The Cone Of Experience: How Can It Still Impact Learning?

The Cone Of Experience: How Can It Still Impact Learning?
Summary: They say that the most effective way to learn something is by doing it and gaining practical experience. So, how does Edgar Dale's cone of experience prove this, and how relevant is it today?

How Was The Cone Of Experience Born?

Edgar Dale was a professor who began researching how multimedia and educational media impact learning comprehension. In 1946, he first presented the cone of experience and categorized the chosen experiences from most to least abstract. For instance, learners tend to understand and remember better when learning from direct experiences than from verbal or visual symbols. The latter don't have a clear connection or resemblance to real-life situations, while people can experience personal events with all their senses. However, the inverted cone is not a hierarchy of which mediums are better or worse for learning but simply a basis and analogy of how personal experiences are more effective than abstract incidents. Basically, we tend to learn better when we can see, hear, feel, touch, and smell an experience rather than when we simply listen to it or view it.

The 11 Levels Of The Cone

1. Direct, Purposeful Experiences

According to Edgar Dale, learners remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they hear and see, 70% of what they say and write, and 90% of what they do. The last refers to activities people participate in directly. Therefore, they perform tasks and learn as they progress and receive hands-on experience. For example, individuals learn how to drive when they get behind the wheel and start controlling their vehicle. No matter how much theory they study, practical learning can't be initiated until they start operating a car.

2. Contrived Experiences

The second level of the cone of experience refers to constructed models that resemble real-life cases. For instance, students at school learn about geography and the world by looking at globes or maps as it's impossible to visit all places while in class. These imitations help learners grasp the meaning and get a good understanding of the teaching. It's easier to create a contrived experience, and learning becomes accessible. In today's landscape, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can be utilized to create simulations for an even more interactive learning adventure.

3. Dramatized Experiences

In this scenario, learners are involved in role-play to immerse themselves in the learning. For example, students at school may watch or participate in a play about the Renaissance to learn about the characteristics of that time. They may not be able to experience these situations firsthand, but they can get very close through dramatization. In professional settings, salespeople may practice their sales pitches in dramatized scenarios. Thus, if they fail, there won't be any severe consequences, and they'll know which practices to avoid.

4. Demonstrations

The next spot in the cone of experience belongs to visualized explanations of complex matters, facts, and information. Various mediums can be utilized to foster understanding, including film, pictures, drawings, and animations. This is especially useful for onboarding and training when professionals are taught the basics of their job and how to perform at the top of their game. However, demonstrations don't allow participants to gain hands-on experience, as knowledge is theoretical. Seeing a task done is not the same as doing it yourself.

5. Study Trips

While AR and VR simulations are common nowadays, they can't always offer the real-life experiences study trips provide. For instance, agriculture students may visit a farm and watch how to milk a cow and maybe try it themselves. These rich opportunities offer every student the ability to experience an event equally and understand how their theoretical knowledge connects with real-life practices. Additionally, learners can socialize and ask questions they had never thought of.

6. Exhibits

As the cone of experience proceeds, we reach the more abstract occurrences, where handling is limited. Exhibits are very important and can be extremely meaningful during the learning process. However, learners can only perceive information and knowledge through vision and hearing and can't have any active participation. For instance, school students visit museums and historical sites to get a better understanding of art and history. These interactive experiences engage them by displaying new ideas and discoveries.

7. & 8. Television And Movies

In the original version of the cone of experience, Edgar Dale divided these two. However, recent publications have grouped them together as they act very similarly. Videos, animations, motion pictures, and TV programs are quite abstract experiences that invite learners to create a connection between the projected material and real-life occurrences. You may crop unnecessary parts, zoom in on important details, edit the material, or slow down videos to aid comprehension. Individuals may not be able to participate actively, but they can receive information that would otherwise be inaccessible.

9. Recordings And Still Pictures

In our era, we would describe this level with photos, podcasts, and audio files. One common misconception regarding the cone of experience was that seeing is more effective than hearing. However, Dale placed both activities on the same level of abstraction as none of them require learners to take an action. So, they are simply observers and can't gain any practical experience.

10. Visual Symbols

Symbols are commonly used in pretty much every aspect of our lives, from traffic symbols to airport signs. In Dale's theory, visual symbols refer to diagrams, charts, infographics, and maps. They simplify complex matters and help professionals get a clear understanding. Engaging illustrations or animated images may be used to make the material brighter and more captivating.

11. Verbal Symbols

This level is the most abstract on the cone of experience and includes words, terminologies, rules, and other written formulas. They simply describe something without offering any visual representation or making any real-life connection. Dale mentioned how writing the word "horse" doesn't give any idea of what a horse looks or sounds like.

The Role Of The Cone Of Experience In L&D

Dale believed that schools force students to memorize large chunks of texts instead of helping them learn how to think and solve problems. However, nothing has changed after all these years in the school system. Companies, however, have adopted a completely different approach to employee Learning and Development (L&D) initiatives. This is where the cone of experience comes into play. Dale mentioned that learners need "rich experiences" to comprehend information, meaning that they should use their ears, eyes, noses, mouths, and hands. Having hands-on training opportunities motivates them to keep learning during their lives. Not only do they feel proud of their accomplishments, but they can also create their own learning pathways. Modern LMS platforms are equipped with such abilities as they utilize engaging mediums and social learning features. However, you should ensure the right balance and not overindulge on immersive elements.

How To Apply It In Instructional Design

The cone of experience offers a theoretical basis for how people learn and which mediums help them retain knowledge. Instructional Designers may follow the cone's levels to create immersive and engaging training courses and balance concrete and abstract learning experiences. For example, just because visual symbols are abstract, it doesn't mean that you'll stop using written language. You just need to accompany it with visual aids like animations, videos, and demonstrations. You may purchase a course that fits your requirements and satisfies your learners' needs. If you're creating courses yourself, you can use gamified features, VR and AR simulations, and combine audiovisual elements for fascinating experiences.

How Relevant Is The Cone Of Experience Today?

Let's not forget that the cone of experience was first created in 1946, and Edgar Dale himself advised people to not take it too seriously. However, he provided us with a clear guide regarding learning comprehension and the more effective mediums. Thanks to his work, the multimedia cone of abstraction was designed in 2013 as a modern representation of the same idea. The new cone categorizes Virtual Reality as the least abstract medium and proceeds to add video, image, nonverbal video, narration, text, and symbol as the more abstract ones. In conclusion, educators, Instructional Designers, and learners should keep this frame in mind to aid learning experiences.


Edgar Dale was much more than an education theorist since he fought for better schools, academic freedom, and civil rights. He understood the massive importance of media in an era when people were not as familiar with it as we are today. His ideas are still valid and can be utilized by educational facilities to improve the delivery of knowledge. But don't take our word for it. Why don't you try teaching your learners using different mediums and see which one works the best?