The Learning Pyramid: Making the Pyramid Valid in the Classroom with CATs

Author: Douglas Richardson, Paramedic, BS-PSM

I love teaching EMS—instructor classes, continuing education classes, and one-on-one with young instructors. My most recent classes have been on andragogy, the teaching of adult learners, and the use of classroom assessment techniques (CATs) in the EMS classroom.

One common thread in all of my classes is my use of the National Training Laboratories Instructional Pyramid, which shows a hierarchy of learning. Basically it states that we only remember 5% of what we hear, 10% of what we read, and 20% of what we see and hear.

The more engaged the learner is in the topic, the higher the retention: with discussion the retention goes up to 50% and 90% with teaching. There is only one big problem with the learning pyramid:

it has no basis in research whatsoever.

No Research-Based Evidence

In the article A Rebuttal of NTL Institute’s Learning Pyramid, Kare Laturd from Lillehammer University states, “There seems to be no empirical support for the claim that the learning pyramid presents a fitting description of learning and retention” (Laturd, 2012).

Nick Rose from Turnford bluntly agrees that “the percentages given in the pyramid have no scientific basis.” Rose goes on to say that the pyramid even “makes a number of demonstrably false assertions regarding the effectiveness of different methods of teaching” (Rose, 2014).  So even without research to support it, is the pyramid still useful or valid?

The Pyramid’s Validity in the Classroom

Despite Laturd and Rose’s claims, I still want the pyramid to be true! In fact, I’ve found the principles behind the pyramid valuable in every class I’ve taught: a student will learn more from an interactive class than from one that is not. A student learns more from a class that has an audio/visual component rather than one that is pure lecture.

I believe that if you truly engage your students and bring your class into a discussion, your students will learn the most. While the percentages may be off and lacking empirical research, good sense and experience tells us that the pyramid is on the right track. So, assuming that it has some validity, how do we engage our students and bring them to the highest level of retention? One way is through the use of classroom assessment techniques (CATs).

Forever Change How You Teach EMS with CATs

Ready for a bold statement? Using CATs will forever change how you teach EMS. If you embrace the concept and apply the principles of CATs to your classroom, it will change you as an educator—a change for the better.

What Are CATs?

CATs are simple, non-graded, in-class activities designed to give both the educator and the student feedback on how well each student is learning and how well the educator is teaching. So what does this look like in the classroom?

  • Student-centered
  • Context specific
  • Alterable to suit any subject

CATs employ different techniques throughout a class to continually assess how well students understand the material being presented. They are a way to make sure that the information is being received, and they happen in real-time, giving the educator the ability to immediately work on troublesome areas.

In our next post we will discuss some specific and effective CATs to help measure your students’ engagement. Check back to learn how to master using CATs in the classroom and find the key to helping your students learn and retain information. ,

And in the meantime, I would like to finish up with a thought on the pyramid. While the pyramid may not have any empirical research that validates it, it does still ring of the truth. I leave you with a quote to consider:

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” – Yogi Bhajan


Rose, N. (2014, February 05). The pyramid of lies. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from

Letrud, K. (2012, January). A rebuttal of NTL Institute’s learning pyramid. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from’s_learning_pyramid

Douglas began his career in public safety as a paid-on-call firefighter with the Havana City Fire Department in Illinois. He attended EMT-Basic training in 1992 at Spoon River College where he is now an adjunct professor of prehospital medicine. He has had his paramedic license since 1994 and has been a lead instructor since 1999. During his career with the fire service, Douglas was an instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute specializing in rescue disciplines. He retired as a captain after serving for 20 years. While with the fire department, Douglas also worked full-time for Mason County EMS, an ALS ambulance service in downstate Illinois, as the EMS educator. Douglas received his bachelor’s degree in public safety management from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, and is working on his master’s in public safety administration through Lewis University.

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2 thoughts on “The Learning Pyramid: Making the Pyramid Valid in the Classroom with CATs

  1. Pingback: Concept Mapping as a Classroom Assessment Technique – Part I - Medic-CE blog

  2. Pingback: CATs in the Classroom: Specific Techniques for Engaging your Students and Enriching Learning - Medic-CE blog

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