How To Retain 90% Of Everything You Learn


Imagine if you had a bucket of water. And every time you attempted to fill the bucket, 90% of the water would leak out instantly. Every time, all you’d retain was a measly 10%. How many times would you keep filling the bucket?

The answer is simple: just once.

The first time you noticed the leak, you’d take action
You’d either fix the bucket or you’d get another bucket, wouldn’t you?

Yet that’s not at all the way we learn.
Almost all of us waste 90% of our time, resources and learning time, because we don’t understand a simple concept called the Learning Pyramid. The Learning Pyramid was developed way back in the 1960s by the NTL Institute in Bethel, Maine. And if you look at the pyramid you’ll see something really weird.

That weird thing is that you’re wasting time. You’re wasting resources. You’re just doing everything you can to prevent learning. And here’s why.

To summarize the numbers (which sometimes get cited differently) learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.

So why do you retain 90% when you teach someone else or when you implement it immediately?
There’s a good reason why. When you implement or teach, you instantly make mistakes. Try it for yourself. (In this article for instance, after I’d read the information, I cited the loss rate as 95% instead of 90% to begin with. I had to go back and correct myself. Then I found three more errors, which I had to fix. These were factual errors that required copy and paste, but I still made the errors).

So as soon as you run into difficulty and start to make mistakes, you have to learn how to correct the mistake. This forces your brain to concentrate.

But surely your brain is concentrating in a lecture or while reading
Sure it is, but it’s not making any mistakes. What your brain hears or sees is simply an abstract concept. And no matter how clearly the steps are outlined, there is no way you’re going to retain the information. There are two reasons why.

Reason 1: Your brain gets stuck at the first obstacle.
Reason 2: Your brain needs to make the mistake first hand.

Reason 1: Your brain gets stuck at the first obstacle.
Yes it does. And the only way to understand this concept is to pick up a book, watch a video, or listen to audio. Any book, any video, any audio. And you’ll find you’ve missed out at least two or three concepts in just the first few minutes. It’s hard to believe at first, but as you keep reading the same chapter over and over, you’ll find you’re finding more and more that you’ve missed.

This is because the brain gets stuck at the first new concept/obstacle. It stops and tries to apply the concept but struggles to do so. But you continue to read the book, watch the video or listen to the speaker. The brain got stuck at the first point, but more points keep coming. And of course, without complete information, you have ‘incomplete information’.

Incomplete information can easily be fixed by making the mistake first hand.

Reason 2: Your brain needs to make the mistake first hand
No matter how good the explanation, you will not get it right the first time. You must make the mistake. And this is because your interpretation varies from the writer/speaker. You think you’ve heard or read what you’ve heard/read. But the reality is different. You’ve only interpreted what they’ve said, and more often than not, the interpretation is not quite correct. You can only find out how much off the mark you are by trying to implement or teach the concept.

So how do you avoid losing 90% of what you’ve learned?
Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc. (I wrote this article, ten minutes after reading these statistics online).

The next time you pick up a book or watch a video, remember this .
Listening or reading something is just listening or reading.
It’s not real learning.
Real learning comes from making mistakes.
And mistakes come from implementation.
And that’s how you retain 90% of everything you learn.

Which is why most of the people you meet are always going around in circles.
They refuse to make mistakes. So they don’t learn.
They’d rather read a book instead. Or watch a video. Or listen to an audio.

Their bucket is leaking 90% of the time.
But they don’t care.
The question is: Do you?

Next Step
One of the biggest reasons why we struggle with our learning is because we run into resistance. Resistance is often just seen as a form of laziness, but that is not true at all. There are hidden forces causing us all to resist doing what we really should do. This slows us down considerably. Find out how to work with resistance, instead of fighting it all the time. Click here to get the free report on ‘How To Win The Resistance Game’.


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  1. Kel says

    Completely agreed. I think it’s even “more true” when it comes to learning a new language or word. If you just see the definition of a word or a tense and don’t try to write an example shortly after you’re really likely to forget it at some point. If you indeed take some notes or try to explain to yourself or anybody what you’ve just learnt the chances it’ll stick with you are higher.
    Regarding the mistakes, once you’ve made one you just try your best to do it again and as a result you need to focus more on whatever you’re trying to do.
    By the way, great article, i’ll try to put those tips into practice even though it’s quite difficult to find people who have the same interests as me.

