Many teachers and educators know of a learning pyramid that encapsulates the strongest and weakest methods of learning and knowledge retention, yet that insight isn’t known by most of the public. In this article we will explore how the learning pyramid works and what each tier means.
A learning pyramid with the average percentages of what humans remember. Image from VariQuest.
When students are presented with reading material, on average they only retain ten percent of the information. As low as this number is, the amount of schoolwork assigned that consists solely of reading is still too high. Reading work generally consists of students being told to read handouts, sections of or a whole book, and online websites, articles, etc. While teachers may sometimes require the student to annotate what they are reading, which slightly increases retention levels, the majority of this type of learning is ineffective, so why is this method of learning still commonly used? A student struggling to comprehend their reading material. Image from this Thought Co. article.
There are a couple of different reasons for reading being a common method of learning, one of which is teachers simply not being aware of the minimal effectiveness of this method. After assigning reading material teachers will often test students new knowledge through various activities such as tests, quizzes, worksheets, discussions, etc. Poor performance in these can oftentimes prompt teachers into thinking students did not complete the necessary reading or merely skimmed over it. Like most humans, a teacher’s first instinct will oftentimes be to blame others, and in this case the students, and not themselves. They simply don’t realize that it is the method of which they are teaching that is ineffective, not the students ability to learn.
In the next tier of the learning pyramid we have lectures. Lectures consist of both reading and hearing and have an average retention rate of twenty percent. As I am sure most of you have experienced, lectures consist of a teacher standing in front of the classroom and talking. Oftentimes, students will have a textbook open and may be taking notes. While this style can be fine, or even helpful for auditory learners, for the average student, this method is not very useful. Computer science professor lecturing in front of his class. Image from this Jobs.ac.uk article.
Lectures are still widely employed because of their simplicity. Teachers can prepare via a little research, an hour or so reviewing lesson plans and previously prepared material and may choose to write a script and that’s it. They have no more preparation to do for class. They do not have to research engaging activities they can use. They do not have to spend time finding or creating images, videos, animations, etc. for the lesson. Furthermore, since lectures are so common and widespread most teachers don’t see why they should employ different teaching methods when they must be working. They may see it as since so many students are passing their classes, and everyone teaches via lectures, then that must mean lectures are a good way to teach and therefore they should continue teaching this way. Additionally, many teachers are overworked or simply do not have the time to take lectures and transform them into engaging and educational activities.
When lectures are combined with visual aids, the memory retention rate goes up to thirty percent. Most lectures fall into this category, because the majority of teachers will have some sort of presentation open. Teachers will use images, animations, illustrations, etc. to provide background and to be used as reference points when lecturing. While this method of teaching is more effective than merely lecturing without any visual aids, it still provides little benefits to students’ retention ability.
Next we have demonstrations which have a 50 percent of knowledge retention average. Demonstrations are much more effective methods to get the point across than lecturing, as the students are able to experience/see the thing they are learning about. They don’t just have a theoretical understanding, but the knowledge of experiencing the topic in person. STEM demonstration in a classroom. Image from this Flickr page.
Though effective, demonstrations are not always used because of the complications of preparing them. There are many topics that cannot be taught via demos, and thus this cannot be a tool in the toolbox for many teachers. For the subjects that can be taught through demonstrations and exhibitions, many are hard to prepare. For example, learning about the feeding habits of an animal, the flammability of certain objects, how objects act in a vacuum, etc. may not be topics that are reasonable to demonstrate inside a classroom because of the potential dangers, cleanup time, and challenge to acquire the needed materials.
One of the most powerful methods to learn is through discussions and dialogue. Discussions force students to engage with the material in a thoughtful way. They do not get to simply write down every word they read or hear. They do not have the opportunity to zone off and start daydreaming. They will be required to interact with the material and will be tested on their understanding of the subject. This will not only force them to make their own conclusions and contributions, but also make sure that if they do not understand something, they have the time and place to ask and clarify.
Sadly, discussions are not a widely employed strategy, or at least not by them self. Many teachers do host discussions, yet not as the primary way of teaching material. They will often employ one of the previously discussed methods to share the knowledge and then use a discussion. This is still very effective, but had discussions been the primary method, they would have had more time to go over materials. For example, while a teacher may dedicate the first few minutes of class to reading an article and the rest to discussing its contents, they could have started out with the discussion and then provide the article as a supplemental reading for students to do on their own time.
Finally, at the bottom most tier of the pyramid, we have experiential learning. Students who learn through experiential learning remember ninety five percent of the information! Much like it sounds, this is when the students actually do something and gain experience. For example, as entertaining as watching hours of a baking show or playing others games might be, you won’t gain even close to the amount of insight as you would if you had chosen to spend that time creating those yummy treats or your own game.
Humans learn every day, and yet the majority of us don’t even know the best way to learn. It is my hope that you use your new knowledge from this article to improve your ability to learn and teach others in an effective way