Project Practitioners > The Learning Pyramid

The Learning Pyramid

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


Linkedin can be an odd mixture of self-promotion, job advertisements, and some learning elements. While scrolling my feed (or whatever they call it), I spotted this learning pyramid. Learning becomes fun when the knowledge is retained. Otherwise, you are just hearing and never applying.


Last night in jiu jitsu class, we were continuing our worm guard series for the fifth week in a row. The person I was practicing the technique with had been to the classes as often as I have. We started to take the lessons from previous weeks and mix them into the current class.

The level of retention was even surprising to us as we started to put the pieces together. Like a previous article, we started to take pleasure at being the cause. The combination of teaching others, practice by doing, discussing, demonstrating, and audio-visual solidified the information in our brains. It was a stop-and-stare moment when we both realized these instructions are starting to click.

Project managers have the same opportunities for this combination of powerful learning tools. The process begins top-down in my experience. A new hire comes into work and immediately gets inundated with information (lecture) and maybe gets a manual placed in front of them to peruse (reading).


As you can see from the diagram, these initial steps do little to nothing for retention. By explaining things, you are producing no more than hot air.

Demonstration may be the next step in the new hire process. Now that information has been spoken and read, the person can start to do. Seeing how emails are structured or how meetings are produced becomes a way for the new hire to demonstrate their learned knowledge.

Practice by doing becomes the next step in the learning curve. Enough talking and reading, now it is time to prove your retention to the boss. For me, this step always felt monumental like this is a make or break moment. The true test of whether or not you will make it in this new position.

If you pass this level of retention, finally you can teach others what you do and how you do it to assist in making the team understand better.


This course of top-down new hire assimilation should be flipped on its head. Why not start out with having the new hire teach others what they know and build from there? Rather than impart your ways, learn from them and find ways to better implement their techniques.

This approach may not work for someone who is green to the profession or industry, but if you hire an experienced individual, top-down may lead to frustration when bottom-up could lead to empowerment.

This scenario would look something like this:


The company introduces the issues they have been having to the new hire. Based on experience, the new hire starts to teach others on ways to move forward or even solve the problem. If it is mechanical, a step-by-step diagnostic approach may be best. A more abstract approach, the art of management, may be necessary for other issues.

From there, the new hire would get involved with implementing the solution. This practice by doing not only enforces the message in the messenger’s mind but also shows the team this person is willing to get their hands dirty per se. Making the difficult phone calls to an owner or sponsor proves to the team you are fully vested and are not afraid to take the heat if necessary.

While the work is ongoing, discussion occurs. Why are you doing it this way and not the way we are familiar with? This bouncing back and forth of ideas starts to hone the best approach for future actions. Take a few things from the new hire’s approach and inject some traditional ways of the organization to create a best of both worlds solution.



Start to create a cycle for using the best approaches for retention. A quick glance at the graphic shows lecturing and reading do nothing for a person’s ability to retain knowledge. If you sit someone in a room and start to talk while they skim the reading material, the odds he or she is learning anything are low.

I remember a new hire video I had to watch and take a quiz after each section. If I answered incorrectly, I would have to watch the video again until I passed. I retained nothing. Even the combination of reading and audio-visual, my retention was limited, but the paper said I was competent.

A better approach to the safety course would have been taking me out to the shop and have me show off what limited knowledge I have and build from there. If I had any ability to teach the technician what I know about the equipment, that would have saved us both time.

This approach is similar to testing out of a class in college. If you show immediate competency, why take an entire course on something you already know? You can start at a more advanced level because your knowledge base is greater than foundational.

Flip the retention pyramid on its head. Take a bottom-up approach to new hires or current employees.

Spewing knowledge is great, but if no one retains it, does it really exist?

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