What is the learning pyramid

6 Mar

Georgia Southern University describes the “Learning Pyramid” in The Seven Principles of Good Practice:

 “The Learning Pyramid

The Learning Pyramid. The learning pyramid originates from the National Training Laboratories (NTL) for Applied Behavioral Science, 300 N. Lee Street, Suite 300, Alexander, VA 22314, USA. The percentages represent the average “retention rate” of information following teaching or activities by the method indicated. In fact this diagram was originally developed and used by NTL in the early 1960s at NTL’s Bethel, Maine, campus, but the organisation no longer has or can find the original research that supports the numbers given. In 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers had appeared in a book, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press, New York. Bligh (1998) gives some evidence for the effectiveness of different teaching methods.” Source: Problem-Based Learning: Exploiting Knowledge of How People Learn to Promote Effective Learning by E. J. Wood in Bioscience Education E-Journal, Vol. 3 http://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/journal/vol3/beej-3-5.htm                                                                                                                      The Seven Principles


Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post article, Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong:

A lot of people believe that the “learning pyramid” that lists learning scenarios and average student retention rates is reliable. Here’s cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham to explain why it isn’t.  Willingham is professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His newly published book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog….

So many variables affect memory retrieval, that you can’t assign specific percentages of recall without specifying many more of them:

  • what material is recalled (gazing out the window of a car is an audiovisual experience just like watching an action movie, but your memory for these two audiovisual experiences will not be equivalent)
  • the age of the subjects
  • the delay between study and test (obviously, the percent recalled usually drops with delay)
  • what were subjects instructed to do as they read, demonstrated, taught, etc. (you can boost memory considerably for a reading task by asking subjects to summarize as they read)
  • how was memory tested (percent recalled is almost always much higher for recognition tests than recall).
  • what subjects know about the to-be-remembered material (if you already know something about the subject, memory will be much better.

This is just an off-the-top-of-my-head list of factors that affect memory retrieval. They not only make it clear that the percentages suggested by the cone can’t be counted on, but that the ordering of the activities could shift, depending on the specifics.The cone of learning may not be reliable, but that doesn’t mean that memory researchers have nothing to offer educators. For example, monograph published in January offers an extensive review of the experimental research on different study techniques. If you prefer something briefer, I’m ready to stand by the one-sentence summary I suggested in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”: It’s usually a good bet to try to think about material and study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/03/06/why-the-learning-pyramid-is-wrong/

See, Myths and Misconceptions                              http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/myths.htm

Lalley and Miller questioned the value of the “Learning Pyramid” in their 2007 Education article, The Learning Pyramid: Does It Point Teachers in the Right Direction?



The Learning Pyramid: Does It Point Teachers in the Right Direction?


Lalley, James P.Miller, Robert H.


Teaching MethodsExperiential LearningTeacher RoleAbstract ReasoningEducational TheoriesDiscovery LearningRetention (Psychology)


Education, v128 n1 p64-79 Fall 2007

Peer Reviewed:



Project Innovation, Inc. P.O. Box 8508 Spring Hill Station, Mobile, AL 36689-0508. Tel: 251-343-1878; Fax: 251-343-1878; Web site: http://www.projectinnovation.biz/education.html

Publication Date:




Pub Types:

Journal Articles; Reports – Descriptive


This paper raises serious questions about the reliability of the learning pyramid as a guide to retention among students. The pyramid suggests that certain teaching methods are connected with a corresponding hierarchy of student retention. 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. The Cone was designed to represent the importance of altering teaching methods in relation to student background knowledge: it suggests a continuum of methods not a hierarchy. While no credible research was uncovered to support the pyramid, clear research on retention was discovered regarding the importance of each of the pyramid levels: 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. A key conclusion from the literature reviewed rests with the critical importance of the teacher as a knowledgeable decision maker for choosing instructional methods. (Contains 3 figures.)



The criticism of the “Learning Pyramid” centers on the rigid assignment of teaching methods which correspond with a hierarchy that too rigid and static. The “Learning Pyramid” may be a beginning point for assessment, but is not the be all.

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One Response to “What is the learning pyramid”


  1. The use of standards-based grading is growing | drwilda - April 3, 2013

    […] What is the learning pyramid                                             https://drwilda.com/2013/03/06/what-is-the-learning-pyramid/ […]

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