NTL continues its delusions

It’s time to publicly vilify NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science for propagating the myth that learners remember 10% of what they read, 20% or what they see visually, etc. They continue to claim that they did this research and that it is accurate.

The research is NOT accurate, nor could it be. Even a casual observer can see that research results that end neatly in 5’s or 0’s (as in 5%, 10%, 20%, 30%) are extremely unlikely. To see a complete debunking of this hoax, click here.

Normally, I choose not to name names when it comes to the myths in our field. We all make mistakes, right? But NTL continues to harm our field by propagating this myth. Here is the document (Download NTL’s email)–the one they send to people who inquire about the percentages. At least five separate people have sent me this document after contacting NTL on their own initiative.

I have talked to NTL staff people and emailed them (over a year ago), and even with my charming personality, I have failed to persuade them of the problems they are causing.

The people who write me about this are outraged (and frankly confused) that an organization would propagate such an obvious falsehood. Are you?

Here are claims that NTL makes in its letter that are false:

NTL: 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.

Why false? There are NO numbers on page 43 of Edgar Dale’s book.

NTL: We are happy to respond to your inquiry about The Learning Pyramid. Yes, it was developed and used by 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.

Very Intriguing: How could NTL have developed the pyramid in the 1960’s, when a similar version was published by Edgar Dale in 1954? Professor Michael Molenda of Indiana University has found some evidence that the numbers first appeared in the 1940’s. Maybe NTL has a time machine.

NTL: Yet the Learning Pyramid as such seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.

No. It wasn’t attributed to NTL by Dale. Dale thought it was his. And again, Dale did not use any numbers. Just a cone.

Okay, so now half of you hate NTL, and the other half of you hate me for being the “know-it-all kid” from 7th grade. Well, I’ll take the heat for that. But still, is this the kind of field you want to work in?

And what is the advantage for NTL to continue the big lie?

Here’s what NTL should write when people inquire:

Thanks for your inquiry to the NTL Institute. Yes, we once utilized the “Learning Pyramid” concept in our work, starting in the 1960’s. However, we can no longer locate the source of the original information and recent research tends to debunk those earlier recommendations. We apologize for any harm or confusion we may have caused.

28 replies
  1. rebecca
    rebecca says:

    Will, I feel your pain. I have been fighting the same sort of fight in my University about learning styles and personality types. Several entire departments have their students take the Myers-Briges and base their teaching methods on the results. As our teacher candidates take these courses, we are fighting a losing battle. I will continue to read and email links to your page. It was interesting to hear comments when I sent the Learning Cone post. . .Thanks for for helping me by providing rational discussions of actual research. ‘mangine that!

  2. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Will,
    I wanted to use the stats from the Learning Pyramid in a promotional campaign. However, I was curious about how the numbers were derived so I started conducting a little research of my own and stumbled across your site. If the Learning Pyramid is a myth (and I suspect that it is) has there been any research done on learning retention and the senses since the sixties?

  3. Hilmi Yigit - Turkiye
    Hilmi Yigit - Turkiye says:

    Hi Will,
    thank you for the endeavour you have taken to sum up all the information. Like other people, I was going to utilize the concept in one of my trainings. Trying to find a better resolution picture and by the way some background info, I come across with your site. Interesting, though thousands of scholars work in social sciences in hundereds of universities, no other research finding which is easily transferrable to members as above.

  4. Julie Lowrie
    Julie Lowrie says:

    Will:
    Thanks for debunking this myth and showing what can happen when one statement or chart appears in an academic article, only to be repetitively cited as accurate in other articles until it becomes part of the landscape, even if it is completely inaccurate, as is the case here.

  5. Scott Meech
    Scott Meech says:

    Have you been given more feedback about this? Has anyone at any universities contacted you about this lately to dispute your findings?
    I was at a session today that is “grounded” in research. They used this pyramid and its percentages. Hmm… grounded in research!

  6. Tanya Straker
    Tanya Straker says:

    I too was looking to the source of these numbers before putting the information in my presentation and this article is helpful because now I won’t waste any more time looking. However I found the tone of the article righteous and unhelpful. The basic principle can be proven with a group of students and though I will make the point in my presentation that it is best to use different methods to communicate a message, the numbers would have grabbed the attention of the audience better than my general statements. Sure, I expect better from NTL but what I really need are the numbers not a diatribe about being right and how NTL and everyone in our industry is stupid. Just doesn’t help. And to Rebecca, maybe this whole issue proves that there is something to personality type. Maybe a certain personality is driven to substantiate research before reporting it!:) Anyway, thank you Will for your determination and this posting.

  7. Anthony Betrus
    Anthony Betrus says:

    I did a presentation on this subject a few years ago and have posted a link to it. I agree completely with you Will. I went a bit further in my presentation: Not only are the numbers not verified in research, they can NEVER be verified (as presented) because the percentages do not account for the learners prior experience, which has everything to do with which methods are appropriate (memorable) to use for a given group of learners.
    I’ve put a link to the complete presentation that I presented, along with Mike Molenda, in 2002.
    Would you like to help me update the Wikipedia entry on this subject? I’m sure Mike Molenda would be willing to help (my dissertation adviser!).
    In case the link doesn’t work, here it is:
    http://www2.potsdam.edu/betrusak/AECT2002/dalescone_files/dalescone.html.ppt

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  9. Lloyd R. Sherman
    Lloyd R. Sherman says:

    I see a different way of looking at the issues – The Learning Pyrmid fact or fiction? We expereince the world and carry out our lives accepting things as either essentially true or literally true. Most here argue the literal side of the matter. My take is that the construct in question is, in fact, essentially, true. We know it is true – even if we can’t prove it. There is no doubt in our experience that if students can “teach” each other and us as teachers, they have learned beyond knowledge received by passive absorption from dispensers. Viseral engagement of the mind and spirit in persuit of knowledge with the other (peer), has the highest possible yield per unit of time and the longest lasting per unit of time. Dyad Pedagogy – forever!

  10. Scot Aldred
    Scot Aldred says:

    Can you locate any large scale empirical studies that support or prove this model incorrect.
    If you can I’d be very interested to review these.
    Best,
    Scot.

  11. Bram Moreinis
    Bram Moreinis says:

    I have updated the research presented in the percentage diagram. While students retained 80% of what they learned “Doing”, it turns out they retain 130% when “Doing on a Computer.”
    Naturally, this information was not available in the 60s. Please update your records!
    -Bram

  12. Muralidhara Rao. B
    Muralidhara Rao. B says:

    For me, intuitively, the pyramid exists, if the sample is random and large enough. Perhaps there is no gain in fighting over the numbers/ proportions now; those things change over time, anyway.
    On a different note, a little bit of lazyness, intellectual laxity, naivity, defensiveness towards own acts are all human traits; NTL (and its members) can neither be 100% immune themselves nor change others 100% through training.

  13. Nicander
    Nicander says:

    Hi Will,
    I don’t have the time to read al the comments but I’ve been looking for the cone of experience/learning peramyd last week and found out the same as you did. Exept the fact that the cone of experience is presented withoud %’s in fact in the second printing it is on the 43 page. (dale, 1954) in the chapter about the cone is no % mentioned too.
    Thanks anyway for the rest of youre information, it has been very helpfull

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