Many students and autodidacts wonder if audiobooks are as good as physical books for learning.
Here’s the short answer:
Listening to audiobooks is an effective way to learn new things as long as you can pay attention to the recording, and especially if you pause occasionally to think over what was said or to take notes.
That said, I’ve found that the extended answer to this question is that it depends on the person, the book’s genre, and the reading goal.
In this article, I’ll go over the long answer, give you some things to consider, share a strategy to learn from audiobooks, and show you how audiobooks fit into my study routine.
Are Audiobooks Good For Learning?
It really depends on your learning style, the type of book, and your goals.
Learning Style Considerations
Audiobooks are good for learning new subjects as long as you’re able to pay attention to what’s being said without your mind drifting off.
Some people will find that they need the act of moving their eyes across a physical book to keep them focused on the content. Others will notice no difference at all between the two mediums.
Personally, I’ve found that I retain more from reading books physically, because I can mark them up and I’m less likely to drift off and start thinking about what I’m cooking for dinner and whether I bought the potatoes like I was supposed to.
Book Genre Considerations
A rule that I’ve found is that the denser and older the book, the greater the difference in comprehension between an audiobook and a physical book.
So, for example, I use Audible to read self-improvement, business, and commercial non-fiction books, as the language and concepts are usually quite easy to comprehend.
But I tend to stick with physical books for philosophy, history, classic literature, and academic books.
The language in these is more nuanced and dense. The concepts can be hard to wrap your head around and sometimes require me to read twice. And these types of books also reward slow, careful reading, and physical books make me slow down more than an audiobook.
Study Goals Considerations
If your goal is to mark up a book and review those notes later for an essay, book review, or something else, it’s probably best to use a physical book.
Also, if your goal is to really go deep into a book and have a conversation with the author, most people will find physical books are better, as you can write your thoughts in the margins as you read.
That said, you can take notes while you listen. But obviously not while you’re driving or doing chores — at least not easily.
You can also still talk to the author, by pausing the audiobook and talking out loud, though that might be strange for some.
Also, the problem with that is you won’t save those thoughts on paper for later when you do a re-read, which is super helpful for retention.
Now, Audible does allow you to save clips of their audiobooks up to 2 minutes long. So that can be a decent substitute for underlining and marginalia. But, in my experience, nothing beats marking up a book.
The act forces you to think about what the author is saying and connect their ideas to your experience and other things you’ve read, both of which help improve retention and form a deeper understanding.
Pros and Cons of Audiobooks for Learning
Here are some basic pros and cons.
Pros of Audiobooks for Learning:
- They Empower You to Learn On-the-Go & Read More.
- You Can Read When Your Eyes Are Tired.
- Audio Allows You To Close Your Eyes & See The Images in Your Mind.
Cons of Audiobooks for Learning:
- You Can’t Write in the Margins.
- You Might Get Distracted.
- It’s a Bit Harder to Easily Re-Read Passages.
- You May Be Less Likely to Slow Down & Think About the Text.
Test it Out for Yourself
The best way to figure out if audiobooks are helping you learn is by actually testing it out.
Listen to an audiobook chapter and then try to summarize it afterwards in your own words. Or try to recap your 1-2 takeaways from each chapter.
Do this chapter by chapter and then on a larger scale with the entire book. If you’re able to do it at a satisfactory level, audiobooks may be good for learning this type of book you chose to test out.
That’s a great place to try out audiobooks for learning.
Are There Any Books That Shouldn’t Be Read With Audiobooks?
In general, dense/academic non-fiction books and textbooks are probably going to give you significantly better learning returns on your time if you read them with your eyes rather than your ears.
Books like Leviathan, The Inheritance of Rome, or Capital in the 21st Century are meant to be marked up. They’re dense and difficult. Francis Bacon might’ve said they’re meant to be chewed.
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”— Francis Bacon
They are meant to make you pause and think, so unless you’re going to pause the audiobook every few minutes, you might want to stick to regular books.
Plus, textbooks generally have diagrams and exercises that help you learn.
I also tend to shy away from audiobooks when I’m reading a classic, because I know almost every line possibly contains something special that I don’t want to miss.
But that’s just me.
Some people recommend listening to audiobooks for classic literature to diversify your intake, which can help you remember what you’ve read.
By listening and shutting your eyes you can probably create clearer mental images of the scenes and characters, which can help you remember.
A theme throughout this article will be me saying try it out before taking my word for it. Everyone’s different.
For all I know you might be better at learning from textbooks in audio form than with physical ones.
Who Benefits Most From Using Audiobooks to Study?
If you have poor or no eyesight or little time to sit and read a physical book, then you’re going to get a hell of a lot out of audiobooks because otherwise you wouldn’t be reading at all.
Listening to 30 minutes of audiobooks as opposed to letting unread physical books pile up on your bedside table as a symbol of growing guilt is better ten times out of ten.
Commuters with busy jobs, parents with busy family duties, people with busy lives will find they’ve gained a superpower, the ability to learn while exercising, commuting, walking, doing chores, or whatever.
I take a lot of walks, and on some of those walks I’ll throw on an audiobook, and for me that’s huge because it lets me get 30 more minutes of learning in every day, and that adds up!
Really, anyone can benefit from adding audiobooks into their daily learning routine. I use Audible almost every day at this point.
7 Tips to Learn Effectively From Audiobooks
Below are some ways to get the most out of studying with audiobooks.
Pick Books You’re Interested In
It’s hard enough to pay attention to books you’re not interested in when you’re reading a physical copy. That problem is exacerbated with audiobooks, as it’s easier to drift off.
I’ve had the experience many times of realizing I hadn’t been listening to the audiobook for over five minutes. My mind was somewhere else. So then I have to go and rewind it.
