Why Schools Are Broken and Reading Sucks: How to Really Learn

My friend and first rate consultant, Aarni Heiskanen owner of AE Partners, recently shared some research he found on the Harvard Business Review website regarding learning and retaining the information we consume.

One look at this diagram and you quickly get the sense that our school system and most people’s approach to learning is backwards…at least at first glance (keep reading I’ll explain later….)

The Learning Pyramid

The Sad State of Schooling

When you attend school, whether high school or university, you spend most of your time in lectures. According to this research, of all the hours, days, weeks, months and years you put into learning the information delivered in those lectures…you only will retain 5% of it.

Are Books Any Better?

Next on the list is reading. This one hurts. I read a lot and am a big believer in the power of reading and the affect it can have on your success.

But the research shows that reading isn’t much better than lectures. Out of all the reading you do, you’ll only be able to retain 10% of the information!

Shocking? Not really. When you think about this all makes sense. I clearly remember reading books in university in preparation for an exam. I pushed my memory to the max all so I could ace the test. A few days after the exam all the details of what I had learned became fuzzy. Weeks and months after and I found it difficult to remember much at all.

What Does Work?

Looking at the lower part of this diagram it’s evident that learning through interaction, whether it be a group discussion, putting what you’ve learned into practice and teaching others, is the most effective way to retain information.

The Silver Lining

Should you stop reading or attending lectures, seminars and speaking presentations? Definitely not. The lesson here is that in order to get the most out of the information and knowledge you consume, you need to put it into action.

It’s not enough to just read a book or take a course. To get the biggest bang for your buck you need to quickly take the information, strategies and techniques you’ve been taught and apply them.

Think about how you’ve been learning to this point in your life and how you work with clients…is information being delivered in the most meaningful and powerful form? Can it be improved on?

Food for thought.

Please Share This Article If You Enjoyed It:

  • Martin

    U make a very good point that is we all need to develop the best way of learning for us. Yes it is food for thought

    • Martin – glad you enjoyed the post. People don’t give much thought to this issue – they should because when you put it into practice many things change for the better!

  • Marci Penner

    Eye opening! Definitely makes me think how I need to bring what I read to life and take action to retain the knowledge. Thanks Michael!

  • Michael, thanks for sharing this!

  • Anonymous

    I started my tech career at a technology insitute where I was told, “If you really want to learn something teach it”. (These people were already work experienced). The research makes the case for giving seminars as a consultant. Double win – marketing plus improved technical depth.

  • I, too, have experienced that the best way to learn something is to teach it. No question.

    I’m so sad about the info about retention rate for learning-by-reading, though. I read a LOT. I am mildly relieved to learn I’m not alone in the forgetfulness side of what I take in, though. Sometimes I’ll re-read something and wonder how come I don’t remember ANY of it! I hate that…

    • Erin – the key with reading is to take some form of ACTION. That might be underlining, taking notes, writing a blog post…doing something with what you’ve learned.

      While the title of this post is harsh – glad it got people’s attention – reading doesn’t suck, but the information you take in while reading will slowly get sucked out of the mind – UNLESS it is put to use in some manner. And that’s why taking action and putting what you learn into practice is so key.

  • Beth

    Kinda like that old proverb “Tell me, I may forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me, I will understand.”

  • Very true. I have realized it myself. The best way to master the subject is to teach others as you’ll try to clarify many doubts raised by them. I have also found out that my students too retain their knowledge best and excel in their subjects when they try to teach others various concepts and present seminars etc.

  • This study does not surprise me. I teach religious studies at a college. I make my students read really hard things, and I don’t lecture. They have to get into small groups and figure out what it’s saying. Then they have to offer their summaries to the class. Then I have the class interact with each other’s summaries. In one quarter I can get underclassmen to read and understand difficult ancient religious texts. Or should I say, they get themselves to read and understand them.

    On my first day of class, I tell my students, “I don’t lecture. Lectures are like TV, except they’re really, really boring.”

  • I see one potential problem with this method. Teaching is great for learning a subject. However, that act of teaching does not necessarily help anyone else learn. I’ve had some newbie teachers who did not do a very good job. Why? Because they used ineffective lectures to teach. I’m sure they learned a lot, but they were in the minority.

    I think that teachers have to have a service mentality. They are offering a way for students to learn. A good teacher, though, provides a forum for students to teach, but students cannot expect to retain content through hearing other students lecture. All students have to be learning at all times–that’s a toughy!

  • this is so true..i remember when i was in college I learned way better in group discussions than the actual lecture itself. Now i understand why during my senior year all assignments were in groups. It is definitively something i have applied to been a consultant..every project i undertake is a team approach to deliver the results expected from the client.

  • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

    change(dot)org/petitions/board-of-education-and-all-educational-facilities-and-municipalities-reform-education-so-that-it-s-fair-for-all-and-not-for-the-elite-few-or-the-dull-many-no-child-left-behind