentation by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt (who, from their website, seem to be very informed folk around online learning etc.) entitled “Assessing the online learner: resources and strategies for faculty”.

Wendy mentions

They put up a pyramid I quite liked that had retention rates for lectures at 5% at the top through to teaching others as 90% effective for retaining information (see book, p. 19) and suggested assessments should be aimed at the bottom half of the triangle (discussion activities, practice by doing, teaching others).

This sounds an awful lot like the above pyramid.

Quite some time ago I came across this post by Will Thalheimer. The post essentially seeks to argue that the pyramid is not based on any published research and suffers from a number of major flaws. I was convinced by this post and have since taken the view that the pyramid is false/a myth. I believed this to the extent that when another colleague used the learning pyramid in a blog post, I posted a comment linking back to the naysayer post by Thalheimer.

I was going to post a similar response to Wendy’s post but couldn’t remember some of the resources, so I revisited my comment on Scott’s post. To my surprise, I discovered that Scott had responded to my comment. The surprise arose both from the fact that I don’t remember receiving a notification of the reply (though that may say more about my memory than the technology); and that Scott was claiming that the learning pyramid was based on research that addressed some of the problems. i.e. that there was some basis. In addition, Scott suggests that the questions raised about the pyramid may arise from folk with questionable motives and also suggests that the naysayers don’t provide evidence or experimental research.

I’m going to spend a bit of time seeing what I can find about this difference of perspective. Is the pyramid based on some research? Have I been basing my dismissal of the pyramid on work by people with an axe to grind? Is there evidence to suggest that the pyramid is wrong?

Origins of the pyramid

One obvious place to start is to find out whether the proposed research actually exists. Does the research institute that is supposed to have done this research exist?

Lalley and Miller (2007) claim

No specific credible research was uncovered to support the pyramid, which is loosely associated with the theory proposed by the well-respected researcher, Edgar Dale. Dale is credited with creating the Cone of Experience in 1946.

This is from the abstract of their paper displayed on this ERIC page. My institution’s library doesn’t have access to the full text in electronic form, I’m chasing up a paper copy. (Of course the library website is currently down so I can’t log a request to get a copy of the paper…). Annoyingly, the institution I’m doing my PhD through has digital access to the journal, but not for 2006 through 2008.

Further web research has found a copy of the Lalley and Miller (2007) paper online here. The aim of this article is

Therefore, it is our intention to examine the following: the source of the general structure of the pyramid, Dale’s Cone of Experience; available research on retention from the methods identified by the pyramid; and consider the relationship(s) among the methods.

Rather than Bell Laboratories being the source of research, the research is generally referenced back to the National Training Laboratories in Bethel Maine. From information on the web it appears that this organisation is now known as the NTL Institute. Lalley and Miller (2007) quote from a response from the NTL Institute to a query about the pyramid

Institute at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate–but no, we no longer have–nor can we find–the original research that supports the numbers. We get many inquiries every month about this–and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press in New York. Yet the Learning Pyramid as such seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.

Lalley and Miller (2007) go onto give some arguments about why it is appears questionable that this research was ever/could ever be done.

The origins and data for the pyramid look very questionable. So, is there data or research to suggest that the pyramid is wrong?

What’s the literature say?

Lalley and Miller (2007) then go onto review the literature about each of the different methods of instruction included in they pyramid. The aim being to find out what the literature says about retention rates. I have not read all of what they have written (I have a thesis to get back to), but in summary they say (emphasis added)

The research reviewed here demonstrates that use of each of the methods identified by the pyramid resulted in retention, with none being consistently superior to the others and all being effective in certain contexts.

.

Lalley and Miller’s (2007) final conclusion is that direction instruction, such as a lecture, remains very important as a part of the mix of approaches required. They close the article with

Not surprisingly, this returns us to the assertions of Dale (1946) and Dewey (1916) that for successful learning experiences, students need to experience a variety of instructional methods and that direct instruction needs to be accompanied by methods that further student understanding and recognize why what they are learning is useful.

Rutger van de Sande from a University in the Netherlands has blog post that connects with this myth. He supervised some students (physics teachers) in an experiment to test retention. The rationale and results are explained on this knol. In a small scale study, likely to have all sorts of limitations, they established different percentages to the pyramid, which they conclude “to be an all too simplistic model”.

This, admittedly small, collection of research (though Lalley and Miller draw on a significant body of research) seems to provide evidence and experimental research to disprove the ideas of the pyramid.

Axe to grind?

Do the folk questioning the pyramid have an axe to grind? That’s a difficult question to answer without significant knowledge of who they are. So, let’s start with the question of who they are.

