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The Learning Pyramid: A Tool to Improve Your Content Retention Rate

Post Synopsis: The learning pyramid lists the retention rate of various teaching / learning strategies based on their effectiveness. Higher the level of interaction and participation, more the level of retention. This post explores the various levels of the pyramid and ideas for effective implementation of teaching strategies.


Does this sound familiar: you spend several days creating the best content or course for your readers and students. But, most of your readers or students drop off your content (hello, bounce rate!) or course midway. Worse still, your readers and students don’t report benefiting from your content.

Here’s why: as an instructional content/course creator, you want your students to not only read and understand your content, but also remember it and apply it in the future. Not all teaching methods facilitate long-term retention but there are ways to improve the effectiveness using a multi-modal approach.

How to improve the retention effectiveness of your instructional content

How to improve the retention effectiveness of your instructional contentWhat is retention effectiveness?

What is your main objective when you write an instructional blog post or create video tutorial or online course? Most likely it is to bring about a transformation in your readers/students or to help them learn a new skill or up-skill in their area of work or interest.

For your teaching to be effective, your readers and students need to not only understand what you teach, but also remember it over a long period of time.

How your content registers in your audience’s minds for long-term use is the retention effectiveness of your content.

What factors affect the retention effectiveness?

There are a LOT of factors that affect retention and memory retrieval. Some of these include:

  • Demographics–is your content relatable to your audience?
  • Desire to learn–does your audience truly want to learn the content?
  • Learning style–what learning style does your audience prefer?
  • Trust–does your audience trust you?
  • Accessibility–is your content accessible to those with certain disabilities?
  • Distractions–is your content and delivery set-up distraction-free?
  • Length of content–is your content available in bite-sized chunks and is it an independent, standalone chunk?
  • Engagement–do you keep your audience engaged and interested in your content?

There are various learning theories, principles, strategies and best practices to address the problems associated with each of the aforementioned points. But one of the most important points in that list is Engagement.

A course that is monotonous and low on engagement has poor retention effectiveness. Imagine this: if your teacher kept talking without eliciting any response from you either via a demonstration or a discussion, would you be as interested in the subject 30 minutes into the lecture as you were at the start of it? Without eliciting some kind of response from the student, your content is doomed to fail.

In fact, the learning pyramid is a handy reference of various teaching strategies and their effect on learning and retention.

Related Post: How to Customize Your Online Content for Varied Learning Styles

What is the learning pyramid?

The Learning Pyramid is a representational graphic to understand the various teaching methods and their impact on retention effectiveness. This graphic was researched and created by the applied behavioral scientists at the National Training Laboratories.

Now, as with any study, there are those who agree and those who don’t. That said, I urge you to keep an open mind and consider the learning pyramid as an interesting study and insight into the types of assets that could enhance the level of your content or course.

Also, while reading these tips, please keep in mind that they apply to instructional content, i.e., assets you create to teach something to your audience. We are not discussing creative writing pieces in this post.

Let’s start.

How effective are the common teaching strategies listed on the learning pyramid?

Lecture

Let’s face it–most of us were put to sleep during long, passive lectures back in school and college. If you are a parent, you probably see that look on your kids’ face too when you “lecture” them 😉

Unsurprising then,  despite being the most popular form of “teaching,” lectures result in ONLY 5% retention.

One reason for such a low rate of retention is the sheer passiveness of it. However, this method of teaching continues to the popular because it is much, much cheaper than putting together assets that require more interaction–such as demo stations, workshops, etc.

Let’s talk about our world now–the online world.

Think about how a lot of webinars and FB Lives are conducted. Most of us use it to teach our students.

Many presenters continues “teaching” for a minimum of 30 minutes (but usually 1 hour) without eliciting any response from the participants.

What happens next?

Anyone?

Correct! The participants get busy browsing other websites while the webinar or live continues in the background.

Now think about this: you learn only when you pay attention. Listening to a lecture in the background while clicking through to other websites or completing other household tasks means your attention is divided.

The result: low retention.

So, what’s the solution?

What you can do instead is ensure that your webinar or live session includes activities for the audience…ask questions, add a fun pop quiz, include demos, use Hangout or Zoom sessions such that participants are visible (although this is difficult for larger audiences).

Get creative. Or, include some of the other teaching strategies listed below in your course/curriculum.

Reading

Another extremely common traditional teaching strategy, reading is as passive as lectures.

Except that you can escape it when you want, i.e. close the book or course or whatever you are reading from 🙂

It’s so passive that the retention effective of reading is just 10%.

You may think, “What?! I LOVE reading!” You do. You really do. You love reading stories–whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But what about technical manuals–do you LOVE reading those too?

Probably not.

But there’s a lesson to be learned: reading can still work if you teach through storytelling and interactions.

Remember people love stories. Without the story angle, consuming technical reading material is as good as sitting through a headache-inducing lecture.

Add interesting examples and anecdotes and you will instantly bring up the interest quotient. Add some activities and you take it up yet another notch. Remember we are talking about instructional content here…content that aims to teach.

Related Post: How to Increase Your Blog’s Readability Score

Audio Visual

Multimedia is the future.

With the advent of distance learning and the digital age, teaching strategies involving audio-visual elements are on the rise.

