Don’t count on the ‘cone of learning’


The “cone of learning, aka the “learning pyramid” or the “cone of experience” is popular — and unreliable — writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in Cone of learning or cone of shame?

Many variables affect memory retrieval:

what material is recalled (gazing out the window of a car is an audiovisual experience just like watching an action movie, but your memory for these two audiovisual experiences will not be equivalent)

the age of the subjects

the delay between study and test (obviously, the percent recalled usually drops with delay)

what were subjects instructed to do as they read, demonstrated, taught, etc. (you can boost memory considerably for a reading task by asking subjects to summarize as they read)

how was memory tested (percent recalled is almost always much higher for recognition tests than recall).

what subjects know about the to-be-remembered material (if you already know something about the subject, memory will be much better.

Taking practice tests and spreading out study sessions is effective, researchers conclude. In Why Don’t Students Like School?Willingham advises: “Try to think about material at study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later.”

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  1. Rather odd, though, that the ones who whine about “drill and kill” would make the claim that student retention rate is 75% for “practice doing.” What’s their excuse – “It’s supposedly the second best instructional tool available, but it’s boring as all get-out, so we just won’t utilize it”?

    • Drill and Kill is the way I learned the basic math facts, and many other things. If the Cone of Learning is anything like the Cone of Silence (Get Smart) we’re all doomed 😛

  2. cranberry says:

    If you swap reading and lecture, you’d have a dandy summary of the amount of time necessary to learn set facts. Reading is more efficient than listening to a lecture, which in turn is more efficient than an educational video, etc.

    If you repeat the same things enough times, eventually most people will “get it.” Unfortunately, people vary in how many repetitions they must endure before grasp a fact. If you understand something after reading the textbook, why must you also watch a film, do a group project, and tutor other students on the same small group of facts? Is that not a waste of time for the student who understood it the first time?

  3. This criticism of the Dale’s Cone of Experience (or the cone of learning, or learning pyramid) is very very old. It’s a good criticism; you can read in the literature from 2006 a very thorough debunking –

    So naturally, I wonder why Dan Willingham is harping on this now, or why his column was deemed worthy of reblogging. Nobody of any reputation is using the cone; it looks to me like someone is attacking a straw man somewhere.

    It should be noted that debunking Dale’s cone is in no way evidence in favour of direct instruction nor evidence against practice-based pedagogies. There’s plenty of evidence in favour of practice, such as reported just this week.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “Teach others” — assuming that it’s not meant solely in a motivational sense — is only good for learning once you’ve learned the stuff to begin with.

    Ditto with Practice.

  5. This sounds like an attempt to justify the elimination of lecture and reading from the instructional toolkit and it sounds as if what they call practice isn’t what kids/adults used to do to learn math, science and much more. It has all of the favorite timewasters; audiovisual, demonstration, lots of talk and “teaching” – and it’s all “discovery” and “authentic learning”. Give me a lecture (questions allowed), a book and solving problems with paper and pencil and I’m happy. Ditto for my kids.

  6. Cranberry says:

    I notice the pyramid has no categories for Summarize, Analyze, Extend to Other Spheres, nor Create Something Inspired by Original.

    So, a student who read Caesar’s writings and WWII records, and created an analytical paper comparing Caesar to Patton would learn nothing? Mere reading after all. Would that fall under Discussion? Teach Others?

  7. [email protected] says:

    I had some consultant who used this. I never got the chance to ask “how come the percents are perfect?” I decide it made up and not tested.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Change “discussion” to, “I don’t get it, what was it again?” and reduce the percentage and you get what I recall as a private.

  9. It is colorful.