  • James Lalley
    According to this page is the Acting Chair of the Education Department at D’Youville College. He’s also an author of a book published by SAGE who publish this author’s bio. ERIC lists these publications
  • Rutger van de Sande – an “experience educational researcher and teacher educator”.
    Looks like a keen academic trying to make his way in the world.
  • Will Thalheimerconsultant and researcher
    Okay, a consultant, which potentially means there’s some potential benefit in getting more people to his site (which has ads). Attacking a broadly accepted idea is a good way to attract attention. Given the challenge to the effectiveness of learning styles, you could argue that there is a trend developing here. (I should note that academics in search of citations have the same motivation)
  • Christopher Harris – a librarian/educator/adminstrator

Don’t think these guys form a cabal aimed at attacking the legitimacy of an ideas based on sound empirical research. You could argue that the attention given by attacking such a widely accepted idea might be motivation, but the data seems to suggest that the pyramid is based on questionable to non-existent data.

Why does this continue to get air play?

A number of the folk who have written about this pyramid or commented on blogs about it have asked the question “Why does it continue to get air play?”. I have a preference for two explanations:

  • “looking for a silver bullet, a simplistic approach to a complex issue” (Metiri Group, 2008)
    Teaching and learning is a wicked problem, especially in some of the increasingly diverse contexts people are facing. For some/many folk it’s easier to believe in a simple, universal solution than engage in the full complexity of the problem. This is, I suggest, encouraged to extreme ends in the increasingly “corporate world” of higher education.
  • Confirmation bias – “an irrational tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms preconceptions or working hypotheses.
    i.e. a lot of education folk don’t like lectures. A lot of education folk have a barrow to push in terms of problem-based learning, discovery learning, authentic learning…..etc. The pyramid confirms the biases these folk have and hence they are more ready to accept than critique.

    I don’t like the way most lectures are given, they are very poor. I like even less that most of the focus of many courses is on giving lectures. But I don’t believe there’s a silver bullet.

Of course, the idea that I don’t believe there is a silver bullet – i.e. I don’t the application authentic learning will save a course, a program, an institution or the world – means that I have a confirmation bias that leans towards thinking the learning pyramid is a hoax.

References

Lalley, J. and R. Miller (2007). “The learning pyramid: Does it point teachers in the right direction?” Education and Information Technologies 128(1): 64-79.

Metiri Group (2008). Multimodal learning through media: What the research says, Cisco Systems: 24.

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30 thoughts on “The learning pyramid: true, false, hoax or myth?

  1. wendymad

    Thanks for this comment, David. I have to admit, I didn’t question the legitimacy of the pyramid because, regardless of the very neat numbers (which is always problematic), it seems to fit with the constuctionist model of learning in that the more active one is with their learning, the more likely one is to retain the information. This also seems to fit with my personal experience in that of all the educational experiences I have had over the years, I can still remember stuff when I was actively involved in learning, and indeed, I learnt more about my discipline area when I started teaching than I have ever learnt before! I suspect that, given the general acceptance of this model by so many who also have not questioned the origins of it, others have felt the pyramid resonates with their general beliefs and values of teaching and learing.

    This does create a bit of an issue, however, in that as academics in disciplines that are not educationally related, but who need to draw on the research in teaching and learning in order to improve what it is we do on a day to day basis, we don’t have the time to investigate and question the models that are put before us with the same level of rigour that we would like (and which characterises our approach to our own discipline areas). We need to rely on someone else to do this or rely on ‘gut’ feelings as I have done here, which will often perpetuate myths. I have to take the chance that what I am reading and hearing has undergone some filtration/review by people who are far more knowledgeable than I am in these matters. If I don’t take that risk, I would not attempt to change my teaching to provoke more effective learning – which I suspect would make your job that much more difficult!

    Reply
    1. davidtjones Post author

      G’day Wendy,

      I’m pretty sure I accepted the pyramid back in the dim dark past, it was only coming across Thalheimer’s post while getting into blogs a couple of years ago that I had my “conversion”. I fully understand your problem as a coal-face academic struggling with getting good theoretical guidance for the design of teaching. I suffered that in a major way. For me, it’s the connections from engaging in the blogosphere that have helped more than anything. It’s why I thought the pyramid was a myth.

      There is an argument that all discipline academics should have teaching degrees – to give them the educational knowledge. The trouble is that educational knowledge is not a defense against accepting this sort of myth. The qualifications and knowledge of the folk who have accepted the learning pyramid is strong empirical evidence for that observation.

      My argument has, for the last couple of years, that organisations like CQUni need to create an environment around learning and teaching that encourages and allows (even requires?) discipline academics to form connections with a lot of other folk, with very different sets of knowledge (educational, technological etc), all focused around the act of trying to improve learning and teaching through the small-scale and ad hoc application of the different bits of knowledge.

