Wednesday, January 3

20% of most groups of students are mentally dropped out

The more I study formal learning programs (I will leave the study of informal learning programs to Jay), the more I hit the same number. Of any class, real or virtual, lecture or simulation, self-paced or chaperoned, academic or corporate, about 20% of the students have mentally dropped out.

This is not the period "fuzzing out" that we all experience. These people are gone. When asked a question, they don't know what is going on. When asked to perform in a simulation, they can't.

Some of these mental dropouts later give the class great marks. Others trash it.

Some of these mental dropouts are fabulous performers in the organization. Others are looking for new jobs. Some are surly; some are charming.

Most sit in the back of the room if they can. Many cluster together during breaks.

Is this rock-solid research on my part? Absolutely not. Am I sounding like Rumsfeld? A little.

I have just been stunned by the absolute constant of this number. And how the training people always look at this number as their own failure. They are reluctant to talk about it. When I bring it up, the training people always try and justify why the 20% dropped out (oh, 10% had previous engagements...). But across situations, across rationales, the number is almost always the same.

What are the implications of this? I have no idea.


Anonymous said...

I think the 20% is a mythic guesstimate (in general, I mean; I'm not questioning your direct experience). In part it probably springs from the 80/20 "rule," which is really a heuristic that would surprise if not confuse Vilfredo Pareto.

I have no doubt whatsoever that mental dropout rates run much higher than 20% and at times pass 80%. My own "law of focus" is that participants in classroom training take 10 minutes' break per hour whether you give it to them or not.

If you consider learning to be what the participant does (rather than what the facilitation/instructor/training causes), then as a designer or presenter the best you can do will never mesh with everyone's expectation.

I fear the 20% constant will join the mythology about learning best with all your senses engaged.

There's also the 90-90 rule in software development: "The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time."

Anonymous said...

Clark, can you give us the source of the 20% figure? Like Dave F, I'm curious, and would be fascinated to know its origin. From your post, it sounds as if there's some background information available.

Richard Sheehy said...

20% has a nice ring about it. I would say that the percentage of those paying attention at any one time is proportional to the perceived relevance of the information to the learner. If there is no perceived benefit to the student I would say the they are prime candidates for mental dropout status.

I would also say that during the session (especially if longer than 10 minutes) that all of the students have mentally dropped out about 20% of the time just from the "interference" caused by their own thinking and wandering attention.

Clark Aldrich said...

Like most things I do, it has come out of hundreds of conversations I have had with all different types of learning professionals. What has been so dramatic is how often I have heard it, although sometimes it is 15%.

Matthew Nehrling said...

While we may argue percents, there is little doubt that if you walk into any classroom today, you will generally see students mentally somewhere else.

Is this the fault of students- often attributed to ADD or some other illness?

Or, is this the fault of educators and developers who still apply 'baby boomer' educational styles to newer generations?

Imagine what will happen when the toddlers today, who are now overwhelmed with learning devices like LeapFrog hit the workforce. What will happen if we continue to teach 'baby boomer' style?

Clark Aldrich said...


Here's the thing. I think if you had the best game/sim ever, with the most exciting graphics, etc., etc, you would STILL get that 20% (or whatever number).

Matthew Nehrling said...

Good point Clark. I guess it is hard to avoid that old 80/20 rule.. but I would love to see this tested... I, as a designer, would never want to just accept that I cannot reach 20% of my audience.

Donald Clark said...

The 20% is more of an average, rather than a constant. Thus some formal learning programs will have much higher "tune-in" rates than others. For example, I used to train forklifts and the tune-in rate was more around 99.9%. And the major factor was not the type of training (e.g.; sim, game, demo), but the learners themselves. That is, the learners wanted to be there and they saw a real benefit for being there. This particular class was totally voluntary. The learners who completed it and became qualified forklift operators would advance in pay scale and were provided higher job autonomy and task variety. To pass the course the learners had to complete both a written test and a performance test that was given under actual working conditions at their job site.

As a side note, a few managers and supervisors also completed the course, not because they would gain better pay, job autonomy, or task variety; but rather because they were highly interested in learning the skills of the people they oversaw.

Thus the closer you become to designing a course that meet real learners' needs, the closer you will come to having a 100% tune-in rate.