The Pyramid of Learning: Fact or Fiction?

September 30, 2022

Everyone who is involved in education (studies) has probably already heard of the Pyramid of Learning. Have you? It is a very logical model based on evidence, favouring active learning over passive learning. It’s fair to state that everyone can agree on this, right? 

If you have never heard of the Pyramid of Learning, let’s dive into it for a bit. Studies show that varying your study methods and materials will improve your retention and recall of information. This will enhance your learning experience. The Pyramid of Learning, sometimes referred to as the Learning Pyramid, is often attributed to Edgar Dale or the National Training Laboratory [NTL] (Maine, USA). It suggests that most students only remember about 10% of what they read, but retain nearly 90% of what they learn through teaching others. The model suggests that some methods of study are more effective and that varying these methods will lead to deeper learning and long-term retention. You can see the visual below. 

Active learning methods

As you can see, the more active your learning method is, the more effective it becomes. However, we shouldn’t assume that just because this model suggests that lectures are the least effective study method for retaining information, that they aren’t important. Each of the learning methods are important. Even if it’s harder to remember everything that is taught during a lecture, the notes you take are vital to your ability to participate in a discussion later on, or teach the material to others for that matter. The variation of study methods will yield the best results for you. 

However, it is important to be sceptical about the Pyramid of Learning. By now, you’ll probably have thought Oh wow, that’s right! I’ve never thought about it like that before! The Pyramid of Learning must be the way forward!’. As an educationist, do you really believe that the learning retention rates for a 10-year-old boy studying mathematics in Brazil are identical to those of a 60-year-old woman studying English Literature as a second language in Japan, and are identical to a 24-year-old Ivy League Engineering student as well? Right. Ask yourself if you really remember 90% of all that you’ve learned simply because you taught it? Based on this model, every teacher in the world should remember 90% of everything they have ever taught. 

Remember how we also mentioned that it’s attributed to the NTL? Starting from 1913 until the mid-20th century, there were variations of the percentages of the learning retention rates going around. They were provided by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company. Later, during the 1950s and 1960s, the NTL produced their own chart with their own figures and the Pyramid of Learning became attributed to them. Yet, they’ve already stated that the original research on which the model is based has never been found

Combining multiple learning styles

It is safe to conclude that the Pyramid of Learning is a learning myth. As mentioned before, the best results come from combining multiple learning styles. We figure that by now you’re probably wondering how it happened that this model has become so widely accepted and often cited in research? Hasn’t anyone researched this model properly? Well, they have … There have been several papers published that refuted the model, but they have been (wrongly) cited as evidence supporting the Pyramid of Learning. How could that be? It is difficult to know why the citing of refuting sources is happening. It may be that researches are only reading the abstracts, or find it in an article and then don’t read any of the text surrounding it. Another possible issue is researchers often use academic euphenisms such as ‘Scientific sources for the construction of this pyramid are debatable.’ or ‘These exact percentages are widely debated.’ (Masters K., 2019). 

Hopefully we will be able to bust this learning myth once and for all, but it might take some time as “evidence” is all around. If you are more interested in learning about how to best retain information, don’t hesitate to contact us! We’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you may have! 

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