Auditory Learning and the “Stigma of Audiobooks”

By Daniel Malcom, PharmD, BCPS, BCCCP

Recently, in a book club at our institution, a discussion was ongoing about the implications of our latest selection. I chimed in with a reference to another book that contained relevant material. As was my usual custom, I added, “Well, I mean I listened to it…” with a grin. I am a known and unashamed audiobook and podcast fan, openly preferring the audio format to reading for nearly everything possible. Another faculty member, relatively new to our institution, noted that “listening is not the same as reading,” which started a larger discussion about audiobooks versus written books. We continued our discussion about the subject after the book club, and I encouraged him to try out an audiobook on his next long drive.

This experience, and others outside of the professional setting, speak to a slight, yet significant stigma that auditory learning has in our society. History is full of rich oral traditions of storytelling as a means of passing on information. The recent growth of TED talks have brought attention to the practice of storytelling. “Listening” rather than reading is not without controversy, however. A brief search of the education literature found examples of educators (even librarians) calling for more research into whether audiobooks “count” as legitimate reading materials. Barnes and Noble has hosted a blog entry about the subject, and even The New York Times and New York Magazine have weighed in on the subject. There is definitely value in the written word, particularly in development of vocabulary and written communication skills (and in the medium I am currently using). Learning and mastering material, however, is much more complex and necessitates a multimodal approach. In essence, being “learner-” or “student-centered” means respecting how best the students learn.

Is a person’s “learning style” important?
Much research has been conducted related to learning styles in students of all types, including pharmacy.1-4 One of the most popular assessments of learning styles is VARK, which stands for the four learning styles it represents: visual, aural (auditory), read/write, and kinesthetic. According to the description, aural learners have a preference for spoken or heard information, with questioning as an important learning strategy.  But not all educational theorists buy into the learning styles theory. Kirschner5 argues that the clustering of learners into distinct groups fails to appreciate the difference between preference of learning methodology and effectiveness in achieving outcomes. The debate about the relevance of learning styles will likely continue in the pedagogical literature; however, the explosion of mobile technology with internet access to allow streaming of audio and video as well as the existence of services like Audible mean that audio learning has become just as accessible as reading. With this increased accessibility and utilization, it is important to integrate audiobooks (and similar media) into the curriculum. Luckily, there are several low-effort approaches to take!

Examples of ways to reach auditory learners:

  • Recording lectures for later listening: Popular lecture-capturing software (such as Panopto) allows the user to download or even stream content in video and/or audio form. Our institution uses Panopto, and students often report “subscribing” to a class in iTunes (instructions here) to listen to lectures or content while driving.
  • Keeping listeners in mind while teaching. Describe any pictures or charts present in your lectures. Recognize that some in the audience (either synchronous or asynchronous) may not be able to see or do not learn best from simply viewing any pictures included in your lectures.
  • Using discussion-based elements in your courses: Small-group breakout sessions of largerclasses or discussion-based elective courses are a way of incorporating auditory learning without completely changing the way the curriculum is structured.

Strategies for removing the stigma from auditory learning

  1. Embrace the willingness to learn.  Traditional methods of obtaining information (i.e., literature search, textbooks) could fall short for the auditory learner.  Discouragement and lack of interest in the topic could be symptoms that the teaching method employed does not match the student’s preferred style of learning.
  2. Seek out topic-specific or subject-specific venues of information for the learner. Khan Academy has a large library of explanatory lectures (containing audio and video) which have been helpful to both me and my students in the past. The audio in these lectures explains while the video is usually hand-drawn figures or text to correspond to the explanation.
  3. Encourage students to learn the stories behind the material. For students interested in a storytelling angle to their material, refer them to texts that explain the whys and hows behind the material. Some great ones I’ve listened to lately include a biography of cancer, the stories of the creation of antibiotics,  and even a history of the rabies virus.

What are your experiences with using auditory learning in the classroom? Have audiobooks helped your own learning or in your teaching?


  1. Varao Sousa TL, Carriere JS, Smilek D.  The way we encounter reading material influences how frequently we mind wander. Front Psychol. 2013;4:892.
  2. Romanelli F, Bird E, Ryan M. Learning styles: a review of theory, application, and best practices. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009;73(1): Article 9.
  3. Teevan CJ, Li M, Schlesselman LS. Index of learning styles in a US School of pharmacy.
    Pharm Pract (Granada). 2011;9(2):82-7.
  4. Crawford SY, Alhreish SK, Popovich NG. Comparison of learning styles of pharmacy students and faculty members. Am J Pharm Educ. 2012;76(10): Article 192.
  5. Kirschner PA. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Comput Educ. 2017;106: 166-171.


Daniel Malcom, PharmD, BCPS, BCCCP is an associate professor and vice-chair of the Department of Clinical and Administrative Sciences at Sullivan University College of Pharmacy. Daniel’s education scholarship interests include critical care education, leadership, and ethics. He maintains a clinical practice site in the intensive care unit and a passionate interest in developing the next generation of pharmacist leaders.

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