If you’re studying a book for school, this may be hard, as the book is mandated. Perhaps go with a physical book in this case.
But if you’re studying on your own as an autodidact, you get to follow your curiosity, which should make this tip easy to implement.
Establish a Purpose Before Reading
What do you want to get out of the book? Are you trying to learn a new skill? Write an essay about the topic this book covers? Gain wisdom? Fix a problem?
Define your reason for reading before clicking play. This will help you focus most on the parts of the book that help you achieve your end-goal.
For example, if my goal in reading The Republic was to help me write an article on education philosophy, I’d pay more attention to the related passages. I might pause and take notes whenever Plato said something about education.
If I was reading it to ace an exam on political philosophy, I’d be more attentive to the political theories and arguments.
If I had to write a book summary, I’d stop at every chapter and jot down a brief summary of what happened in the chapter I just listened to.
In all three cases I’d still try to be attentive to all else that is said. It is a classic after all. But some parts would get more love than others.
Use the Clip Feature on Audible
The Clip feature in Audible enables you to save your favorite passages and sentences from the audiobook.
This way you can go back and review what you’ve noted as important, when you review this book.
By reviewing these clips, and perhaps even transcribing them into a notebook or commonplace book, you’ll practice spaced repetition, science’s most studied learning tactic.
Pause the Audiobook When You Hear a Thing you Want to Remember
Another thing to do when you come across a great passage that you think is worth remembering is to pause the audiobook and think more deeply about it.
Try to connect it to your personal experience or other theories and concepts. If it’s a claim that you disagree with, try to articulate why.
Connecting the book’s ideas or characters or events to ones you already know will help you remember what you’ve read.
Take Notes (if you have use of your hands)
Take the previous tip a step further by actually writing down notes on a piece of paper or keyboard.
Try summarizing the passage in your own words in writing. This helps you commit it to memory and also understand on a deeper level.
You can then come back to these notes and study them later. Or you can compile them into a quizlet or a flashcard technology like Anki.
Review What you Read at Intervals
In her book The Well Educated Mind (which I highly recommend!), educator and historian Susan Wise Bauer recommends stopping at a predetermined interval to recap to yourself what you’ve just read.
This interval could be every five pages, every section, or every chapter. Do what works for you. I tend to do it at the end of every section for non-fiction and at the end of every chapter for fiction. And I almost always do it after a passage that really stood out to me.
I’m in no way perfect at this, but I try my best to stick to this rule.
If you can’t do this in writing, just do it out loud. Pretend you’re trying to teach someone what you just learned.
Teaching happens to be one of the best ways to learn. It forces you to confront the gaps in your understanding of concepts, and then fill them.
Check out the Feynman Technique if you like this idea of pretending to teach someone else to learn more from your audiobooks.
Write a Book Review
This year I’ve set myself the goal of writing a book review for every book I read.
My hope is that this will force me to read more carefully and also to revisit my notes, and that the act of writing will clarify my thoughts about the book and help me remember the parts I found most important.
A book review doesn’t have to be like the book reports you used to have to write in school. You can get creative with it.
For example, my book review of A Christmas Carol was “Why I Plan to Read A Christmas Carol every December.”
As a template for non-fiction book reviews, I plan to write the summary of the book and the author’s argument, along with my five key takeaways, and an explanation of my opinion of the book.
Benjamin Mcevoy has an awesome article on writing book reviews.
How Audiobooks Fit Into my Self-Education Routine
Let me start however by saying that I prefer a physical book to an audiobook. I like to hold it. I like the weight of one in my hand.
I like to write in the margins and underline passages that speak to me.
I like to be able to go into a book I’ve marked up and review those passages and transfer the best ones and my thoughts about them into my commonplace book.
I like putting it in my home library so people can see how brilliant and erudite I am.
That said, I still use audiobooks, both to learn new stuff and for enjoyment. Audiobooks allow me to read more per day, and as a writer addicted to books, that means a lot to me.
Right now I’m listening to The Eye of the World on audiobook almost every night before sleep, when my eyes are too tired to read any more Philip Roth or Allan Bloom, or whichever other book I’m reading.
The Eye of the World is a fantasy novel and although I’m not technically doing this to learn something, I am learning about the fantasy writing genre and how to create a transportive experience for readers.
I also like to use Audible on my walks or while I’m doing the dishes or cooking dinner. Next up is Atomic Habits, one I’ve been meaning to read for a while.
It’s usually the books that fall outside of my main reading genres (history, philosophy, literature) and that aren’t very intellectually heavy that I’ll read with audiobooks, like self-improvement, spirituality, or business books.
However, I am going to start experimenting with listening to biographies and other creative nonfiction with audiobooks.
I wonder if I’d ever get around to reading those genres without audiobooks? Surely I wouldn’t be able to read as many.
I feel like my three hours of attentive eye-based reading would be devoted to the other genres that fall under my long-term reading quests.
Consider Using Audible to Read & Learn More
My audiobook platform of choice is Audible. They have pretty much every book I could want and the narrations are great.
The Clip feature is also super helpful for marking and saving your favorite passages which you can review later on.
Audible offers a 30-day free trial where Amazon Prime members get 2 free audiobooks and regular folks get 1.
Give it a try and test out if audiobooks fit your learning style and needs.
Final Summation on Audiobooks for Learning
In sum, audiobooks are one of the many ways to educate yourself daily. They’re great for learning on-the-go. I use them when my eyes are too tired to focus on physical books anymore.
Though some people might learn better from audiobooks than others, and though lighter, more recent books tend to be more easily digested in an audio format than something like classic philosophy, almost anyone can benefit from adding audiobooks into their daily learning routine.
The trick to learning from audiobooks is to pay attention to the recording, pause and reflect regularly, and, if possible, take notes and write chapter summaries and book reviews.