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Pushing Your Teaching Down the Learning Pyramid

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

All students should experience a diversity of learning experiences to access their diverse intelligences. Studies reinforce that exposure to a wide variety of learning experiences increases the joy of learning and improves student understanding and retention. In addition, the Learning Pyramid model suggests that some methods of learning are more effective than others and that varying instructional methods will lead to deeper learning and longer-term retention.

Source: Adapted from the National Training Laboratories Institute of Applied Behavioral Science Learning Pyramid


The Learning Pyramid developed by the National Training Laboratories Institute of Applied Behavioral Science illustrates that most students only remember about 5% of what they learn while listening to their teacher talk, but retain nearly 90% of what they learn through teaching others. This does not mean we should never lecture, but rather that it should be only one of many instructional methods utilized in our classroom. There is a synergism between them, and the passive learning activities should set up the participatory learning activities.


The scientific basis for the maximum allowable length of TED Talks - 18 minutes - is based upon the energy demands of authentically listening. As the brain takes in new information and is forced to process it, millions of neurons are firing at once, burning energy and leading to fatigue and exhaustion. After 18 minutes, the attention of your teenage students is only feigned. Fortunately, research also shows that a change in learning activity structure (ex: a shift from lecture to students talking or actively practicing newly-acquired skills) activates different neural pathways and another 18 minutes of authentic learning can take place. John Kennedy inspired a nation to look to the stars in 15 minutes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took a bit longer to share his dream of racial equality—he did it in 17 minutes. You can explain a disciplinary core idea to your students in less than 18 minutes. Then you can lead your students in another learning activity where they apply that idea to a real-world scenario. Guiding student discussion, practice of newly-acquired skills, and hands-on investigations are the true hallmarks of an incredibly effective science educator, not giving another, albeit pretty, PowerPoint presentation.


The most effective teachers utilize a wide variety of passive and participatory instructional methods, with more time devoted to participatory methods, but they use all of them. Case studies and POGILS are some of the most effective tools to push your teaching down the learning pyramid and increase student learning and enjoyment in your class.


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