The Learning Pyramid is a methodology that identifies the different ways of learning, and measures as a percentage the effectiveness of each method in terms of an individual retaining the knowledge they have learnt. In broad terms, it gives lower percentage effectiveness to passive forms of learning (lectures, reading) and much higher percentage effectiveness to active forms of learning (group discussion, practice by doing). The model is commonly shown in visual form as a pyramid – the active forms of learning with high percentage learning retention make up the base of the pyramid and the passive forms of learning with low percentage learning retention make up the tip.
The Learning Pyramid idea was first mentioned by Edgar Dale, an expert in audio-visual education, in his 1946 book ‘Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching’ where he named the different modes of imparting information as the ‘Cone of Experience’, here using a cone as the visual representation.
This was developed in to the concept of ‘The Learning Pyramid’ by the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioural Science (NTL) at their main campus in Bethel, Maine, USA, following research and study in the early 1960’s. This methodology has since been used as a framework for many forms of educational design, including in the area of Continuing Professional Development (CPD).
How does The Learning Pyramid work?
As established, The Learning Pyramid recognises the different learning methods and evaluates their percentage effectiveness in terms of learning retention. This is displayed visually as a pyramid but is broken down as follows:
- Lecture (5% Retention) – This is defined as the most passive form of learning as a student sits back and receives this with no requirement to display any understanding or application of the knowledge. However it is the most effective way to deliver a lot of information to students quickly.
- Reading (10% Retention) – Although still passive, reading is considered a slightly more effective mode of learning in that a student can regularly refer back to the material as a reference and can also potentially highlight key sections of learning.
- Audio-visual (20% Retention) – With the growth of digital technology and digital learning, this has become an increasingly common mode of learning. Although still defined as passive learning, it is considered more effective in that it incorporates other learning elements. It is most often still a lecture, but using visual tools (Pictures, Handouts, Flipcharts, Slideshows, Projections and Videos) which are considered to enhance learning retention.
- Demonstration (30% Retention) – Demonstration is considered the first active method of learning in The Learning Pyramid. In short, it means a teacher showing a student something on a practical step by step basis. A common working example is teaching how to change a flat tyre. It is much more effective to show this in practice than to simply describe the process.
- Discussion (50% Retention) – This is sometimes also referred to as Co-operative learning. This involves a larger group being broken up in to smaller groups to actively engage with a subject. Listening to others giving their interpretation of learning allows an individual to consider their own understanding of the subject. This develops their critical thinking and deepens knowledge retention.
- Practice Doing (75% Retention) – This might also be referred to as ‘hands on’ experience. It is considered one of the most effective learning methods as it allows an individual to apply their knowledge in practice. Practical application helps to recall information in the long term, leads to deeper critical thinking and understanding of knowledge and therefore higher learning retention. Returning to the flat tyre as an example – in terms of knowledge retention, it is even more effective to practice changing a tyre oneself than to watch a demonstration of the process.
- Teach Others (90% Retention) – This is considered the highest method of learning retention on The Learning Pyramid. In order to pass on knowledge to others, an individual must have a thorough understanding of the concepts and details around a subject, and are therefore easily able to recall it. It is also considered that the act of engaging with students and responding to questions, deepens an individual’s critical thinking and cements their knowledge retention.
In practice, much teaching and education will blend or build the different methods of learning listed in the pyramid and not focus on one form. A lecture for example may develop to group discussion and the practice of doing. The Learning Pyramid helps highlight the value of different forms of learning and provides a framework for the design of educational content.
This framework and the different forms of learning are reflected in the area of CPD with the recognition of Structured CPD, Reflective CPD and Self-Directed CPD (CPD Explained).