The Cone of Learning and It’s Impact on eLearning Design

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Educators have a duty in our society to deliver knowledge with the utmost effectiveness. They’re always on the lookout for novel ways to help learners understand what they’ve learned. All while sharpening learners’ critical thinking skills, analyze more effectively and retain more. Most educators who are familiar with learning theory have come across the cone of learning. It’s also known by many as the cone of experience.

The cone of learning offers a basis for teaching by outlining the modalities of how we learn. However, the field of education has progressed quite a bit since the first instance of the cone of learning. Our understanding of the human mind has also expanded. This leads us to factor in multiple variables that go into learning.

Much of the learning community is still unsure about the validity and authenticity of the cone of learning or cone of experience. In order to get a better understanding of what it entails and to answer whether or not it’s still relevant, let’s take a closer look at it from a historical and scientific lens.

The cone of experience and learning mean the same thing, and we’ll use them interchangeably.

What is the Cone of Learning?

The cone of experience is not a cone per se; instead, it is a pyramid that outlines the modalities of active and passive learning. Dating back to the 1940’s, the concept was first introduced by the American educator Edgar Dale in a book summarizing audiovisual teaching methodologies. As a result, you’ll find references that refer to it as Dale’s cone of experience, Dale’s cone of learning, or Dale’s pyramid of learning.

Chart showing a simplified cone of learning.

The cone of learning describes and visualizes Dale’s views on the teaching methodologies available to us and how effective different forms of instruction are at imparting knowledge.

It comes with percentages that indicate the retention rates of each mode of instruction; however, the education community is in disagreement on whether these percentages were highlighted by Dale or not. It appears that they have sprung up out of nowhere, but we will consider them as they form the basis of the learning theory.

The cone/pyramid can be divided into three tiers. We’ll start from the top and make our way to the bottom in the order of decreasing effectiveness while shifting from passive to active modes of learning.

Tier 1: Verbal Reception

The cone of learning makes the following claims about the following modes of receiving instructions:

  • Reading Text: You’re only able to retain 10% of what you read.
  • Hearing Instructions: You’re only able to retain 20% of what you hear.
  • Seeing Images: You’re only able to retain 30% of what you see.

Chart showing verbal reception.It’s not to say that these modes of instruction are completely or partly ineffective; instead, learners can exhibit basic comprehension with them. They work in cases when the objective is to only describe, explain, list, or define a concept. Dale provides no scientific backing to these claims; however, a few noteworthy points from Dale’s perspective can be extracted.

In this tier, Dale highlights that learning has to do with the senses stimulated when conveying instructions. When viewing each sense individually, information cannot be retained enough to expand on the subject.

Furthermore, some senses are inherently better at stimulating cognitive thinking than other ones. Hence the higher retention percentage for using your sight as opposed to your hearing. Reading has a lower retention rate than sight or auditory, perhaps due to the low level of stimulus written text offers as opposed to images and sound.

Tier 2: Demonstrative Reception

The next tier in the learning cone holds the following modes of instruction in ascending levels of comprehension. Again, Dale makes a similar assertion regarding retention rates:

  • Watching a video: You’ll be able to retain 30% of the information received.
  • Viewing an exhibit: You’ll be able to retain 50% of the information received.
  • Watching live instructions: You’ll be able to retain 50% of the information received.

Demonstrative learning shown in chart.Here, learners are able to retain much more information as the mode of delivery engages two of the five senses: hearing and sight. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of stimulus and cognition, impacting retention and critical thinking.

Dale claims that these modes of imparting instruction, though not the best, are useful for certain learning objectives. Namely, demonstrative, practical, and applicative. Students gain a better understanding of the subject matter at hand compared to tier 1 and find more connections for expanding their reasoning.

Until now, we’ve only considered passive forms of learning, where the onus is placed on the learner to absorb the information presented to them. How they do that depends on them.