Compared to the passiveness of lectures and reading, audio and visual strategies are a breath of fresh air. These not only bring a much-needed variety into the mix but also bridges the gap between teachers and students.

Additionally, audio and video elements lift the quality of even the most passive content. As per the learning pyramid, learners remember 20% of your audio and visual content.

So, what kind of assets can you create as part of your audio-visual teaching strategy? Honestly, a lot!

Live or recorded video sessions on social media and course platforms; live or recorded webinars; recorded podcast episodes; representational graphics and images; etc. are all examples of audio-visual assets.

Note that this strategy is no more active than lectures and reading; it’s just prettier. Most courses that you may have gone through are examples of this strategy. You see the slide deck on your screen while the teacher is behind the screen explaining the content. So, in essence, it’s still a combination of lecture and reading but still helps break the monotony.

For more details on audio-visual elements, read this post on various learning styles.

Related Post: How to Grab Your Readers’ Attention

Demonstration

Have you heard this proverb: give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime?

The same applies to your instructional content.

When you teach your students HOW to do something or HOW a concept can be applied in real life, they will remember 30% of what you teach. That’s because this strategy is way more “active” than the previous strategies.

Being an active strategy, demonstrations eliminate the ambiguity inherent in passive strategies, lectures, readings, or even a interaction-free audio-video lecture.

Ideally, these demonstration are held in the real world, i.e. in classroom setting, workshops, seminars, etc. However, real-life demos are not everyone’s cup of tea purely from cost and logistics point of view. So, if you (and your students) are willing to spend time, money, and energy in organizing and attending a demo class or event, go for it!

Praise be to the digital age, you can now accomplish your goal via live and recorded video tutorials, screen sharing, and simulated animations.

Note that the demo strategy differs from the previously discussed audio-visual strategy in that these include real-life actions or actual demos rather than just video- or audio-based lectures.

Related Post: How to Create Memorable and Effective Instructional Content? (Part 1 of 2)

Group Discussion

Things are getting real now.

Have you ever thought why blogging conferences and retreats are so popular? I mean, they don’t come cheap and yet professional bloggers–both existing and aspiring–throng to these conferences.

The opportunity to hear your role models and biggest names in the industry is obviously a great temptation but the discussions and Q&As that follow offer immense growth opportunities.

According to the learning pyramid, you retain 50% of what you learn in a group discussion. That’s an amazing leap from the inactive strategies mentioned before. Ideas and learning are exchanged as a two-way transaction. Everyone pitches in at the right time to bring in new ideas or carry current ideas home.

So, go ahead, jump into your Facebook group and start a conversation; get on the phone with your students as a group and discuss this week’s assignment; schedule a Google Hangout session for a hot seat strategy session. Involve the group, invite them to speak their minds, encourage them to be an active contributor…and watch the engagement and success rate of your content go up, up, and up.

Show up!

Practice by Doing

Practice makes you perfect.

The good news is your students don’t need to spend 10,000 hours practicing the skills you teach to see significant results. They can accomplish much by practicing for far fewer hours. Sure, they may not become an EXPERT after taking your course (any course that promises to make someone an expert is a scam), but they WILL be mighty good.

Think of any professional…what makes them good?

Practice. Action. Commitment.

As per the learning pyramid, practicing a skill helps learners learn through discovery and it boosts learning retention by a whopping 75%. Teach them well and then whip out assignments; design a simulated environment; throw them in the deep end…and watch them swim their way out.

Related Post: How to Create Memorable and Effective Instructional Content? (Part 2 of 2)

Teaching Others

Everything you have explored in this post so far comes down to this–you learn and remember the most when you teach others.

When you teach others, a lot of things happen, including but not limited to:

  • You train your brain to focus more because the stakes are higher
  • You find better ways to communicate the content–think mnemonics, games, etc.
  • Every time you teach is also a “practice and execute” opportunity for you

…you get the idea.

This strategy is, in fact, so effective that according to the learning pyramid, students remember 90% of what they teach. That is HUGE!

So, as a course creator, what can you do to help your students leverage this strategy for their own learning?

The answer lies in…yes, building a community.

Whether you create a private Facebook / Slack group or you invite your students for an in-person summit, the options are aplenty. The end goal is to encourage and enable your students to leverage their knowledge to teach others. This knowledge could be part of the curriculum you teach or it could be supporting knowledge your students would benefit from.

Some ideas for you to enable your students to become teachers are:

  • Discussions in Facebook group where your students answer each others’ queries
  • Study groups, buddy system, or peer tutoring where your students help each other before coming to you for a solution
  • Masterclasses hosted by your students to share their learning

How will I know which strategy to use?

Consider the goal of your course–is it a skill-building or habit-building course or is it a knowledge building course? A skill-building course cannot be effective without adequate demos, practice opportunities, and discussions. A knowledge-building course can get away with having fewer application opportunities.

(In a post coming-soon, I will discuss the various levels of learning and how those levels also play a part in choosing your teaching strategy)

In the end, even if you want to disregard the percentages assigned to each level of the learning pyramid, what stands out is the need to include lessons that invite response and encourage interaction. Keep passive strategies to a minimum and active strategies to a maximum.


Did you find this post useful? Does this post somewhat change your initial course building strategy? If you have any questions, please feel free to drop a comment.

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How to improve the retention effectiveness of your instructional content

 

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