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Top read of 2008: Modern myths of learning: You only remember 10% of what you read


Best General Feature 2008

You only remember 10% of what you read...don't you? Hot on the heels of Martin Shovel's expose of the Mehrabian misunderstanding, Donald Taylor sweeps away another myth.

There's an old maxim in training:

You remember 10% of what you read
You remember 20% of what you hear
You remember 30% of what you see
You remember 90% of what you do

It's easily remembered. It's widely repeated. It's completely wrong.

I was delighted when Martin Shovel recently exposed how Albert Mehrabian's work on communication is often misrepresented. (See chapter 11 of Max Atkinson's 'Lend Me Your Ears' for more on this). There are too many myths and half-truths in the world of learning. They deserve to be uncovered and we need to ask ourselves hard questions about why the learning profession seems to love myth-making so much.

"A glib, uncritical parroting of the unproven is not only useless in itself, it also risks painting learning and development as a mumbo-jumbo profession."

The 'you remember 10%' myth was brilliantly pulled apart by Dr Will Thalheimer in May 2006, when he exhaustively detailed how the myth was created. (A presentation (PPT file) by Tony Betrus and Al Januszewski of SUNY Potsdam did much the same in November 2002, but Thalheimer's posting seems to have had the greater impact.)

The beginning of Thalheimer's article is unequivocal:

"People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc."

He goes on to say that that information, and similar pronouncements are pseudo-scientific 'you remember' tosh.

Thalheimer is clearly angry.

He is right to be angry because a glib, uncritical parroting of the unproven is not only useless in itself, it also risks painting learning and development as a mumbo-jumbo profession, supported by nothing more than pseudo-scientific bunkum.

Dr Thalheimer's quest for the truth began when he saw this graph:

Look familiar? This graph or versions of the data are all over our field like a rash (see here, here and here for examples).

Despite the citation at the bottom, the graph does not appear in cognitive science. The cited author, Dr Michelene Chi, disowned it. Dr Thalheimer decided to look further.

He traced the first publication of the figures to D. G. Treichler, an employee of Mobil Oil Company, writing in 1967. However the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science has laid claim to the figures, saying they are based on research 'in the early sixties' and bizarrely adding that 'we no any [sic] longer have - nor can we find - the original research that supports the numbers'.

Thalheimer has pulled NTL's argument on this to pieces pretty convincingly, not least by pointing out that all the percentages are perfectly round: what research into human activity ever resulted in six different round numbers?

It's bad enough that a national body lays claim to these figures without any proof of their validity. It's worse that the erroneous 'research' is then misattributed to genuine academics such as Dr Michelene Chi to give it a gloss of respectability. Far worse though, is the unholy melding of these numbers to Dale's Cone.

Edgar Dale developed his cone in 1946. It ranges through 11 different audio-visual media of increasing concreteness: from visual symbols to direct purposeful experience. Here is the cone as reproduced by Thalheimer (and by Betrus and Januszewski) from Dale's book 'Audiovisual Methods in Teaching'

No numbers. No reference to what people see or hear. Dale's Cone is just a useful way of considering the impact of more or less abstract experiences on learning.

But then somebody, we don't know who, coupled Dale's Cone with the spurious non-data of Treichler. The result: a series of Technicolor pyramids, bar graphs and semi-circles. They look great. They are irresistible to those who prefer copy-and-paste to reflect-and-consider. And – because the original research doesn't exist, and Dale never used it anyway – they are all irredeemably, utterly wrong.

Here's a typical one, revealed as spurious by Betrus and Januszewski in 2002, and still on the Computer Strategies LLC website today:

Remember: the words inside the pyramid aren't Dale's. The numbers on the left aren't based on real research. The citation is spurious, and yet this pyramid, or versions of it, are commonly trotted out as 'Dale's cone of learning'.

The very worst of it? Some of these diagrams are produced by people who really should know better. Academic bodies such as North Caroline State University, services for educators such as, and one individual - working for the good of others - who put a lot of work into producing two different pyramids, with the specific aim of making the diagrams available for free, general use, under creative commons.

What does this tell us about our profession?

First, arguably, it tells us that we do not have a profession. A real profession would have more concern about what was acceptable data rather than adopting things uncritically because they look pretty. Also, sadly, it tells us that many people working and writing in learning and development don't seem to want to take the time to stop and think.

"We do not have a profession. A real profession would have more concern about what was acceptable data rather than adopting things uncritically because they look pretty."

Just look at those numbers: 10%, 20%, 30%. Do they seem at all likely? A moment's reflection says they don't. A questioning mind would ask what exactly is meant by, for example, '10% of what you read'. How was the experiment carried out? What period of time passed before retention was tested? How familiar were the individuals with the subject matter covered? What was their reading age? Was a control group used? But nobody has asked those questions, and so both the bastard off-spring pyramids and the graph at the beginning of this article have been repeated endlessly, gaining credibility with each repetition.

Betrus and Januszewski's presentation was in 2002. Thalheimer's post was in May 2006, and has been referenced many times online. And yet many in our field continue to trot out the same learning myth, because they can't be bothered to check their facts – in September 2007, for example, Suite101 gave us the full range of suspiciously round figures.

We have to ask ourselves a question. Do we want to work in a profession based on solid data, where evidence is assessed critically? If not, what do we expect others to think of the field of learning and development? If we want to work in a real profession, we need to look beyond the surface and to question and to check. How serious are we about L&D, and how seriously do we want to be taken? It's up to us.

Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning and Skills Group and the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at

Click here to read Martin Shovel's feature Mehrabian Nights: An informative tale about (mis)communication

Please note that this article first appeared on earlier this year.


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