      The trouble is that the current silo-based approach to organisational structures actively prevents that. Strictly speaking, before anyone in CDDU actively engages with a teaching academic we have to get approval from our boss, who in turn has to ensure that the particular project aligns with the stated priorities of the faculties, who in turn have to make sure that the HoS agrees that such a project is within the workload calculation of the academic involved. And if we want to do something with technology, we have to storm the barriers – communications/relationship people, managers, business analysts – put in place by ITD to actually get to someone who can do something with technology.

      This little “social media” incident around the learning pyramid offers a very small and limited example of what might happen in a better connected network of support.

      You as the coal-face academic have shared a story about your practice during term or while you are thinking of it. Since you’ve made it visible and I’ve been reading your blog, I can comment on it – in a context of need – and apply some of the knowledge I’ve gathered over time. If there were other people following, they’d be able to share their perspective and perhaps, something interesting and unpredicted would come of it.

      Sorry, gone off on a tangent, somewhat distant from your comment. But that’s also part of the benefits of a network. In thinking about your comment, it’s helped my crystalise a lot of my thinking and also given me a perfect example to demonstrate to people what I need – hopefully in a way that gets some level of understanding.

      Thanks for sharing your journey. I’m learning lots.

      David.

  2. wendymad

    David, I couldn’t agree more and I am expecting much from linking in with the LTERC. It is this sort of connection that I think you are thinking about as well as through electronic media such as blogging. I am certainly finding lots of things to think about since I started on this path.

    Wendy

    Reply
  3. wfass1

    Hi David,
    I have always been concerned that in many ways, the pyramid contradicts the understanding that we are developing about learning styles. The situation appears to be significantly more complicated than this ‘blanket’ assertion. We know a lot more about the types of knowledge we are working with, and methodologies to enhance learning of these different types of knowledge.

    A useful research paper is http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf

    xxx W

    Reply
    1. davidtjones Post author

      G’day,

      Thanks for the pointer to the paper. Looks good.

      I particularly liked this quote “The person(s) who added percentages to the cone of learning were looking for a silver bullet, a simplistic approach to a complex issue.”. There’s much too much of the search for a silver bullet going on in education.

      Even learning styles – in some interpretations/uses – can approach silver bullet status.

      David.

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  5. Ryan

    Thanks for the post. I’m glad it came up in my google search of this pyramid. We tend to accept the pyramid because it seems “clean”. But actually it is overly-complicated. There may be some qualitative truth to the data, but the pyramid obscures the underlying mechanisms of repetition and time. This is unsurprising, as time is a commonly missed covariate.

    I study physics. The first time I learned a certain concept was in lecture, the second time when I read it in the text book, the third when I attempted to solve a homework problem, the 4th when I studied with friends, the 5th was when I started working as a physicist, and now the 6th is when I teach students. The pyramid is ordered in the typical time-sequence of everyday learning. For example, I probably won’t teach something before I’ve ever heard or read it. If learning is cumulative, then my retention will increase as I relearn a concept. Even if learning is not cumulative, my retention odds increase as I try various learning modes (again, as time increases).

    Reply
  6. abgarner

    This Learning Pyramid looks like a permutation of a graph purported to be extracted from a study by Dr. Michelene Chi of the University of Pittsburgh (however, it actually did not come from the study document) and laid over Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience,” illustration that was developed in 1946. This resulted in several graphs and illustrations based on this original overlay. Follow this link to get the whole story: http://www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html

    I would have conclude that the learning pyramid is probably bogus too. After reading the background and the resultant use of these graphs to support various approaches to learning strategies, it would be almost risible if it wasn’t for the time wasted using them to for this support.

    Reply
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  8. dbrownridge5555

    I’ve taught English overseas for five years in China and I think the PYRAMID IS GREAT. It provides a broad understanding, a starting place.

    AS USUAL, the academic paper-writers are at their best — “YES, IT’S FALSE…. sometimes.” I have read heaps of published academic papers and editted many also — academics can’t write. But that’s another story. Academic journals and the papers therein a mostly a joke — unless you can get a number of sources to agree on the same thing — then maybe you have something. MAYBE.

    But most journal papers are just like the one CITED HERE — NOTE THE KEY WORD: CONTEXT. You can say anything you want, make any statement, say ‘fact’ as much as you want, say ‘correct, irrefutable’ whatever — AS LONG AS you use the word ‘context’ in the sentence…. you can say ‘God is real…… Money is god……. Love is money…… Goodness is bad…….’ Then just put in the world ‘context’.

    Every journal article is an educated guess, and usually a broad generalization, and often meaningless nonsense: ie. People dislike being called bad names. Now that’s valuable research. These articles are not part of the Ten Commandments.

