Does research show that we remember 10% of what we read?

Two of the presenters at the FRESH 13 conference in Copenhagen referred to research that demonstrated that we remember X per cent of what we read, Y per cent of what we hear and Z per cent of what we see and hear or variations on that line. There’s nothing new in such claims: these sorts of figures have been used in the meetings industry for years.

Yet I’ve always felt that the figures were suspect and long ago developed the theory that the research was probably related to something like being taught to put on a life jacket in an aircraft. If somebody tells you how to do it, the learning is going to be less effective than if they tell you at the same time as showing you, mainly because it is such a practical process. There’s a logic to that line of thought but I never believed that the research was widely relevant in the meetings industry where so much of what is being communicated is less of a physical, manual process. The difficulty was that I had no proof one way or the other so I made sporadic attempts over the years to track down the original research. I was never able to find anything that even came close to providing the basis for the claims.

However, having heard the references at FRESH 13, I decided to try again and, to my surprise, this time I found some answers although they weren’t the answers I was expecting.

It seems that no such research has been published anywhere.

There were two main sources for this conclusion. First was Will Thalheimer who has, according to his website, ‘worked in the learning-and-performance field since 1985’ (Will Thalheimer, undated). He posted a blog in 2006 in which he said ‘People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent’ (Will at Work Learning, 2006).

He dissects the claim in great detail and even includes a graph that has been widely reproduced to support what turns out to be a myth. It shows that people retain 10 (the graph doesn’t explain 10 what. We’re left to assume that it means 10 per cent) of what we read, 20 of what we see and so on up to 80 of what we do. The graph is often attributed to ‘Chi, M. T. H., Bassock, M., Lewis, M. W., Reimann, P., & Glaser, R.’.

Thalheimer contacted Dr Michelene Chi who said, ‘I don’t recognise this graph at all. So the citation is definitely wrong since it’s not my graph’ (Will at Work Learning, 2006).

He then looked at a graphic that appeared in a book by Edgar Dale. This illustrated a theory, developed by Dale in 1946 and now referred to as Dale’s Cone of Experience. It is a little like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs but with rather more levels, ‘Direct Purposeful Experiences’ at the base and ‘Verbal Symbols’ at the peak.

This graphic appears to have been modified over the years so that Dale’s label of ‘Visual Symbols’ has been translated into ‘Read’. Dale’s ‘Contrived Experiences’ has become ‘Do the real thing’ and so on. However, at no point did Dale provide any figures; these were added by others in later years.

A paper produced by the Metiri Group for Cisco in 2008 supports Thalheimer’s conclusions and adds information. For example, the paper shows that the text accompanying the cone in Dale’s original book included a comment reading, ‘The cone is not offered as a perfect or mechanically flawless picture to be taken with absolute literalness in its simplified form’ (Dale, 1954, in Cisco, 2008).

So where does this leave the widely used ‘Research shows…’ quote and does it matter?

Thalheimer and Metiri Group have shown that the figures so often quoted are a myth. There is no research that drew those conclusions. Any figures that are quoted are the product of somebody’s imagination.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter that the numbers are not the result of research because they are being used to make a more general point. This approach overlooks that fact that audiences will react in quite different ways, depending on whether the speaker says ‘It’s my opinion that…’ or ‘Research shows that…’. The latter will be accepted as demonstrable fact because audiences tend to trust speakers and will conclude from the statement that the research has been carried out and shows what the speaker claims it to show. In this case, any such conclusion would clearly be false.

That said, there is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, people learn more if they actually do whatever it is they want to learn about so when I was learning about navigation on board small boats, the learning was made far more effective by the exercises that were part of the course. It may be more difficult to include the hands-on, interactive element if a surgeon is explaining a new technique in a medical congress.

However, far too many people use the myth as a justification for a variety of activities including PowerPoint, peer learning, interactive sessions and so on. They make statements such as ‘Research shows that we retain 80 per cent of what we experience’ as proof that interactive sessions are a vital part of a conference and should, therefore, be used in every conference.

Given that there is no such research, these presenters have to find other justifications for using whatever technology or technique they are promoting. Unfortunately, ‘I think this is a really important technique’ is less compelling than ‘Research shows…’ which means that we are likely to go on hearing that statement even though it has been shown to be entirely wrong.

References:

Dale, E., (1954) in Cisco (2008) Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says, San Jose, Cisco Systems Inc., p6, available from http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf (Accessed 21 January 2013)

Will at Work Learning (2006) People remember 10%, 20%… Oh Really? Available from http://www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html (Accessed 21 January 2013)

Will Thalheimer (undated) biography, available from http://willthalheimer.typepad.com/about.html (Accessed 21 January 2013)

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2 thoughts on “Does research show that we remember 10% of what we read?

  1. Learning professionals have known this for decades as the sources note. Will’s a very reputable source. Thanks for posting. My questions is: how are meeting professionals going to use this info to design their meetings differently? Riddle me that.

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