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May 21, 2012

Article: Everything You Think You Know about Learning Retention Rates is Wrong

We’ve all seen some sort of numbers or graphics depiction about how we retain what we learn. The story goes that we retain 5 percent of what we see/hear, 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent with a visual, 30 percent with a demonstration, and so on. The problem is – this is a fabrication. The root source of this information is attributed to Edgar Dale and while the cone of learning – where the hierarchy is covered — is his, it didn’t have percentages on it – and he cautioned about overly generalizing its use.

So why do we continue to see these set of numbers?  Most likely the problem is really that there hasn’t been good research studies on the effectiveness of different delivery modes in education.  There are some good reasons for this since changing the delivery mode means redoing the instructional design, and in doing so doubling the work. Further, instructional designers will have more experience with some modes than others leading to greater effectiveness at some forms of instructional design – and ultimately delivery.  That means that the instructional designer themselves may bias the results.

The other aspect is that the materials change so there’s no good way to do a direct comparison of effectiveness between two different modes – even if both modes are created by the same instructional designer.  That’s bad news when you’re trying to create a reliable study of how things differ because you have to eliminate as many extraneous variables as possible.

Of course, you have to deal with the fact that different kinds of content are more conducive to some delivery modes than others – try teaching someone how to ride a bike by writing it in text only.  Try to teach someone how to do math without written text.  So the type of message being conveyed must be isolated.

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