People DON’T remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, or 30% of what they see

You’ve probably encountered the claim that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, etc. It’s linked to an idea called the Cone of Learning (which you’ve probably seen, but there’s a picture above in case you haven’t).

Well, as it turns out, not only is that data half a century old but no one can remember exactly where it came from. Funny story!

Evidence Against The Numbers

It’s not exactly that there’s evidence against these ideas. It’s more like there’s no evidence for them. The Cone of Learning itself is kind of a separate matter to consider — though it was never really meant to apply to learning — because at least, in that case, there is an argument to be made. Tracking down the actual research, TrainingZone points out that no one lays claim to the cone graphic, and that the best claim to the numbers themselves are ‘they are based on research in the early sixties’.

In case you have any remaining, check out this breakdown.

What Gives?

So why does this neat little maxim have so much traction? Well, uncharitably, it categorizes learning up in a way that’s easy to digest.

But more charitably, couple of insights might be gleaned from the general idea of these numbers. Dual-coding theory states (and some research supports) that in certain situations might benefit from multiple inputs, like, for instance, certain graphics combined with narration. And certainly theories of reinforcement tend to support the idea that we need to practice and rehearse our learning to make it stick. That’s some of what the Cone is trying to illustrate. More on those in future weeks, but you can check out Ruth C. Clark’s research if you’re curious.

Practical Applications

I’ve had clients who think the 10% myth is true. It’s hard to blame them when so many professionals reference it, and, for some context, the articles I linked to above are from 2008!

If you have a client who thinks that the Cone of Learning is, for instance, a reason to forego text, send them this way. Otherwise, maybe clarify that while some of the generalized ideas have merit, the numbers do not.

Let Me Know Your Thoughts

Science is always evolving, so if you have any complications, refutations, or additions to what I’ve said, let me know in the comments!

Sources & Further Reading

The Debunker Club: People Don’t Remember, 10%, 20%, 30% — Not Even On a Cone (cites numerous journals and even provides a PDF of the articles)

The Corruption of Dale’s Cone of Experiences

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *