The Learning Pyramid

This is a graphic showing the effectiveness at retaining information taught using various different methods.

Notice that traditional methods of teaching, as used by many Universities are actually shockingly inefficient methods of teaching, with very little of the material retained.

Things do get better when the seminar (discussion group) style of teaching, as favoured in arts and social science subjects or the laboratory session (science and engineering subjects are taken into account). However, a great many university teachers spend a lot of time, rather unproductively assigning reading materials or talking in lectures.

So why is this? One reason is the innate conservatism present in academia. The present permanent staff in Higher Education Institutions were largely taught by this method, and they thrived in this teaching and learning environment. They are comfortable with it. They assume that all their students will also be comfortable with it. This was never true, and is getting even less true, as the numbers of students coming into higher education steadily increases. These days there will be large numbers who will not prosper in a lecture/reading type teaching environment. In former days, many would have gone onto technical or trade college, and learned a skill. These institutions, with a strong emphasis on the practical nature of their teaching were actually much more effective than then University environments at promoting retention of information.

Secondly, Higher Education at University level is unique in that the teachers do not need to have any teaching qualification to actually teach. They are hired as subject experts for the most part, and may, or may, not be good teachers. In many places, teaching is also not their professional focus, they are hired for research positions. Teaching is very much seen as a necessary evil. The very phrases used “Teaching Relief” and “Teaching Burden” which are often bandied about show the general impression of teaching. Nobody talks about “Research Relief” or the “Research Burden”.

Thirdly of course, are the financial implications, which we can see in the big institutional picture.

Lecturing and assigning readings are very, very cheap ways of performing a teaching task. One Professor can teach a large class and then administrative teaching targets have been satisfied. Nothing has been said about the quality of the teaching, or how much knowledge has been retained, of course, but the students have been sat on seats listening (or not) and so “teaching” has been seen to be done. Whether a lot of “learning” has gone on is questionable.

It gets even cheaper if the institution is able to hire a sessional lecturer (contract instructor) to do the course. These people (of whom I am one) are precariously employed on the fringes of academia. As an example, I am currently teaching a course in Introductory Physics. I lecture for 6 hours a week, set exams and assignments and will mark the final exam. For this, I get the princely sum of $6700. There are 134 students enrolled, and so if they pay $500 tuition each (an underestimate, as overseas students pay a lot more than home students), then the University has brought in $67,000 in tuition fees. I haven’t mentioned the grant money from the province of Ontario which covers 50% of the operating budget. In theory this means that the province is also contributing per student in my class too. In practice most of the money from the province does not go to support undergraduate teaching, although looking at the University books, you would be hard pushed to find out exactly what the money is being spent on. Now, the University also has to pay for the lab supervisor and teaching assistants who do the laboratory side of the course. So University finance LOVE using the inefficient lecture/reading methods.

Any of the other methods used to teach require a great deal more investment in personnel and equipment, some of which we have in place and some of which many campuses are hard put to provide. One example, demonstrations of experiments in class, a form of teaching I love doing, are impossible unless you have the technical support to set them up in advance and the classrooms close enough or preferably in their home departments, so that equipment can be transported easily. Centralized timetabling, with lectures held all over campus, may be an efficient use of space, but it doesn’t make for good teaching effective environments.

Similarly, laboratory sessions, or seminars require more people to look after the students — to give the students the attention they need, the groups need to be smaller. Once again, this makes the whole enterprise more costly. At the very least, large numbers of seminar rooms and specialized teaching laboratories need to be built, maintained and staffed.

I get around a few of these limitations by turning my classes into much more interactive sessions using classroom clickers and student discussions (sometimes called think –pair share). This introduces audio-visual stimuli, immediate use of the skill I have just talked about, and some learning by doing, in this case doing simple problems. But it is limited to fairly simple situations. I would love to be able to have a class of around thirty, where I can set them some more complex problems in groups and get the groups to share their work with other groups. That would be so much more effective and more stimulating for the students and for me. But that is certainly not going to happen, unless there is a sudden external force to raise learning standards. It is unlikely to come from within the University, as the status quo suits a lot of the present staff. But it might come from a provincial government determined to get better value for money out of its financial contribution to the University funds. It could also come from the students, who are being asked to pay large sums of money for their education, and quite frankly, are getting a raw deal from institutions which prize them for their usefulness in extracting money from the provincial government, but then teach them mostly with one of the least effective teaching methods ever devised.

It’s really quite astonishing that Universities actually pay very little attention to the research done in the methodology of how to teach effectively. Their priority is to do it cheaply and inefficiently. The main recipients of the education, and all the people paying for it should really sit up and take notice.

I was inspired to write this article by the Live Tweeting by Dr. Samantha Pugh, who was attending The European Conference on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Cork, Ireland (follow #EUROSOTL15 on Twitter).

The learning pyramid is from work carried out by the National Training Laboratories (NTL) for Applied Behavioral Science, 300 N. Lee Street, Suite 300, Alexander, VA 22314, USA. The percentages represent the average “retention rate” of information following teaching or activities by the method indicated. This diagram was developed in the early 1960s at NTL’s Bethel, Maine, campus, but the organisation no longer has or can find the original research that supports the numbers given.

In 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers was published in “Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching”, Edgar Dale Dryden Press, New York. Also see E. J. Wood (2004) Problem-Based Learning: Exploiting Knowledge of how People Learn to Promote Effective Learning, Bioscience Education E-journal, 3–5

Also see Janet Annett’s blog for other comments on this.