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The Learning Pyramid - The Myth Cheat Sheet by

learning     dale     pyramid     myth

History of the Learning Pyramid

Edgar Dale, an expert in audiov­isual education, created a model in his 1946 book Audio-­Visual Methods in Teaching that he named the Cone of Experience to discuss various modali­tie­s/c­hannels of imparting inform­ation. His cone did not refer to learning or retention at all, instead modelling levels of abstra­ction: words being the most abstract in his model, at the top of the cone, and real-life experi­ences the most concrete, and at the base of the cone (Lalley & Miller, 2007, p. 68).
From a post nyCandice Benjes­-Small, Head of Inform­ation Literacy and Outreach, and Alyssa Archer, Instru­ction Librarian at Radford Univer­sity.

Conceptual model took on a life of its own

Unfort­una­tely, this conceptual model took on a life of its own. While Dale included caveats in the several editions of his work that the Cone was a theore­tical model, and that multiple modes could apply to situations depending on the context, his work was ripe to be misused as a practical tool. As Michael Molenda notes, by the third edition of Audio-­Visual Materials in Teaching in 1969, Dale had to include a full six pages of discla­imers regarding the cone, titled “Some Possible Miscon­cep­tions.”

Despite Dale’s warnings, the Cone of Experience was misapplied and renamed the Learning Pyramid. However, there is no conclusive evidence to back up these average retention rates. How did this happen?

Who first came up with the retention rates associated with the learning pyramid is murky, but resear­chers have theories. Molenda (working with several sources) believes the develo­pment involved Paul John Phillips, an instructor working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Training Methods Branch during World War II. Phillips returned to work after the war to the University of Texas, where he trained members of the petroleum industry. The University of Texas records tie Phillips to the retention rates used in the pyramid. However, when Michael Molenda contacted both the University of Texas Division of Extension and the archivist at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, they could find no research regarding the percen­tages.

In Molenda’s history, the learning pyramid with retention rates was first published in a magazine article in 1967, by D. G. Treichler. The author included no citations or evidence to back up the retention rates, but Molenda suspects that they probably they came from Phillips, as he distri­buted training materials to the industry while at UT.

However, the current propagator of the learning pyramid is the unasso­ciated NLT Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, which claims to have research from the early 1960s which supports the pyramid, but has lost the evidence. Will Thalheimer points out in an excellent post on the pyramid, that this lack of evidence negates all credib­ility. Even if research were conducted at one time, we cannot trust it. The context has been lost, as well as the ability to retest the method and examine it for errors.

Dale's Original Cone

Looking at the original image: note that there are no percen­­tages listed, this is purely a theore­­tical model. Dale did not value one mode over another, but argued for a wide variety of modes depending on context (Molenda, 2004, p. 161). Resear­­chers speculate that Dale based the Cone on an earlier theore­­tical graph from 1937’s Visual­­izing the Curric­­ulum, by Charles F. Hoban, Charles F. Hoban, Jr., and Samuel B Zisman

Dale's Cone Enhanced

There is no valid statis­tical studies to back up the percen­tages assigned to the pyramid.

What’s the Harm?

The pyramid leads one to believe that mental activities themselves produce set amounts of learning. But this mindset fails to address the quality of the mental activity. A librarian might decide to implement a peer coaching activity because the pyramid says teaching others is the best way to remember something, but if the students don’t have the approp­riate knowledge, they will probably just end up confusing each other. You should never design a lesson just so students are “active.” As Bill Cerbin states in his essay on active learning research and it’s implic­ations for college teaching, “Active learning is most effective when the experience supports students to interact with and reflect on the subject matter in substa­ntive ways.”

Grains of Truth

So should we throw away the learning pyramid? Although we hope we have debunked the idea of that different methods of teaching will lead to set percen­tages of learning, we think this myth does address some valuable ideas:
1. Memory matters. One of the best ways to measure learning is to assess the retention of material covered. We should continue to survey the literature on memory and retention, such as the 2013 article, “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techni­ques: Promising directions from cognitive and educat­ional psycho­logy.”
2. Think multim­odal. As has been mentioned, Dale did not intend to create a hierarchy of mental activi­ties, but to suggest there was a continuum from which to choose. People’s attention spans are short, but they do tend to retain more when the instructor mixes it up: inters­persing short lectures with peer collab­ora­tion, or after reading a passage, intera­cting with an online tutorial.
3. Student engage­ment. The literature strongly supports that active learning exercises promote students thinking and caring about the material. This greatly aids retention, but it also helps lessen library anxiety and gives students a more positive feeling about the library sessions.

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