  2. Mr. Nji says

    I always wonder why we listen to music onces but we can sing it for many years but reading a book to get an understanding could take years. Why is that so?

    • Chesca says

      That is because we listen to the song over and over again until we memorize it. Maybe reading should be done the same way, that’s a thought…

  3. Xavier says

    I just want to say thank you for their beautifully constructed article , I feel like my bucket is leaking 95% most of the time lol, but it’s do to resistance, this gives me the confidence that learning anything new is possible , thank you

  4. Heid says

    This is true for ANY skill! If you have skills & have been looking for work in a field for quite some time, DO NOT forget to practice your skill any way you can so as not to forget or get rusty, and keep learning new related things so that you are up to date with everyone who IS employed!

  5. Annitte says

    I’ve made plenty of mistakes, I figured that they were a part of my path to learning and to never repeat that mistake again! This article was eye opening for me, because right now I’m attempting to learn another language. FRENCH! Oui! So writing and practicing will be key. Does this work for math! I’m so not fond of math.

    • Sean says

      It will work just as well for math. The point is this: The brain looks for a pattern. When it finds a pattern, it moves quickly. Those who do math easily have figured out the pattern. Those who haven’t, struggle. With every repetition, the brain learns a bit more.

      Of course, a teacher or friend can point out the pattern as well. It’s not just the repetition that matters. But repetition tells the brain: “This is important, pay attention.” You remember more because the information is not on dimmer setting.

  6. Sheia says

    I guess this is why when i study I remember most of the material because this is how i do it…. I read the text, then I basically summarize it, Imake notes by writing the material i just read in my own i basically pull out the concept or the main point out. I would do this until i finish the book, then i would go back and read the notes I had written…as i go along, i talk to myself as if i am explaining it to another simple terms and even in my native dialect. I do sound like a crazy person when i’m alone but it works for me! :)

  7. says

    The answer is simple: just once.

    Actually, twice. The first time you discover the leak, then you fill the bucket a second time.

    Or you could rephrase: “How many times would you keep filling the bucket?” to: “How many times would you refill the bucket?”

  8. Suzana says

    Hey, the percentages may be a fraud, as some readers have pointed out, but I couldn’t agree more on the 2 reasons for ineffectual learning, based solely on my personal experience.
    Having gone from an extremely good and hands-on educational system where production and mistakes were encouraged, to the most traditional, lecture based undergrad and postgrad school, my almost 10-year long introspection for the lack of knowledge retention has been finally spelled out here.
    Thank you :)!

  9. npr says

    I have trouble taking this article as serious fact-and-advice since you read the info online a few minutes beforehand. Where did those statistics come from? Who gathered them? When?
    Also, what makes you think you’re an expert, or even well-versed enough to write about this topic, after ten minutes of researching?

  10. says

    For over 40 years there’s been a self-perpetuating graph
    which converted the ability to retain knowledge from different
    learning methods into percentages. The only two features to emerge
    with any credibility from this process are, one that the statistics
    were 100% unsubstantiated by research and that two, the order has a
    reasonable degree of logic to it and is worth building upon. So if
    the method of educating were a seven-horse race . . . Method Horse
    Name Lecture Tell Me Reading Read Me Audiovisual Watch Me
    Demonstration Show Me Discussion Chat to Me Practice Let’s Do It
    Teaching Let Me Tell You . . . the outsider would be the Tell Me,
    the clear favourite Let Me Tell You. But as anyone who has had a
    flutter knows, bookmakers’ odds don’t determine the outcome of the
    race. Form, weather conditions and the jockey all play significant
    roles. So too with learning where the mood of the participant, the
    teaching environment and the performance of the lecturer, determine
    what is going to stick in the mind. We at Maersk Training in
    Denmark have for over thirty years been teaching seafarers and
    oilmen some of the most technical and challenging tasks at work. We
    don’t have access to seven horses so in order to put the flawed
    pyramid to bed we aim to take a party of volunteers into the
    kitchen. Over three days we will employ each of the methods of
    learning and see if we can taste the difference. Well, it’s semi

  11. says

    Good post. No one taught me this – I had to learn the hard way… making mistakes. Being dyslexic I made many mistakes in my learning. Maybe because of those many mistakes I realized practicing it was the key.

    My secret was learning to cheat. Distilling a semester down to one sheet taught me the course. Now I cheat with everything I do.