Judging by the magnitude of retention in Dale’s cone of learning, one may wrongfully assume that passive learning doesn’t hold as much importance in learning as opposed to active learning; however one should note that retention is not an indication of thinking capabilities. Sure, it helps boost memory which affects knowledge, however passive learning leaves room for self-exploration, an important aspect when considering independent learning techniques.

Tier 3: Participation

According to Dale, tier 3 is the most effective form of knowledge acquisition. This is where learners transition from passive to active learning.

Active learning demands more involvement from learners via engaging them in activities that involve actions related to the subject matter or making them participate in discussions surrounding the topic.

Dale’s cone of learning places the following modes of learning as the ones that impart the highest level of retention:

  • Hands-on workshops: You can gain 70% retention.
  • Role-play scenarios: You can gain 70% retention.
  • Simulating Real-Life Experience/Application: You can gain 70% retention.
  • Performing Relevant Task: You can gain 90% retention.

Chart showing participation within the cone of learning.

According to Dale, the active modes above impart knowledge via stimulation and action. It’s more of a perform-as-you-learn approach, which polishes the analysis skills of learners, helping them come up with better approaches to design, exert creativity, and evaluate in more detail.

You may disagree with Dale’s views as they are not backed by any scientific claims, but if we only focus on the tiers instead of the percentages, you may find that Dale has a valid point.

Experiential learning is indeed better at increasing levels of retention. However, to what degree it helps retain what the learner has received is still up for debate. One can argue that Dale doesn’t account for the factors relating to students that affect retention, like their inherent mental and cognitive capacity, their socio-economic circumstances, their prior knowledge, and their intellectual capabilities.

It still begs the question of how does Dale’s cone of experience fit into modern eLearning platforms? What forms of learning should be incorporated as teaching modes that best enact Dale’s methods?

How Does eLearning Factor into The Cone of Learning?

Educators have had to come up with novel ways of imparting education that help them adapt to this new age of learning. Long-term planning right now can help teachers adapt to new platforms, ushering in a new era of teaching.

Now, the only question that remains is how does one impart education while keeping in line with Dale’s methodologies? Below, we’ve outlined and explained some avenues digital trainers can explore if they want to adhere to the cone of learning even through distance education.

Diagram showing ways to move eLearning to more engagement.

Educational Technology

Education technology is a diverse field that deals with imparting education via technological means. Unfortunately, the technology is not often used as well as it could be and is mostly limited to passive learning.

For example, mobile devices like tablets, laptops, and smartphones provide more convenience to students by allowing them to have a mobile repository of their curriculum, books, and notes. However, reading materials like these only fit into tier 1 of Dale’s cone of experience.

Distance learning platforms normally used for lectures like Skype or Zoom are mostly there for facilitating lectures. Sure, teachers can use these forums to jump from tier 1 to tier 2 by streaming or screencasting educational videos for higher retention. But again, it still offers a passive form of engagement and entirely leaves it upon the student to govern what they receive.

As a solution, teachers may find that they can include virtual or augmented reality into their eLearning platforms to jump into tier 3 or remain in the higher bands of retention of tier 2. There is a catch, though.

Virtual reality (VR) headsets are expensive to come by, and not every student can afford them, especially those coming from impoverished communities. A better option would be secure educational content that can be displayed via a smartphone in VR format. It isn’t the same as actual VR immersion, where students can partake in demonstrations and experiments; however, it is a much better alternative to displaying educational videos and images. That’s because VR limits the field of vision to the educational content exclusively, thereby allowing students to focus on the topic at hand.

Forums

Digital trainers often have a learning management system with their online course platform. Many come with a forum for discussion. But many trainers don’t use it readily or are inexperienced with running such forums. As a result, learners may miss out on a number of benefits that forums offer.

For starters, forums are an excellent place for harboring collective thought outside of just reading, listening to, or watching the course materials. Instead of students emailing their queries to the teacher and awaiting their response, they can host them on a forum.

