How to use pyramids in learning design

There’s something alluring and majestic about the the shape of a pyramid. You don’t have to be a mathematician (I certainly am not) to appreciate the way a pyramid naturally lends itself to represent common hierarchies and relationship concepts. Throughout the history of instructional design, the pyramid has appeared within both models of learning theory and as a popular device to convey meaning. However, perhaps blinded by its allure, we sometimes misuse its power and get it horribly wrong.

What makes a pyramid powerful?

Learning designers and educators love pyramids for a variety of reasons.

  • Visual appeal – They have a memorable shape, even when represented as a 2D triangular model.
  • Conceptual strength – They have a strong, seemingly immovable base that holds everything above it up.
  • Aspirational qualities – They point upwards, with lines joining at the apex. Whether drawing upon human traditions that point to higher powers, or simply that the top is superior to the bottom, humans tend to read a similar hierarchy.
  • Metaphorical significance – For example, one dominant predatory animal sits at the top of a food chain, while higher numbers of smaller creatures further down the chain make up the diets of those above them. And, to this day, we still see organisational and political hierarchies where one person sits at the top, ruling over a kingdom of subjects, with intermediate social classes.

I am sure there are many more reasons why pyramids are powerful and interesting, but these examples should be sufficient to serve my point.

When and how do we get it wrong?

The power of pyramids is unfortunately lost through misinterpretation and inappropriate use in learning design. This usually happens because the pyramid shape does not match the concept being conveyed. And, rather than finding an alternative shape or representation, the concept or content is forced to fit.

Let’s look at one of the most recognisable and popular models used by educators and learning designers: the learning pyramid. You might know the one… we retain 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we say… and so on. I remember the first time I saw this many years ago and how, rather than cast a critical eye, I marvelled at it, promptly stuck it in my slide deck and printed out a copy for my wall. But, after a while, I started to question its validity. Do we really retain information like that? If so, should educators carefully weigh out content types so that learners experience the “right” percentage of each medium? And the percentages – they’re conveniently exact, aren’t they?

learning pyramid debunked

As an aside… there are lots of dubious learning theories that linger and are actively promoted, no matter how strong the evidence against them may be. The most talked about example is the theory of learning styles. However, as frustrating as this may be, it’s perhaps worth keeping those slides in our decks, and return to them as a reminder of what they were trying to achieve. Rather than making such models taboo, or shaming those who love them, we should go back and remind ourselves why they are problematic, and continue to learn through critical discussions around them. There is so much to learn from what we and others get wrong!

Coming back to this pyramid, where did it go wrong? Well, the learning pyramid is believed to be based on Edgar Dale’s (1946) Cone of learning, but has since been misinterpreted. You can learn more about the story from an ACRLog post: Tales of the undead… Learning theories: the learning pyramid. There were no percentages in the original cone, but at some point someone decided to try and make it work. And as enticing as the new model has been for educators, it’s not based on sufficient research and poses lots of potential problems.

The moral of the story is not to try and force or manipulate a concept to fit a pyramid, triangle, or any other shape.

How do you get it right?

Pyramids can be used to represent all sorts of concepts, but they will all have certain qualities in common. If your concept does not have pyramidic qualities, then you need a different shape or form of representation (in the last post, we looked at how to use linearity, for example).

Here are some questions to sense check your pyramid model:

  • Does the base represent the largest amount of something (quantity, duration), with the levels above representing less of the same, and the top the smallest amount?
  • Is the top the most important thing? i.e. a goal, or the most powerful entity.
  • Do the upper parts rely on those beneath them as a foundation? I.e. if you removed them, the whole structure could collapse.
  • Do the proportions and order of the segments make sense?

The answers to all of these questions should probably be yes. Somewhat ironically, the exception would be if you are literally describing pyramids, in the Egyptian, or mathematical sense!

How to design an interactive pyramid

Using a pyramid shape as the basis of an interactive experience or learning device will likely imprint or reinforce the shape in the mind of the learner. If you introduce a topic through a memorable shape, the learner might continue to associate or organise their understanding of that information, within that shape. So, this should be a deliberate act.

Ideally, you want to work with an established pyramidic concept that is already backed up by research, or teaching strategy. If you are working with a subject-matter expert (SME), it will likely be up to them to determine whether this is the case.

For example, I created this simple demo of a fitness pyramid, versions of which appeared on websites all over the internet. It is built in Articulate Storyline using layers for the pop-up information and a drop-down ordering activity. Something similar could be built using tools like Adobe Captivate or Lectora.

This is the sort of thing an SME might present to me as a diagram, and I then interpret into interactive content.

Does it make sense… as a pyramid? Actually, I’m not sure. The levels are ordered by different measurements – time, repetitions, difficulty, effort etc. I would certainly ask a few questions, to ensure I understand the model and also so the SME appreciates how a learner might interpret this new information. I would probably recommend giving learners some more context in the content or teaching sessions.

If something is problematic, but on a set curriculum, you may have to include it anyway, but with some notes or critical questions. Once in a while, however, instructional designers pick up on things that the experts haven’t thought about and even bigger changes are made! 

Other ways to use pyramids

On some occasions I am presented with some content that immediately lends itself to a certain type of learning device, like a pyramid. But other times, a pyramid can be just a nice shape for something, like a game. That’s fine if it doesn’t confuse any other meanings within the content.

Here’s a simple pyramid game idea.

  • Decide whether you want to have 3, 4 or 5 levels of difficulty.
  • Divide the 2D pyramid up into equal-sized triangle sections: the top has 1 triangle, then 3 beneath it, 5 beneath that, increasing by two for each lower layer.
  • Write a quiz question or task of appropriate difficulty for each triangle.
  • Create each question or task as a separate layer or slide, returning to one or more slides that show the main pyramid being built.
  • Build the interaction so that the learner can move up to the next level once the questions have been answered.

The rules of the game or pathways can be set so that all questions of a level must be answered before moving on, or learners can create their own “Blockbusters-style” pathway.

Here is a demo of the idea:

As this uses placeholder questions, the whole file can be used as a template or container to build similar interactions for different projects.

I have previously recommended this type of activity for teaching concepts about building something (literal or conceptual). It is particularly good for topics like empowerment and achievement.

If you would like bespoke tutorials and coaching to help you with your interaction designs, we offer virtual 1-1 and group tutorials in Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, H5P, and other authoring tools. Get in touch for more information.

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Pedagogy is generally defined as the art, science and craft of teaching. The first pedagogues were Greek slaves who were responsible for caring for and instructing their masters’ children. In fact, the Greek origin of the word means ‘to lead the child’.

So, pedagogy may also be considered to be about nurture and pastoral care, as well as teaching. Despite the reference to children, the term is used fairly comfortably in adult education contexts. However, andragogy, which translates as ‘to lead the man’, may be used to refer specifically to the teaching of adults.

A number of related and derivative terms may be used to define particular fields of pedagogical interest, including digital pedagogycritical pedagogy, and heutagogy.