In one ear and out the other
January 14, 2010 1:24 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a more effective auditory learner?

I am chiefly a visual learner who learns best by reading and writing things. When someone explains something to me, if it's complex and I miss a few words I'm lost for the rest of the explanation. In lectures my attention will sometimes drift and then before I know it I've missed a significant concept. I can't tell if it's just an issue with me focusing on the material (with text I sometimes still need to re-read the same paragraph several times) or if I just suck at absorbing spoken information.

Either way, is there any way I can improve on this and become a better auditory learner?
posted by mossicle to Education (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If at all possible, take notes. I write things down compulsively, then never refer to the notes again - my desk (or trash can if I'm really on top of things) is a pile of pieces of paper. Just writing the information down, in my own words, is what cements the ideas for me. I think it's the rephrasing into my own words, rather than the visual cue of seeing the information on paper; so when I have no notebook, I frequently rephrase key points and mirror them back in conversations.
them: "blahblah A blahblah B and blah C for blah blah D"
me: "oh, so D can happen mainly because of B, but sometimes A or C?"

With practice, I would guess that one can internalize this rephrasing process, and "take mental notes", but for me anyway, I've never tried to learn better audially, only to convert audio into the form I learn from.
posted by aimedwander at 2:20 PM on January 14, 2010

I'm also a strongly visual learner, so I find the best way for me to absorb auditory material is to take notes. It keeps me from drifting as well as provides a way to capture the information in some kind of written form for visual review later. The one drawback is that your note-taking skills need to be fast enough to keep up with the speaker, otherwise you're liable to miss some information while you're writing the last bit of information down. I use a computer when possible (my typing is pretty fast) or my own variation of shorthand when typing isn't feasible. Focus on capturing the key points and concepts, not writing down every single word. This will help both your listening skills and the clarity of your notes.

A digital voice recorder or tape recorder is a good back up strategy if you're worried about missing key concepts, then you can go back and capture what you may have missed later.

(On preview, what aimedwander said!)
posted by platinum at 2:21 PM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: For me, taking notes detracts somewhat from paying attention to content. Also, I can't write fast enough to keep up with important bits all the time.

Getting a recorder is a good idea. I just wish there was a way I could learn to really hang onto what people say.
posted by mossicle at 2:28 PM on January 14, 2010

I used to draw pictures in class. Usually it was some sort of diagram that sort of represented the relationships among the ideas, but sometimes it was just a detailed doodle. Looking at the picture would remind me of what I heard when I drew it.

When I'm trying to follow what someone is saying and I can't draw or take notes, I repeat the major concepts silently to myself: "She went to Guatemala last month. She's looking forward to the show on Thursday." I don't try to get all the details because I just don't process them sometimes, especially if there's anything distracting me.

The bonus of this approach is that you're so busy repeating the main points to yourself that you don't say much, which makes people think you're a good listener when really you're just desperately trying to follow the basics.
posted by PatoPata at 3:21 PM on January 14, 2010

It seems like you are trying to improve focusing by switching your absorption channel (switching to auditory to fill in the gaps of visual learning, that's something your brain already does). We take in information visually, verbally, and non-verbally through body gestures.

My best bet would be on your wandering attention which you have mentioned and the rereading of several paragraphs to lead me to think you have ADD (attention deficit disorder) like tendencies. While it does not necessarily mean you have ADD, using ADD strategies can help tremendously.

Either read driven to distraction by edward m. hallowell or Answers to distraction by the same author or try the or to get a feel. Even should be a good bet.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 3:39 PM on January 14, 2010

I may be an ADD type, but I concentrated better on lectures when I was doing something else with my eyes (doodle, crossword puzzle), preferably something that didn't need massive thought. Staring at someone's face for an hour while they droned on made me zone out, but somehow I listen better with a more interesting visual going on in front of me.

