Learning Pyramid Research Paper

We might as well cut to the chase. The Learning Pyramid that we know and love apparently has no basis in either fact or research.

I found this out from one of my Adult Education professors last spring. I began this blog as a project for her class and was required to do a presentation about it at the end of the semester. I planned an engaging activity that helped my classmates from other fields understand how frantically busy museum educators can be; how our day is not always our own and we never have enough time to continue our own learning about learning. After that I launched into a description of the blog itself as a way for busy museum staff to keep up on the latest academic research on education topics. Imagine my horror, then, when the professor looked at the image of the Learning Pyramid on my first blog post and gently informed me that it had been discredited. On one hand, it proved my point about how easy it is to be out of touch with new education research while working in the museum education field. On the other hand, it was a bit embarrassing to find out that I had spent years propagating a myth while training museum educators and interpreters.

I felt slightly better when I began looking into the controversy and discovered researchers didn’t start poking holes in this beautiful triangle until around the mid-2000’s. So I’m only 6 or 7 years out of date. That’s not too pathetic, I guess.  I found several sources on the subject, which ranged from academic papers to blog posts by academics and consultants.

To start with, the two authors of “The Learning Pyramid: Does it Point Teachers in the Right Direction?” (Lalley & Miller, 2007) took a methodical approach and deconstructed the pyramid piece by piece. By gathering information from numerous educational studies that tested the various methods listed on the pyramid, Lalley & Miller concluded that each method could be equally effective for long term learning retention depending on the circumstances and previous knowledge of the learner. They also argued that it would be near impossible to construct an empirical research project that could accurately measure the differences in all of the methods listed at once, much less come up with the nice neat percentages attributed to learning retention.

In fact, it seemed to the be the nice neat percentages that triggered initial skepticism in academic researchers familiar with the messiness of data collection and analysis. According to Lalley & Miller (2007), an unidentified member of the Academic Computing Department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina wrote to the National Training Institute (NTL), the organization credited with creating the Learning Pyramid, to request information about the original research. The statement below, which was quoted or referenced in every article I read on the subject, is the response from an unidentified person at the NTL:

It was developed and used by the NTL 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 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 the NTL Institute.

Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience

That the Learning Pyramid seemed to be based on Edgar Dale’s work in education could be one reason no one looked too closely at whether the numbers were accurate for decades. Edgar Dale was a highly respected professor at Ohio State University who published numerous books on education during his long and distinguished career. The structure and content of the Learning Pyramid appears to have been influenced by Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. This diagram (see left) suggested multiple methods of engaging students to help them learn new material, ranging from abstract at the top to concrete at the bottom (Lalley & Miller, 2007; Letrud, 2012). However, Dale never claimed that one method was better than the others, and never ascribed learning retention percentages to any of the methods (Lalley & Miller, 2007; Letrud, 2012). Indeed, the 1954 version of the cone does not include learning retention percentages as claimed by NTL (Latrud, 2012; Thalheimer, 2007). Neither does the 1946 or 1969 versions published in Dale’s books (Lalley & Miller, 2007; Letrud, 2012; Thalheimer, 2007).

Citing previous research, Letrud (2012) concluded that the Learning Pyramid was actually “a synthesis of two separate and untenable ideas (p. 121)” – the Cone of Experience and an earlier learning retention chart. This particular chart ascribed percentages to “reading, seeing, hearing, saying and doing” and was published several times between 1906 and 1940 (Letrud, p. 121). However, Letrud did not include an image of this chart in his/her paper so I can’t show you what it looks like. Education consultant Will Thalheimer (2007) proposed, based on research by Indiana University professor Michael Molenda, that the learning percentages were possibly developed in the 1940’s by Paul John Phillips who worked at the University of Texas Austin and taught Visual Aids for the U.S. Army at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds during World War II. So the mystery of where the learning retention percentages first originated remains under debate. The NTL can’t prove they developed them, and the skeptics can’t definitively prove where else those statistics might have come from.

Skepticism turned into downright peevishness for some folks who felt they and everyone else in the education field had been duped. PhD student David T. Jones (2009) referred to the Learning Pyramid as a “hoax” in his blog post on the subject and considered its use to be “destructive (p. 2).” Although overall he presented his argument and documentation in a reasonable manner and allowed the reader to decide for themselves. Will Thalheimer (2006), however, was a bit more miffed. He decimated the Learning Pyramid and similar learning retention graphs in his blog article. He noted the numerous modifications to the image over the years (go ahead – google “Learning Pyramid images” and marvel at all the variations), as well as many “fraudulent citations (p. 4)” by people who have used the Learning Pyramid to support their own theories or systems. He referred to these educators as “shysters” who clearly intended “deception (p. 4).” Personally I feel that language is a bit strong for what appears to have been an intellectual game of telephone over the decades, with no one checking anyone’s previous citation for accuracy and everyone adding their own touches to the concept. Then again, I freely admit I tend to be naïve.

