The Retention Pyramid... a myth?

The Learning Retention Pyramid is included in our 287 CITW training slides, and it’s a visual that I’ve used to facilitate a number of coaching conversations. There seem to be many visuals and representations of this pyramid or cone of retention, all looking something like this:


I was looking for some more information on this and guess what, I found a significant online footprint of educators who report that the pyramid is based on bogus data and highly corrupted. In other words, it’s another EdMyth. Here are a couple sources to this effect:

Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone

Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: Learning Retention Pyramid

The gist here is that the pyramid is a misused appropriation of Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience” that dates back to 1946. Apparently many of Dale’s cautions about the cone have not been heeded. The ed-bloggers linked above assert that “there is no body of research that supports the data presented in the many forms of the retention chart.”

Any thoughts here? Should the pyramid be in our CITW training? What other ways can we help teachers with lesson/unit design that incorporates evidence based instruction?

Take a look at this- and then let’s chat some more on this topic.

I would be interested in what you think…

Improving Student Engagement

I think what we do know is that many of our current practices in the classroom are NOT impacting student performance to give us the desired outcome we are looing for. THAT is something to talk about in our coaching conversations – and then when we DO observe practices that are impacting we capture what is happening and learn -

Some of our instructors are masters at their craft.

Wow, there’s a lot there. Quickly processing through the abstract and some of the headings, I’m not sure this research is on the topic of learning retention, specifically, as much as student engagement, more generally.

Let’s talk more about this. I feel like this is where the “Art of coaching” comes in.

Agreed! We’re working on this now.

Wow, this is a great discussion. Thanks for initiating it Ben. I would agree that we are using this learning pyramid out of context and without adequate evidence to support what it says.

The article from Retha is quite interesting. What I got out of it is that we need to find a way to create more community in our schools, especially between teachers, content area experts, and the students. One of the major points that is lacking in schools is a connection to the community and adult relationships. The statement: “Open, caring, respectful relationships between learners and teachers are essential to develop and support social and psychological engagement in learning.” sums things up pretty well.

What I see is not a problem in learning, but in “doing”. The students in my program seem to fail at proving their knowledge or creating a final product. The learning skills that we need to emphasize in today’s classrooms do not easily lend themselves to tests; however, even when students help design or co-create assessment criteria they seem to flop on the follow-through. In short, what I am seeing is not a lack of learning, it’s a lack of evidence of learning. There seems to be a general malaise or lethargy regarding the production of a final product, even one of the students choosing.

The Formative Assessments for Learning (AFL’s) sound great in theory, but are impossible to use in the classroom as a means of justifying a students progress to an outside observer. In the end, all teachers are accountable to the parents and public and anything short of definitive proof of learning will not cut it. I do love the idea of digital portfolios and how they could be used to essentially grade students and award credits.

I know this is a bit off topic from the retention pyramid but I enjoyed the article that Retha shared and thought that it brought up some interesting points.

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Interesting, and well worth digging into, for sure.

While I wouldn’t find it surprising that the numbers and specifics of the pyramid are suspicious, I think that research supports the gist of the pyramid: learning increases with engagement.

Going with that, one of the famous quotes I liked from one of my U of M Ed Psych classes was along the lines of “lectures are the least effective way of teaching anything.” The professor taught us this in his EdPysch class that was 100% lectures. And yet … I still remember it. :slight_smile:

Absolutely. I didn’t mean to suggest that the whole gist of it is wrongheaded. I personally have seen how students engage more when they are expecting to re-teach the content, for example. I think it’s obvious when you try different things in the classroom that some strategies have more impact than others, and so you look for research to inform and instruct what you are experiencing right in front of you. I just think it’s interesting that the pyramid graphic, itself, is faulty, and so I wonder if we should be using it.


I totally agree. If it’s pseudo-science/myth we shouldn’t be sticking it in our presentations.

I think that Mike brings up an interesting point. While everyone seems to try and dismiss lecturing as a way of teaching it does have its merits and does seem to work. I think that even the best laid student designed projects (like PBL) are still going to end up in some lecture style formats at different times.

I found thisgreat paper written in the journal Medial Hypotheses that discusses how lecturing can actually be effective. (I can email the full pdf if you are interested.) Some of the ideas behind this are that humans evolved with oral communication and stories being the predominant way to transfer knowledge whereas literacy is still a relatively modern cultural artifact. I’m not advocating for all lecture all the time, I just think that we need to stop vilifying it as an effective means to convey knowledge.

Good share, Rob. I laughed at the title “Lectures are such an effective teaching method because they exploit evolved human psychology…” But really, think about how engaging and inspiring the Jeff Duncan-Andrade keynote was at our welcome back. That was a lecture and I can remember in some detail much of what he talked about. Another keynote we had a long time ago was a man named Guy Doud. He was a deeply moving storyteller, and part of his message that really stuck with me was the idea that, when our students “grow up” and become adults, long after you taught them they won’t remember much of what you taught but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Good lecturing usually makes you feel something. Boring lecturing makes my eyelids weigh tons.


This is the “a-ha” of this thread for me.

I think it’s easy for us to lump “lectures” together with “explaining things” and think that both are the same and bad. I’d argue they are not and that they are very different things. It’s not the “explaining things” part of the lecture that’s bad, but rather their length and uni-directional nature.

Lectures in the sense of “a long series of uninterrupted informational points or explanations without an opportunity to review, practice, reflect on, or reinforce concepts” is generally a horrible way to teach anything.

However, short explanations as part of a learning experience that jumps back and forth from “mini-lectures” to “practice/review/experience/engage” has always felt hugely effective to me.

Wow, great thread. I notice this conversation is 10 months old. I guess it’s been too long since I’ve engaged with the Innovation Forum. :grinning:

I wonder about how students can demonstrate learning in PBL environments beyond a paper and/or presentation? I’ve had a few create an artifacts and write songs, but the easy fallback is a presentation. I think there is value in having students stand and deliver a presentation to their peers, even though sometimes their peers may not be as interested or excited about their lecture as the one presenting, or the proud teacher listening to the presentation/lecture. I think the value in creating a presentation/lecture is that you essentially become the teacher and maybe that in itself moves you down the Retention Pyramid into a higher percentage.

I also think college professors continue to lecture and students are expected to retain the information from the lecture. Maybe there is value in taking good notes on presentations/lectures. I like the AVID note taking strategies because students learn to ask questions, summarize content, learn vocabulary, and create art and doodle with a purpose.

We were talking about this in the PBL Subcommittee the other day, within the context of defining PBL parameters that funnel teachers and students into more traditional academic projects instead of broadening the experience into something more creative. In other words, maybe shifting students away from the “presentation” model of demonstrating learning can be best achieved at the beginning of the project, when the essence of the project is defined.

For example, so many PBL examples I see are about analyzing the water in a nearby (insert body of water) and making a presentation about was found and potential solutions. That’s a typical problem-research-solution PBL project that works well, but leans toward the academic presentation as assessment/demonstration of learning.

If a class instead took an initial Design Thinking approach to PBL, where the emphasis is on building prototypes that solve problems or improve situations, might that help? So the defining requirement from the start is that the final result must be a “thing” of some sort that solves a particular problem. It’s messier, and starts to connect to Makerspace type of experience in many cases, but maybe that change in environment is needed to shift the thinking?

I like the idea of doing something different with PBL to change the thinking and broadening the experience into something more creative. Building prototypes or brainstorming problems to improve situations both sound worthy of investigation.

I wonder how PBL could look in an online course? Do you know of any NSO units using PBL as part of the course?

Not yet, the plan for world languages is to do this at levels 3-5.