How We Learn

As higher education was coming under increased scrutiny around the country, retention became a key finding issue. A student who withdrew was lost potential revenues. But retention was decreasing. One of the problems was that students were failing courses and being suspended.

Faculty blamed high schools for poor preparation of students. Some believed that students lacked the perseverance to confront challenges of tough classes. What was missing in the blame game was a serious examination of how we learn.

The identification of approaches for improving learning has been a continual subject of researchers. While there is no universal accepted strategy, one approach that provides a useful way of thinking about learning is to compare the way material is presented and the retention of that material.

Retention Rate Learning activity
90% Teach someone else/use immediately.
75% Practice what one learned.
50% Engage in a group discussion.
30% Watch a demonstration.
20% Watch audiovisual.
10% Read.
5% Listen to a lecture.


When the typical classroom activities are compared to the retention chart, it’s easy to see why students struggle. It seems like we design classes for student failure. Here are some things we can do.

Lecture: There are times when lecturing is necessary but we need to teach students how to listen for meaning. Just because we say the words, there’s no guarantee they are being absorbed. Then we need to balance lecturing with a higher retention activity. One good way to do this is to have students do an activity while listening. This adds the Practice to the Lecture activity.

Read: Let’s be real, students are unlikely to do a reading assignment unless the reading is engaging. Online blog posts have now given reading times with their posts. We need to adapt to current students. We also need to teach how to read for insight, otherwise eyes just pass over words with nothing being retained in the brain.

Watch Audiovisual: PowerPoint has an on/off switch. When the PowerPoint is clicked on, brains are clicked off. The darkness of the room is an invitation to look at phones. If PowerPoints must be used, think of having students do a Practice assignment as they are watching.

Watch a Demonstration: There are gee-whiz moments where the demonstration is remembered but not what the demonstration was designed to teach. Ask students to put in their own words what they learned from the demonstration that they can Teach to someone else.

Group Discussion: While discussions are moving towards a higher level of retention, we need to teach students how to have a productive discussion where learning is the result. A learning discussion is far different from hanging out.

Practice: Now we are getting to true learning. Every class, with some imagination from the professor, can have a practice element.

Teach: All of us who teach know that we didn’t really know the material until we taught it. We can build some element of the teaching experience into our classes with group assignments where students learn from each other.

The arguments made against discussions, practice, and teach activities are that they take away from what needs to be presented. The reality is that we have never focused on what really matters that students need to learn. So we overload the course content with material that will be forgotten within hours of a test. We need to cut to the essence of what matters and design activities with a retention focus. But maybe that’s too much to ask for.

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“Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.” – Dale Carnegie

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.