Confirmation Bias

So why would this game of intellectual telephone go on so long and spread so widely? What is it about the Learning Pyramid that appeals to so many educators? Why do you find yourself perhaps resisting the information I’m sharing right now? Because in our heart of hearts, we “feel” it to be true. As educators in an alternative learning environment, we believe strongly that hands-on, interactive, participatory, concrete – or whatever you call them – activities engage our visitors on a deeper level and help them understand the subject matter of our institutions better. We all have our own intuition and anecdotes to support these beliefs. So naturally we like anything that tells us our methods of education are the best for learning. The scientific term for this is confirmation bias, or “the tendency to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and to reject evidence that contradicts them (http://grammar.about.com/od/c/g/Confirmation-Bias.htm).”  Because it is extremely difficult to evaluate museum programs for long term learning retention, our “evidence” and “beliefs” are often the same thing, and we rarely have contradictory data to challenge them.

Now, there are supporters of continuing to use the Learning Pyramid as a helpful instructional concept. In her blog education consultant Karen Hume gave teachers credit for being smart enough to not take the Learning Pyramid too literally. Instead she believes they use it to support “the idea that active forms of learning are better than passive ones (p. 3).” Even Lalley and Miller suggested that the methods on the Learning Pyramid could be considered “as on a continuum as opposed to in a hierarchy (p. 75).” However, now that you know its provenance, you should be wary of utilizing a Learning Pyramid model that includes learning retention percentages. If they can’t find the original pudding, then there is just no proof.  I know, I know. I’m sad too. It’s like discovering that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

References: (N.B. I’m using the format stipulated by the American Psychological Association. So it’s really okay if the title words are not all capitalized. Really.)
Hume, Karen (9/21/2011). In “Differentiation.” http://karenhume.ca/the-learning-pyramid/

Jones, David (10/11/2009). The learning pyramid: true, false, hoax or myth? The weblog of (a) David Jones: A pessimistic optimist’s journey through learning, teaching and technology. http://Davidtjones.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/the-learning-pyramid-true-false-hoax-or-myth/

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

Letrud, K. (2012). A rebuttal of NTL Institute’s learning pyramid. Education, 133(1), 117-124.

Thalheimer, Will (5/1/2006). People remember 10%, 20%…Oh really? Will at Work Learning: Will Thalheimer’s research-based commentary on learning, performance, and the industry thereof. www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html.



Like this:


The Myth:  The image Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning is so tempting. For those of us who are advocates active learning, it visually tells us that talking at people, lecturing, just isn’t enough. We do better as teachers and trainers if we let learners see, hear, experience, try and teach it back to others. But here are the problems with this model, first introduced by Dale in 1946:

  • Somebody added those very neat percentages sometime later
  • The model could never be  substantiated by research findings
  • It’s not so linear as presented – adding “hear and see” over “read” cannot be relied upon add to learning by another 10 or 20%

The Mystique:  Why do we like it so?

The Metiri Group did a study that was commissioned by Cisco in 2008, called “Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says.” This meta-analysis examines the myth of The Cone and suggests,

The person(s) who added percentages to the cone of learning were looking for a silver
bullet, a simplistic approach to a complex issue. A closer look now reveals that one size does
not fit all learners. As it turns out, doing is not always more efficient than seeing, and seeing
is not always more effective than reading. Informed educators understand that the optimum
design depends on the content, context, and the learner.”

The paper goes on to explore types of memory, the science behind how people learn, the impact of “Interactive Multi-modal” learning over “Non-interactive Uni-modal” approaches, and concludes:

The reality is that the most effective designs for learning adapt to include a variety of media, combinations of modalities, levels of  interactivity, learner characteristics, and pedagogy based on a complex set of circumstances. In general, multi-modal learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, uni-modal learning. Adding visuals to verbal (text and/or auditory) learning can result in significant gains in basic and higher-order learning. The meta-analytic findings in this report provide insights into when interactivity augments multi-modal learning of moderately to complex topics, and when it is advantageous for students to work individually when learning or building automaticity with basic skills.”

Does the Pyramid point us in the right direction? Yes and No.

This is the question that James Lalley and Robert Miller explore in their paper, “The Learning Pyramid: Does it Point Teachers in the Right Direction?” published in Education in 2007. After concluding that the Cone of Learning (with those percentages) cannot be proven, they move on to examine the more credible research available on these various learning methods. Though not intended to be comprehensive, they wished to determine if each of the identified methods do result in improved learning retention.

No. . .

After looking at each method in turn, direct instruction (lecturing), reading, audio-visual, demonstration, cooperative learning, practice by doing, and teaching other, they concluded:

… 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. A paramount concern, given conventional wisdom and the research cited, is the effectiveness and importance of reading and direct instruction, which in many ways are undermined by their positions on the pyramid.”

The key points here are:

  1. “Lecturing” does not fully encompass the Direct Instruction in which teachers now engage.  Teacher-facilitated learning, has experienced a paradigm shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the side,” whereby teachers incorporate active listening, coaching, mentoring and facilitation. Dale’s Cone of Learning does not adequately capture this new reality.
  2. “Reading” is now seen not only as an effective teaching method, but as the main foundation for becoming a life-long learner, and is therefore a critical component of a learning experience.

And Yes. . .

If we were to draw any conclusion based on the pyramid, it would be that the methods be thought of as on a continuum as opposed to in a hierarchy. . . . 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.”


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