If I were to start listening to lectures instead of music will I retain the information?

I've attempted to do this myself once with Assembly Language but I worked in a loud environment (sand blasting and concrete mixing) so couldn't really hear the audio most of the time and programming makes for a bad audio book. At my current job it's also loud but the management doesn't care if we use ear plug headphones just don't want to pay the money for them if I wont retain much information.

Anyone have any experience with this or links to studies done?

If it matters I plan to listen to lectures on computer science, quantum physics, psychology, neurology, and medical basics (anatomy, physiology, etc) and maybe various other sciences.

  • $\begingroup$ You should refer to the studies on attention. Two models that I've studied (and presented to me in my classes) are Treisman's Attenuation Model and Deutsch & Deutsch Late Selection Model, which builds on Broadbent's Early Selection Model. $\endgroup$
    – drew lee
    Feb 10, 2017 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ You have not said what your job is. Obviously, you will need to be able to hear the audio and you will need to pay attention to it. That's the starting point. So what is your job? Does it allow for breaks? Is it sufficiently automatic that you could concentrate on other things? $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2017 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ also note that I attempted to rephrase the title, but I had to guess that you are talking about "physically demanding jobs", but defining the scope of that is the key to your question. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2017 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ I work at a food factory, Mission Foods. All I really do is throw around 50 lb bags all day working with the ovens and mixing the product. Most of the time I have about a 15 minute gap between tasks, the tasks generally take maybe 5 to 10 minutes. $\endgroup$ Feb 16, 2017 at 1:09

3 Answers 3


First off, if you want to retain information, you have to actively listen to it. Simply putting it on like you would background music is not going to help that much. However, if you do want to learn by listening to a lecture, there are several strategies you can use. Here are some listening strategies you can try to employ. They are mostly targeted at being in lecture, but listening is listening either way.

Another useful fact is that the speed that the average brain thinks at is 400 words per minute. Find the speed of speaking at which your brain doesn't tune out at, but still has time to process everything coming its way. If you have a friend, have them speak at different speeds and observe the effect on your attention span. Then when you turn on your audio lecture, see what speed the lecturer speaks at and adjust the speed in an audio editing program to match your brain's attention span. Also, if you can't change the speed of the audio but it's slower than you want, then ask yourself small questions in between sentences so that you don't lose attention.

Obviously if you are trying to "multitask" you have to make the audio slow enough to where you can hear every word and work on your job, if that's what you wanted, but multitasking has been proven to be impossible.

There was a study done on audio-tutorials versus in-person lab-lecture and the people who used audio had better scores/retention.

A few questions you might want to ask about yourself are:

What sound intensity of music helps block out ambient noise but still allows me to hear myself think? Where are the best places for me to listen to audio? Which subject am I going to be listening to? (You answered this in your question but some of those subjects can't be simply listened to once through for retention. I would say Computer Science and Quantum Physics need a very quiet environment if you are going to be listening to them. Hopefully you have a pause button. Meanwhile, the others you mentioned might be possible if you are able to memorize quickly.)

Finally, if you have a car, I would highly recommend listening to your lecture in the car, and then when you are sitting down elsewhere, re-listen to that same lecture. Repetition really helps with retention! (You can find lots of articles on that online.)

Hope this helps! Let me know if you need clarification, etc...

