How many times have you heard some version of the following?
“It’s estimated that we retain only 10% of what we hear. But by adding visual aids, the retention rate zooms to 50%.”
An internet search will lead you to dozens of different versions of this “statistic.” I quickly found this quote (or a version of it) used over a hundred times on presentation and education related Websites, and not once was any kind of reference provided that might hint at the source of the “data.” The 10% of what we hear numbers are usually given as fact and rarely even include the “it’s estimated” of my example. So is this oft quoted information a true Presentation Fact?
The quote above comes from a 1981 3M brochure promoting the use of overhead transparencies entitled “How to present more effectively – and win more favorable responses from more people in less time.” A banner across the upper left hand corner of this brochure reads “Highlights from an independent research study.” The retention quote is not technically part of the “independent research study,” but it would be easy for a casual reader to think it was.
In the field of education, this quote is often extended to the following: we remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we read, 50% of what we do, 75% of what we discuss and 90% of what we teach. Where I have seen any attribution for this version at all, it has been wrongfully attributed to psychiatrist and educator William Glasser.
With so many people out there using this quote so often with so much confidence and authority, you might reasonably assume there are numerous scientific studies or other thoughtful research behind the numbers that prove their validity.
You would be wrong.
The origin of the 10% of what we hear myth appears to be in the theories and writings of Edgar Dale and the famous “Cone of Experience” diagram he introduced in a 1946 textbook called “Audio Visual Methods in Teaching.” The Cone was simply a drawing he used to help illustrate his classification of different types of mediated learning experiences.
Over the years, Dale’s diagram had been so distorted that by the third edition of his textbook published in 1969, Dale devoted six pages in the chapter on the Cone to “Some possible misconceptions.”
According to Michael Molenda , an associate professor in the Instructional Systems Technology department at Indiana University:
“At some point someone conflated Dale’s Cone with a spurious chart that purports to show what percentage of information people remember under different learning conditions. The original version of this chart has been traced to the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company. Despite the lack of credibility, this formulation is widely quoted, usually without attribution, and in recent years has become repeatedly conflated with Dale’s Cone, with the percentage statements superimposed on the cone, replacing or supplementing Dale’s original categories.”
In other words, there is no scientific basis for the oft quoted memory retention percentages. For more information, read Molenda’s paper on this subject. Another resource of information on this topic that includes copies of Dale’s original illustration and an example of how it has been distorted is here.
If you remember only one thing from this article, remember that the 10% of what we hear “statistic” is not a Presentation Fact.
(Special thanks to Lee Potts for the Presentation Facts logo!)
Posted by Robert Befus in Presentation Facts