First published in The Hindu, 30 Mar 2024

You have a one-hour commute to college. As you find it hard to read in a moving vehicle, you opt for an audiobook. But instead of a novel, you decide to plough through a textbook that is now available in the audio format. You listen to a chapter on political philosophy, trying to focus with a keen ear. Later, in the evening, when you’re writing a paper, you find that your memory of the content is rather sparse. Are you saving time by listening to audio textbooks on the bus or are you better off reading the chapter at home?

In an article in the online magazine Psyche, Janet Geipel and Boaz Keysar weigh the pros and cons of reading print versus listening to text. According to the authors, the modality through which we imbibe information impacts how we process it. When we hear text, we’re more likely to process the information intuitively, wherein we make snap decisions based on our “gut feelings or instincts.” In contrast, when we read text, we tend to engage with it more analytically, which entails “evaluating information” deliberately and diligently. In another study, the researchers found that people are more likely to “solve logic puzzles” when they read the text as opposed to hear the information.

To confirm whether it was the modality per se that impacted the results, the authors ensured that the text was presented on a screen in small chunks at a time so that participants couldn’t reread content that was presented earlier. However, even when information was presented in this format, participants did better while reading as opposed to listening.

The authors speculate that as children we learn oral language naturally and easily, whereas reading requires formal instruction, “effort and practice.” So, it’s possible that these two modalities tend to tap “different brain processes from the very beginning.” While we rely on both intuition and analytic thinking, we may opt for the former when we need to make lightning decisions and engage in the latter when considered responses are required. So, if you would like to process information deeply and deliberately, opting to read it is probably the more optimal strategy.

Common misperception

As we’re discussing visual and auditory modalities, it’s probably a good opportunity to debunk a myth that tends to pervade lay thinking. The idea that we have unique “learning styles” has been bandied about in the popular press so much so that people make statements like, “I’m primarily a visual learner,” “My preferred learning style is auditory” or “I learn best kinesthetically.” Though the idea of learning styles is often spoken of in educational circles, the empirical literature doesn’t support the theory.

In a report published in Psychological Science in Public Interest in 2009, Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel and Robert Bjork, argue that “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” While the construct of learning styles may appeal to a more inclusive ethos, the evidence does not support the idea that some students learn better visually while others do better aurally with the same content.

Rather, how we learn depends on what we’re learning, avers Daniel Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School? We all benefit from looking at a map if we want to understand the physical geography of a country, rather than simply reading or hearing a description of the physical features and their relative locations. Likewise, if we want to learn knitting, we have to do it kinesthetically. Just watching others knit or hearing the steps they follow is not going to make us knitters. That said, we all stand to gain when a concept lends itself to multiple modalities. So, reading about the structure of a cell, watching a video and drawing the cell leads to more robust learning than relying on one modality alone.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know & blogs at