Learning pyramid – myth, fact, or somewhere in between? #learningpyramid #onlineed

19 09 2015

When I asked my incoming high school science students to describe their favorite activity in science class,  the majority said “labs” (specifically, labs that involve fire and/or chemical reactions).  A handful of students each year, however, said “taking notes”.  In explanation of why they enjoyed that activity, they nearly always replied “because it’s easy – you don’t have to do anything”.  Yikes!

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay in which a researcher claims that learning by lecture is “an illusion of learning”.  I completely agree. [1]

I taught high school for seven years.  I’ve also taught college for 25 years, split relatively evenly between online and traditional course formats.  During my high school teaching years, I made it a point to rarely lecture for more than 15 minutes in any class period.  When teaching college, my face to face courses had a heavy lecture component and my online courses contained lecture videos.  The majority of my face to face college years were spent teaching non-traditional night courses – typically in 2.5 hour blocks.  It was not unusual for me to lecture for 75-90 minutes for each course, two courses back to back each day.  The students expected it, I was used to it – that’s the way college works?  Right?

No.  So much no.  I am a talented lecturer with an entertaining manner and a soothing voice (so my course evaluations say).  But, still – so much no.  Researchers have repeatedly claimed that passively watching lectures is the least effective way to learn.  It is truly just an “illusion of learning”.  We know this.  It makes intuitive sense. So, why do we do it?  Money is one reason – colleges can maximize income by putting a few hundred students in one room with one lecturer.  Another reason is “that’s the way it’s always been done”.


Learning Pyramid. Creative Commons License attributed within blog.

So, what works?  Those opposed to lecture as a primary learning tool typically use the “learning pyramid” to support their position. [2] The learning pyramid contains a variety of teaching and learning methods arranged hierarchically.  The pyramid claims that the least content retention occurs as a result of lecture and the most content retention occurs from teaching others.  However, the picture is not that clear cut.  The amount of retention, as determined by studies, depends on too many variables to give a strict percentage value for every situation.  Retention in a given situation depends on age, subject, prior learning level, and a host of other factors.

Some researchers have found that practice tests and distributed practice allow for the best method of retention.  [3] That would make sense if teaching to a test.  But, what about applied, long-term, retention?  Additional research supports the idea that repetitive practice also helps to facilitate long-term learning. [4] Perhaps that contributes to the “teaching others” portion of the learning pyramid?  After all, teaching others is, at its core, a form of repetitive recall of information.

During my time in grad school at the medical school at the University of North Dakota, the basic medical curriculum was switched from a lecture-based to a problem-based learning environment.  After graduation, I worked for a term as a facilitator in the 2nd year med student program.  That learning environment, born from research and maintained through a record of continued academic success, cemented my belief that a lecture-heavy curriculum was not the best learning environment.  However, I did continue to lecture in my own courses throughout the 90’s – primarily because of a pervasive “just tell me what I need to know” attitude among my students and evaluators.  As an adjunct, I was dependent upon student evaluations for my continued employment, and students of that time were fully invested in the “illusion of learning” that lecture provided.

Now, as the Millennial generation tide rises within higher education, the attitude towards lectures is beginning to change.  Millennial students have been raised on cooperative learning and “just in time” instruction.  If they need to learn to change a tire or bake a soufflé, they go to YouTube.  They have choices, and they want experiences.  Educational institutions that don’t meet their needs and work to their strengths will be sitting with empty lecture halls within the decade.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  The Socratic method of learning is at least as old as, well… Socrates. And, although, lecture didacticism can also trace its roots back to Ancient Greece, didactic presentation, in the Victorian era, came to be known as insulting – essentially, boring.  [5] So, why, all these years later, do so many schools still default to lecture halls holding hundreds of students?  Primarily, maximum bang for the buck.  Lectures aren’t about education – they are about money.  The best of them are highly entertaining – they pack in the students (and their tuition dollars).  During my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, there was a lecture course commonly referred to as “silly civ”.  The highly entertaining professor of that three credit humanities course was able to pack in over a thousand students.  Although I didn’t take that course, I did take biology in the same auditorium – with 700+ other students.  That’s some big bucks right there.

So, how do we do it differently?

A couple of years ago, I went through the process of taking a long, evaluative look at my curriculum and content.  I wrote an OER textbook for my Concepts of Biology course, switched the bulk of the points to discussion and the midterm and final to short answer format.  I made all of the unit multiple-choice quizzes short and repeatable – low stakes.  This year, my fall enrollment in that course more than doubled from last fall. It actually maxed out and went into overload.

This year, I am writing another OER textbook, this one for introductory pharmacology, also in combination with revised content.  Currently, my content in that course is presented through reading assignments and in batches of lecture videos, each 15-20 minutes in length (too long).  I am working through eliminating those long videos and converting the content to a series of shorter videos, animations, and interactive Articulate Storyline self-assessments.  It has become a massive project, but it’s an exciting one.  It’s time for a change.

Educators have known for decades that personalized, scaffolded, integrated, “just in time” instruction is the key to learning and retention.  The Millennial generation won’t just expect that type of education, they’ll demand it.  As they should.

  1. Wexler, Ellen. In Online Courses, Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching. http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/in-online-courses-students-learn-more-by-doing-than-by-watching/57365
  2. Atherton, JS. Learning and Teaching; Misrepresentation, myths, and misleading ideas. http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/myths.htm  (with Creative Commons license for image)
  3. Dunlosky, John et al. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi
  4. Karpicke, Jeffery D. and Roediger, Henry L. III. Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. http://memory.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2007_Karpicke_Roediger_JML.pdf
  5. Repp, Charles. What’s Wrong with Didacticism? http://www.academia.edu/2940819/Whats_Wrong_with_Didacticism



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