The Formula for Successful Learning: Retention

The Formula for Successful Learning: Retention

For years I used a mnemonic in teacher training workshops and faculty seminars to help participants remember a fundamental definition of learning.

The mnemonic was in the form of a “formula.”

As a teaching tool, it was effective, though I had to caution the engineers and mathematically oriented in the room to not do the calculus as it was just a metaphor.

Here’s the formula:

Where L= learning, C=change, a=affective, c=cognitive, and b=behavioral.

The formula served to help participants recall that “Learning equals change in three domains: affective, cognitive, and behavioral.”

Unless the learning experience brings about change in one or more of those domains, learning has not taken place.


The Formula Revised

After some years, as a result of studying neuroscience and neuropsychology related to learning, I had to revise the formula.

Two new elements had to be introduced to the formula which influenced my way of teaching.

The updated formula looks like this:

The new elements are R=retention and t=time.

Hence, the new definition of learning reads “Learning equals change in three domains: affective, cognitive, and behavioral retained over time.

The science of learning has given us a new challenge: learning must evidence that it is retained over time.

Or, put another way, if what, and how, you teach does not result in your students being able to retain knowledge over time, then they have not really learned.


Retention can be defined as the percentage of the accuracy in the recall of information by the learner over a given period of time.

For example, after a lesson or content-oriented learning experience, the teacher administers a test or quiz.

If the student can recall the content and score a 90% on the test, then we would say that the student has a high retention rate.

If, however, the student were tested again a week later on the same material, but achieved only a 30% score on the test, then we would have to re-adjust our assessment and admit that the actual retention rate is low and therefore the student did not learn as much or as well as we desired.

Technically speaking, we want to facilitate moving student learning from short-term memory to long-term memory. In order to do that, we need to facilitate how the brain process that phenomenon.


Retention rates

Assessing retention rates helps us understand that some forms of learning are more effective than others in helping students retain knowledge.

In the end, most of us would not be satisfied with our learners just knowing “something for the moment.”

Unfortunately, the context of schooling models of education presents a particular challenge.

Most students intuitively assume that they must retain what they are learning in your course only up to and for the purpose of passing the test.

It’s why they actually ask the question “Professor, will this be on the test?”

Arguably, and demonstrably, most of the learning acquired in formal schooling context is not retained much past its application on a test!

While research is varied in definitive conclusions, it’s generally accepted that a learner retains 10% of what he or she hears, 20% of what he or she reads, and 50% of what he or she sees.

But even a 50% retention is too low when we are teaching matters of significance.

Luckily, we know that higher learner retention is possible above what just hearing, reading, and seeing can achieve.

A learner will retain 90% of what he or she does.

Active learning and participation (in other words, student engagement) is the key to higher retention of learning.


The matter becomes more dramatic when we look at the rate of retention.

Time, combined with weak learning strategies, has a detrimental effect on retention rates. The chart below is representative of research on the retention rates of various learning approaches over a period of three hours as compared to a period of after three days.

When a student only hears (e.g., listens to a lecture), the retention rate drops from 70% after three hours to 10% on the third day.

Even combining hearing and seeing (observing, e.g. visual reinforcement) will help the student retain only a little over half (65%).

But when the student participates in the learning experience, the retention rate after three days remains at 90%!

The more the learner participates actively in the learning experience, the higher the retention rate will be over an extended period of time.

In other words, learners learn best and retain more when actively engaged in learning for themselves.


What is worth retaining?

Think about your own formal education experience.

How much information do you recall from your formal high school education?

From your expensive college education?

From your graduate school studies?

You probably can’t recall most of what you were exposed to.

Reflect on what kind of learning you have retained over time: information, facts, concepts, skills, competencies, habits, opinions, disposition, values, perspectives, disciplines. Which kinds of learning have you retained to most and longest?

Likely, what you have retained over time has been the learning that is most meaningful to you.

Neuroscience indicates the brain will expend energy on retaining what it perceives to be meaningful.

Now reflect on your own teaching.

What kinds of knowledge and learning do you emphasize? What of your teaching will your students retain over time?


Teaching for Retention

In order to make the most of the dynamic of retention of learning, you may have to adjust your teaching from the role of the “Grand Imparter of Knowledge and Learning,” to that of learning facilitator and a designer of learning experiences.

Below are guidelines to help you plan learning experiences to help your students with retention of learning.









To summarize: if your students are not retaining what they are learning over time, they haven’t really learned. Teach for retention of learning.


The most frequently cited sources on retention rates based on “the pyramid of learning” are: National Training Laboratories (NTL) for Applied Behavioral Science’s Pyramid of Learning (Kybartaite et al. 2007; World Bank n.d.), and Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning or Pyramid of Learning (Campbell 1993; Bernardo 2003; Northwood et al. 2003; Krain & Lantis 2006; Woods 2006; Chen et al. 2007; Harker 2008; Elouarat et al. 2011; Yeh et al. 2011; Khan et al. 2012; Pinto et al. 2012).

Chandler P, Sweller J. Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognitive Instruction 1991; 8: 293–332

Friel N. Report on interactive lecturing. University of Glasgow, Glasgow 2009.

Lagowski J. Teaching is more than lecturing. Chemical Education 1990; 67(10)811.

Lalley JP, Miller RH. The learning pyramid: Does it point teachers in the right direction? Education 2007; 128(1)64–79.

Nilson L. Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors 2nd ed. Anker, Boston 2003.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).


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