Additionally, it encourages a student-led discussion on whatever they are learning and helps them receive the perspective of their peers on any pressing matter. As a result, teachers can be sure that active participation is taking place. This allows them to encompass the learning modes of tier 3 in Dale’s cone of learning.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of hosting forums is that it hosts a place for discussion. That way students might provide answers to a question presented by their peers. This is a plus point because it shows an aspect of learning that is often overlooked. That is, learning by your mistakes.

The trainer’s role on a forum is that of a moderator. Their job is to oversee and promote student’s queries. They can also lead them towards a discussion. Maybe one that already answers their query or leads them to the resources that expand their knowledge.

If a learner makes a mistake, they should not be singled out. Instead, moderation is required to lead them in the right direction for harboring fruitful and healthy discussions in the future.

Using Interactive Quizzes

Just about everyone hates quizzes and tests. That’s because they are a one-way street. Conventional forms of quizzes, where trainers hand learners a questionnaire and expect them to answer it, leave little room for discussion.

Trainers primarily use them as a method of reflection of their own abilities and how much of the curriculum their learners have absorbed. That’s a completely valid tool for assessment. However, it can also be used as a mode of learning and improvement for learners.

One way of including interactivity in quizzes and tests is by gamifying them. There are many benefits of doing so. For instance, masking quizzes as games on your eLearning platform provides the necessary stimulus for every right answer. As a result, students can develop neural pathways that enhance their approach to complex problems.

Plus, games provide incentivization based on a points system just like quizzes and tests. This allows learners to assess their own capabilities by looking at their performance in the educational game. This fosters healthy competition amongst learners and makes them realize the points they need to oust their peers or get better.

Games are highly customizable and flexible to learners’ needs. Their difficulty can be varied based on learner performance as well. Customization allows for including additional educational tools within games for a more interactive experience.

For instance, you could add space for feedback that gains learners’ information regarding incorrect questions. You can add information regarding alternative approaches to problem-solving. And, it allows you to experiment with a host of formats.  Crosswords, puzzles, and multiplayer games are just some of the modes for gamifying your learners’ educational experience.

Using Specialized Software

Sometimes the crux of a complex topic in your curriculum can not be explained easily. In cases like these, you’ll have to turn your attention towards specialized software and include them in your eLearning platform.

For the most part, it is the learners’ lack of visualization abilities that become a bottleneck for learning. Who can blame them though, they’re still learning and exploring different ways to approach a problem.

Perhaps learners can benefit from software that does the visualization for them. For example, software that simulates experiments in different subjects, like chemistry or physics, can help learners perform live demonstrations from the convenience of their homes. Or mathematical simulation software that helps visualize functions, geometry, etc.

Allowing Learners to Collaborate with Each Other

One of the aspects of the traditional classroom that learners miss out on in online learning is the ability to actively collaborate with others. Groups made via zoom or skype aren’t as effective due to the absence of a physical presence.

Conventionally, learners pair up into groups for working on projects. But it’s almost always the case that a few learners are only pitching in the work. Others are free, riding off of their efforts. The use of forums greatly increases collaboration, but what if you don’t have access to such resources?

At its heart, collaboration is a sharing of ideas in a pool of thought where learners can bring their views, approaches, and solutions to the table.

A better approach would be to give them hands-on activities that are essentially tasks that work to build an underlying project. Learners can then choose the person for their groups based on the person who can help them achieve their objectives.

Conclusion

Learners benefit from multiple modes of learning. These can not only be passive in nature but also those that promote active participation.

Although Dale’s cone of learning may not be the best indicator of retention, it definitely highlights the different learning approaches you can use in your classroom and eLearning platform.

But why stop there?

Educators shouldn’t limit themselves to these modes; instead, they should always be on the lookout for new avenues. These might heighten learners’ insight, bring educational innovation, and leave them with the thought to explore more.

There’s no right way of teaching. You just have to find the one that is most suitable for fulfilling your students’ learning objectives.

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