  12. says

    Great stuff Sean, and I guess completely consistent with your signature in the Cave – ‘I don’t care about what you know, I care about what you do’ (I think that’s about right…), because if you haven’t actually done it you don’t know it anyway!

  13. says

    G’Day Sean,
    Thanks for posting this. It’s a further reason to specify, in measurable terms , what “trainees” are going to be able to actually do at the end of a training activity that they couldn’t do at the start.

    The important word is “do:” not understand, appreciate, gain insight about or even learn how.

    I’ve yet to see any web based training or instruction which commences with the words, “at the end of this training, course, program or whatever, you will be able to………”

    And it helps explain why most of the training I’ve seen–and sadly paid for in some cases– on the web ranges from very ordinary to outstandingly poor in quality.

    Anyway, make sure you have fun….
    Happy Christmas


  14. says

    Writing practice exams helps you a lot while preparing for a big test because, you learn from your mistakes and never forget the subject again!

    Thank you so much

  15. says

    I’m a teacher, so I know exactly what you mean. I have learned five or six languages other than my mother tongue, but I have only retained one, French. That’s because I taught French for several years.

  16. says

    Actually Sean, you’re both “wrong” although you’re more right than Cath is.
    You fill the bucket and discover the leak. That’s once.
    If you get rid of that bucket, you’ve only filled it once.
    If you fix the bucket, you fill it (and refill it) many times.

    And the difference between “refill” and “keep filling” is merely idiomatic semantics.

    Keep up the GREAT work. Absolutely love getting your newsletters.

  17. says

    Interesting article – never seen numbers attached to the various methods of learning and the emphasis on making mistakes is valid although I would perhaps use the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ in this context as well.
    For many years I ran my own construction company and before that my own factory – both relatively small businesses.
    I eventually developed a training plan where I would limit each session, run by myself, to 20 minutes. I then cut that to 10 minutes and in some cases as low as five minutes – all acompanied by practice afterwards, sometimes during.
    I cut the training time from 20 to 10 mins because I’d found that if I couldn’t explain and demonstrate something in 10 or 5 mins, that was mainly because I didn’t really understand it deeply enough myself, or I hadn’t thought about what the essence of the task was or that the task itself was uneccessarily complex.
    Consequently, I came to really know all about every task, many of which I can stilll recall in minute detail some 20 years later.
    So I fully endorse the principle of ‘learning and retaining by training and explaining’

    Don Kiddle

    • says

      Great job, Sean D’Souza. I’m grateful for Wil Thalheimer’s article because it debunks long touted learning statistics. Despite their being fallacious, the amount of positive responses to Sean’s article implies that there is some validity to his points. I myself recognize the importance of what he had to say. Interest in the material and repetition are important, I agree. I like the suggestion that mistakes are essential for learning. What wasn’t mentioned here is the role of emotion. I find that I can retain something for years if I had an emotional response to it. On the other hand, even things that I have done repeatedly for years can be forgotten over time after I stopped doing them. But something highly emotional, like asking my wife to marry me, I recall today 25 years later.

  18. says

    Brilliant post, Sean. Thank you.

    By the way, I am enjoying your testimonials course and just got a phone recorder so I can start collecting testimonials using your “Six Critical Questions.” Can’t wait to see the response.

  19. says

    Great article. It’s nice to know the numbers.

    I explain something like this to delegates at the beginning of every course and every one nodds and agree’s how simple it is. Then only 2 or 3 actually practice out of class. It’s easy to see who heeds this advice and who doesn’t.

    Kind Regards

  20. Dave Akister says

    Hi, Sean.
    Love your newsletter and articles (and have read and re-read The Brain Audit several times. I’ll have to get the new hard copy version one of these days).

    Interesting that you embraced this particular topic/theme in light of the controversy around it. There are probably as many people who debunk the theory as there are who subscribe to it … no identifiable research supporting either side.

    The fundamental question is “retain what” and “for how long”. I retain a lot of what I read (like the Brain Audit) and while I conduct workshops, I can’t do them until I have learned the material, which by definition, means I’ve retained it.

    I don’t disagree with the concept — along the lines of “see one, do one, teach one” which refers to medical training, I think. I’d just like to know if there’s any real truth to it, or it’s just a myth.


  21. says

    The answer is simple: just once.

    Actually, twice. The first time you discover the leak, then you fill the bucket a second time.

    Or you could rephrase: “How many times would you keep filling the bucket?” to: “How many times would you refill the bucket?”


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