I still wish I could think of a hack for this with the phone, though, because it doesn't work for me there.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:53 PM on January 14, 2010

In this previous related AskMe I mentioned that I inadvertently improved my aural recall by listening to public radio (NPR, CBC, BBC) podcasts more regularly.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:38 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the advice above about drawing, though I would emphasise the doodling aspect. This has been a lifesaver for me on the teleconference hookups I have to attend, where I can distract my tendency to be distracted by performing a manual but non-engaging task. i.e., random doodling on a notepad.
posted by planetthoughtful at 6:06 PM on January 14, 2010

Seconding hurdy gurdy girl - podcasts have really helped me.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:03 PM on January 14, 2010

For remedying your current situation I would recommend the following:

1. Get a recorder like someone else suggested. Make sure it's a high quality one that would actually capture the voice of your lecturer clearly. In my experience, most digital recorders that you can buy from Staples or the like do not pick up well enough to be used in lectures, even with a lined-in mic, unless you sit in the front row. They are designed for small conference room meetings. I would get a Zoom H2 if you can.

2. Don't take notes in class. Doodle, like suggested, if you want, but do so on some scrap paper rather than a nice notebook that you intend to keep. An alternative to doodling that I found helpful is to visualize everything in real time. For example, when my professor says an important term/phrase/ sentence that i need to remember, I'm just imaging how it would look if it was typed out on the computer. I like to visualize in typewriter fonts, too :P

If the professor says A is a subset of B, and C is another sub set of A...etc, then I would visualize in my head how it would look if I was to graph this concept.

3. Schedule time to transcribe your recordings and organize your doodles roughly 8-12 hours after the lectures. This serves two purposes: you need those materials organized anyway, and at that time interval, you will also be reinforcing the material you grasped (visually) in class. Consider this studying. As you listen back to the recording, re-visualize.

For more long-term practice, I recommend

1. First you need to be absolutely clear about the differences between "hearing" and "listening". Most people hear more than they listen, and for us visual-learners, it's really no effort at all to turn our attention away from the audio to the visual.

It's not easy at first, but make sure you are listening (that is, paying undivided attention to the audio information you receive) when you want to listen, and make a conscious effort to hear instead of listen when you don't want to listen (say, other people's conversations).

If you have a habit of putting on background music when you are working, walking, driving...etc. I would spend a few minutes a day sat down with some music and make an effort to do nothing but listening to that music. It will help you gain control over when you are listening and when you are hearing.

When you are in the lecture, you should be listening. You should be listening, too, when you are transcribing notes, but that bound to be more difficulty as you have to worry about what to write down. You should listen in the lecture with the same intense focus as you would the conversations of a very enticing movie without subtitles. If you usually watch TV with subtitles, turn it off.

2. As you practice translating people talking into visualizations that you grasp faster and easier, you should also practice the reverse so that your papers will not be a bunch of graphs and incoherent sentences. Spend just a few minutes a day will go a long way.

How do you I know this? I'm an extremely visual learner tested above 90% of people who are categorized as visual learners. I'm also a musician and am in graduate school for performance right now (yes, appreciate the irony). I went through many years of playing a piece by translating the visual sheet music to body movements, skipping the sound factor. Needless to say I was horrible until I decided to train myself to hinge audio input onto something that I am comfortable and familiar with. Nowadays I am very quick at memorizing music because I'd take a mental picture of my sheet music and there's that. I also carry a reputation for materializing musical concepts by graphs and drawings.

So, once you get this hinging business going, you'll have worlds of advantages.

I also used to write papers that are all graphs and a few incoherent sentences :) But as you can see, there's no graph here.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 7:08 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also have trouble with auditory comprehension. For lectures, previewing the material before class gives me a context for understanding the material during class. If PowerPoints are available before class, read them before attending lecture. If there is assigned reading, skim it before class. It is annoying, but it helps.
posted by esnyder at 7:12 PM on January 14, 2010

I've got the same issue, and much like you taking notes mostly makes me realize that while I was writing down one point, I missed the next one. Focus is a constant effort. Things I recommend: get enough sleep. I know it seems tangential, but it makes difficult mental tasks easier. Think (shallowly) about the idea while listening to it - figure out how it sticks into the other topics on hand. The problem with this one is keeping it shallow, but when I can make it work it works better than anything else for me.
posted by Lady Li at 7:52 PM on January 14, 2010

The Livescribe Pulse smartpen changed my (academic) life.
+ records audio & digitally images your notes and links the two together.
- in order for it to image your notes you have to use special paper (retail or printable from any laser printer.
It also doesn't really look like a recorder, if that's an issue.
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:11 PM on January 14, 2010

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