    Further, academics, especially PhDs, are not gods, they are imperfect just as you and I, just more knowledgeable on VERY SPECIFIC subjects, but not life as a whole.

    Academics are usually primarily researchers and are often poor teachers. Not to mention likely atypical instructors at best, with only the highest level students. Could they teach children?

    To summarize:

    – one journal article does not make a point convincingly — get four more sound, reliable journal articles and we’ll talk. I mean who wrote a research paper based on one source…?

    – as a basic guideline and tool, I find the learning pyramid darn useful, in my experience as a communication specialist (journalist) and an educator of 15 years — especially in ESL instruction, and with younger students in general.

    – YOU COULD SAY beating a child is a good teaching method IN CERTAIN CONTEXTS. Context is a troublesome word, both with and without meaning, or at least indicates such.

    Is the pyramid really so threatening?

    Reply
    1. davidtjones Post author

      We may have to agree to disagree on this point.

      That said, I do think there is a fairly fundamental flaw in your argument.

      The “one journal article” (leaving aside the other sources I mentioned) were actively searching for the research, for the evidence, the supported the creation of the learning pyramid. In particular, the version of the learning pyramid that has the percentages.

      It never found any evidence to support it! The simple way to respond to this is to provide the evidence to support the learning pyramid with its percentages.

      I agree somewhat with your proposition that a single journal article doesn’t provide an airtight case. I would argue, however, that most journal articles should create significantly greater confidence than anecdotal reports. Not the least because most journal articles should be quite clear about their methodology and hence provide the reader with the ability to identify the limitations and potential flaws of the research.

      As I’ve said above, the learning pyramid may provide a nice starting point for some, but it is an overly simplistic understanding of a complex issue. And sorry, but I have a problem with overly simplistic understandings.

      Even the Confucius quote you use in the following comment – a quote that I have used in presentations and papers – can be seen as overly simplistic representations of human memory and cognition.

      I’ve seen any number of people successfully do any number of tasks without forming any understanding whatsoever.

  9. Ryan Deschamps (@RyanDeschamps)

    I think there can be a significant gap between evidence as seen through systematic review and evidence as seen through experience etc. I would not defend to the death the structural validity of the pyramid, however i also acknowledge the degree to which practitioners need some model to improve the performance of employees, develop young readers, improve skills etc.

    What the pyramid does do is challenge the traditional university practice of lecture, lecture, lecture, lecture, paper, lecture, lecture, lecture, test (rinse with Spring break and repeat). In the 21st century, there is a bit of a crisis because the paper piece used to involve a high degree of critical thinking, searching, exposition etc. and now it’s Google, read, put to paper.

    In the end, the actions proposed are about the same. Use variety to encourage learning. Reinforce reading and lecture with workshops, activities and opportunities to engage — especially while helping students understand the application of the learning in the real world. For a practitioner, this is about all that I could ask for. It’s nice to have assumptions challenged and I thank you for the opportunity to read this analysis. THanks.

    Reply
    1. davidtjones Post author

      Thanks Karen. I look forward to reading it and commenting. For some strange reason my network connection is not liking your site. Am sure the gremlins will be removed sometime soon.

      David.

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  15. Tracy Leask Teyssier (@tateyssier)

    thanks for this – I feel like education is always jumping on the next idea, without always waiting for conclusive results – I heard a story lately that a member of administration had gone to a workshop, and liked the ideas put forth, and so had then decided (having the power to do so) that the entire district would be implementing the system – to the effect that some teachers were being put on “improvement” for not following it – the best teaching I’ve seen – the most effective and engaging – has come from teachers who read their room well and make a point of using different methods of content delivery and mastery – well duuuuh.

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      It’s a flaw not limited to education. Fads and fashions are a problem all over for management. But it does seem increasingly that education is becoming especially prone to it.

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  18. Tobi-Lee Vivian

    I am currently distance Ed for my Bachelor of Ed. I haven’t been in a learning environment for more than 20 years – it’s off topic a little but I note that my learning experiences have a far greater outcome being self driven than sitting in a classroom lecture – I don’t quite believe the pyramid although the argument that we learn more on the job sits well enough – I have found being mature than most students has given me a far greater advantage to be honest.

    I am so very pleased to have found this blog whilst researching for an assessment – ( love Tracey Leask’s comment)

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      G’day Tobi-Lee, I agree with your point about learning more on the job – since such learning is set in an authentic context and usually in response to an authentic need, possibly gives you an opportunity to talk and relate to others, trial different approaches. It’s the type of learning environment I try to create. I have for a very long time hated lectures as a learning tool.

      It’s the pyramid and other faddish type adoption of ideas – which is what Tracey was commenting about – which drive me a little crazy. Learning is to messy and complex to be captured with neat, simple ideas.

      Good luck with your BEd.

      David.

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