  • $\begingroup$ I found that I was able to learn a bit (listened to lectures at 1.6x-2.0x playback rate). I also seem to have retained more information about the "civil war" (history is among my least favorite) versus "the addictive brain" (neurology which I find quite interesting and have read a few articles on). I'm thinking of building an android app that will play the lecture at a high speed say 2x or more so I can get a general idea of what will be learned then play it at a lower speed, kinda implementing the SQ3R method, do you think that will help? Using courses from "the great courses" $\endgroup$ Feb 16, 2017 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ The Survey and Question parts require looking at the material. Maybe before work you can look at the title of the lecture and write down some questions about it. Then during work when those questions get answered, you will remember those parts better. Go ahead and try it! You won't lose anything for sure. I found that I have less trouble remembering history from audio lecture, but more trouble remembering history from reading, and vice versa for other subjects. It relates to how my brain visualizes and remembers what I hear vs what I read. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowfax
    Feb 17, 2017 at 19:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you, right now I listen to about 4hrs worth a day at a higher playback rate (repeating about 3x a shift) I seem to retain certain parts for sure and since it's just for general knowledge and interest I say it's a win, will definitely try to refine and use this when I return to college as a way to reinforce the material. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2017 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Glad I could help! Yes, I figured since you're working you have nothing to lose by trying. I wish you the best! $\endgroup$
    – Shadowfax
    Feb 21, 2017 at 7:11

Straight answer: No. There is no such thing as free lunch when it comes to learning material. Your question is based on the studies of hypno-learning (learning by listening to tapes while sleeping) which has never received empirical support.

To memorize in long-term memory you need: Deep encoding. Deep encoding requires transforming the material to things you already know. For example, rehearsing the material using synonyms, analogies, or examples taken from your own life. For that to happen, it requires attention and concentration. More on this next.

If you can't transform the material so that it becomes deeply encoded, it needs singularity. It has to be something that hit you by its novelty. Again, to notice singularity, it takes attention on the material.

Attention is quite central to learning. It is the gate by which all material reaches your working memory and from which it can reach long-term memory. Yet, you only have a limited pool of attention. If you try to stretch it over multiple tasks, it creates fatigues, stress, or diffuse anxiety. All these factors are known to reduce your ability to learn. Worse, under stress or anxiety, you will revert to stereotype techniques (here, to learn, you will revert to rote repetition of the material). Stereotype technique require less attention, but are notoriously known to result in the poorest form of learning (no duration and no understanding).

If you want to assimilate material, only one option: concentrate on it (avoid multitasking at all cost), rephrase materials and make connections to what you already know. Otherwise, try to see in what ways it is completely novel (singular).

Some references:

  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.
  • Schmidt SR (1991) Can we have a distinctive theory of memory? Mem Cognit. 1991, Nov;19(6):523-42.
  • Craik et Tulving (1975) Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.
  • $\begingroup$ That may not be the answer you wish to hear, but it is the truth. $\endgroup$ Feb 16, 2017 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Very close second, thank you for the references. I personally find that it does work for me, able to talk about the civil war with my girlfriend now of which I knew nothing about prior to listening to the lectures. I did play it on repeat which allowed me to I guess digest some information and question it further then answer questions by paying attention when a keyword would play (kinda like being at a party and hearing your name and having your attention drawn) so I agree without the ability to focus on the material the second time I probably wouldn't have retained much. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2017 at 19:23

I do not know about specific evidence on dual-task settings with 'lectures listening' as one of the tasks, but there is plenty of references in multitasking studies. Then you could consider all the evidence on the detrimental effects of dual task on human performance. It practically boils down on how much the lectures will entertain you.

I have experience with both listening to podcasts and to audio streams extracted from video lectures on coursera.

My experience is that lectures are much more interesting than music and therefore have a much higher divided attention cost. For example, I do listen to every nature podcast while riding my bike to work. I must admit I am glad I am not driving a car because it happened that I surprised my self in a kind of trance status while listening to the podcast. And that is not helpful when I should be paying attention to what happens on the street.

Lastly we could consider all the literature on mental work-load. I remember there is quite a bit of literature on traffic psychology manipulating cognitive load and the ability to drive a car and ride a bike. But in terms of physically demanding job the cognitive load might not be as apparent/influential. I think it might also depend on the type of physical work. Maybe if you are at the gym and listen to the lecture the two things could not interfere with one another. I remember listening to Bill Bryson's A short history of nearly everything while painting my house and enjoying it quite a bit. With A brief history of time by Steven Hawkins sometimes I had to listen to a paragraph twice before proceeding with the book.


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