Audio learning vs Visual learning: differences, similarities and practical takeaways

Visual learning vs audio learning

At Alpe, we’re often asked two questions:

  1. What’s an audio course and how is audio learning different from “regular” online, visual learning?

  2. How do you teach in audio when so many people are ‘visual learners’?

At the root lies a key question: What’s the difference between visual learning and audio learning and what’s the practical takeaways as a learner and course creator?

The myth of audio learning vs visual learning

Understanding the key differences between video learning and audio learning is at the heart of creating good audio courses (which you can find a full guide for writing one here), but first let’s start with where they’re similar and NOT different, which is the myth of learning styles that lies at the heart of the comparison between audio learning and visual learning.

My ‘guru’ in this field is Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist and the author of ‘Why Don’t Students like School?’ (mandatory reading for everyone at Alpe). In his book, Daniel brings and references studies that point a clear cut picture regarding the popular myth of ‘learning styles’.

Audio learning vs visual learning — why learning styles don’t exist according to Daniel T. Willingham

There are many breakdowns thought profiles and cognitive abilities that cognitive scientists have offered. Some focus on abstract concepts while other focus on the modality. A few examples can be:

  1. Broad vs narrow — Preference for thinking in terms of a few categories with many items versus thinking in many categories with fewer items

  2. Analytic vs nonanalytic — A tendency to differentiate among many attributes of objects versus seeking themes and similarities among objects

  3. Visual vs audio vs kinesthetic — different modalities that people prefer to perceive information

But there are many more. Why is Willingham so adamant that learning styles don’t exist? Well it’s simple actually. It comes down to scientific testing.

Testing Audio learning vs Visual Learning

When it comes down to testing theories, their is a simple way to see if they work. Divide groups into two, and test how people perform on specific tasks. To test visual learning vs audio learning this means taking a group of self proclaimed ‘visual learners’, i.e people who believe they learn much better through visual representations, dividing them in two groups and then presenting each group with information in different formats. For example for group A you’d present a slide show with the material in neat bullet points while for group B you’d present information in a different, non visual, style — like an audio version.

That’s exactly what scientists have done, and the results are pretty conclusive. Learning styles don’t exist in this context. Group A doesn’t perform any better than group B. The reason is that what we remember is related to meaning far more than it is to images or sounds. Sure, some things are heavily related, like maps or pictures, but most material we need to remember, like who said what and when, isn’t visual or audio per se, rather we’re remembering meaning.

Which is why the focus on visual learning vs audio learning is all off. In reality, we should be focusing on meaning — making sure what we’re teaching is relevant to our audience.

What’s the takeaway for audio learning vs visual learning

If meaning is what we’re focusing on, the audio course versus visual course is shown in a different context. It’s no longer a question of ‘how can I comprehend something if I don’t see it’, rather the question becomes a much more holistic debate on visual learning vs audio learning. This revolves around two main issues that do connect to learning:

  1. Repetition

  2. Attention

According to Willingham, learning is a combination of repetition and meaning. We agree.

In other words, it is meaning plus repetition that equals memory. In our first lesson, we learned that mindless repetition — like filling up your car’s gas tank or using a coin — won’t create memory, but neither will a funny mnemonic that you don’t practice retrieving. Think of meaning and repetition as the power couple that will make your learning unstoppable! - Rethinking Learning, Lesson 5: Memory Improvement Techniques

At Alpe we focus on another aspect: attention. Today’s reality is that many learners, be they students in class or professional learners are busy. Constantly multitasking, regardless of whether you’re learning on Coursera, Udemy, sitting in front of your teacher or professors or learning to Alpe Audio Course — you’re multitasking. That means that your attention isn’t purely focused on learning, which is something that the teacher of the audio course or visual course has to take into account.

But the distraction is very different for each kind of platform. Studies show that our attention span has shrunken dramatically for online video learning over the past decade. The reason is simple — there’s far more competition when it comes to the screens in our life. Coursera or your Zoom lecture is competing with the entire internet — Facebook, the NY Times, email. It’s stiff competition. The loss of focus in this case is very specific and it’s caused video modules to shrink from 30–40 minutes to 3–7 minutes. The outcome of this is dramatically short modules that often lose out on repetition in the name of being ‘on point’ and maintaining user attention. When you’re competing for precious time, every second counts (for further reading on the challenge and opportunity of audio learning, check out this article).

Audio is quite different. Attention span for audio has been show to be anywhere from 7–15 minutes. The reason is quite simple: we’re usually multitasking with a routine task — commuting, washing dishes or running errands. These are tasks that keep us mildly preoccupied mentally but heavily preoccupied physically. This means that the competition for your attention, while basically assured, is much lower. As a teacher this means that you have to structure your content to account for this. This requires far more repetition than normal, breaking down concepts into simpler formats so that your students really understand and internalize information before moving onwards (we cover this in depth in how to write an audio course, How long your audio lesson should be and How long your audio course should be).

Bringing it all together: visual learning vs audio learning

Audio learning and visual learning are different. They require different structuring for material and how you transfer information, but not for the reason most people think. Contrary to popular belief, learning styles don’t play a major role in learning. Meaning, repetition and attention do. Visual learning is strong when you’re focused on it fully, dedicating your time and attention to understanding more complex concepts, charts and knowledge graphs. But, competition for that time is a huge challenge, which usually causes it to fail. On the other hand audio learning is a great format for leveraging the compounding effect — a little bit of quality learning day after day goes a long way after a while. Audio is convenient and habit inducing, which helps us build learning habits, which are the key to lifelong learning and professional development.

In our next segment, we’ll tackle the difference between structuring an actual audio course vs a visual course.

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