I teach calculus to freshmen and currently spend most of the classroom time lecturing. To make classes more interactive I'd like to shift this phase of "knowledge transfer" outside of classes. Either by giving students reading assignments, or by giving them videos to watch.

So I was wondering if reading as opposed to watching a video of someone explaining the same thing, results in different learning outcomes.

An attempt to make the question more narrow: is there a difference in brain activity or knowledge retention between reading a text vs. watching another person reciting the same text?

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    $\begingroup$ casually, i think it would depend upon the topic. I think there would be higher retention when watching a video on a physical technique, than to read about it. $\endgroup$ – New Alexandria Feb 6 '14 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ I remember having heard two things: (a) we take up about 70% information visually, because we humans are vision oriented; it's easier for us to understand and take in visual information; (b) we learn best if multiple sensory channels are use, e.g. when we hear and see the information at the same time, and when the visual channel consists of verbal (i.e. written) as well as non-verbal (e.g. images, diagrams) presentation. So a video where you only read text will have no advantage over written text, rather it will be more difficult, because students cannot (easily) adapt the input to their speed $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 6 '14 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ ... because a video of you only reading is in fact purely auditory information $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 6 '14 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the concept of elaboration (that you learn what you have spent some time and effort on) implies that you learn best what you don't passively hear or read, but have to extract from the material, recreate (as an essay or learning cards), etc. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 6 '14 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @what: thanks for the comments. Of course in both scenarios I would add activities like solving problems, but that is independent of the format in which the "facts" are delivered. Also if I made a video it would not only consist of me reading, but would probably be more like a screen-cast with notes like on a blackboard. $\endgroup$ – Michael Bächtold Feb 7 '14 at 9:47

Consider this, communication is more than 50% nonverbal. Studies vary (from 93% nonverbal to 75%) and the actual percentage is difficult to interpret, but it is generally accepted that most of the communication is nonverbal.

That being said, a book is only written word and content, whereas a lecture is dynamic, versatile, and incorporates much of the nonverbal content.

Moreover, a lecture and video has much more stimulus going to the brain and this does have an impact on memory retention. Consider how PTSD cases arise; they are due to an individual experiencing hyper-stimulation (from the emotional brain) which in turn creates very strong memories. The same would hold true when comparing learning through reading and learning through a lecture.


This depends on many things:

  • For example if the lecturer is boring and monotone, it's the same or worse (boring lectures can put people to sleep) than giving a student something to read.

  • It also depends on the student's ability and motivation. If he or she is motivated and enjoys the subject, they will retain a lot of information from reading and working on their own due to their sense of joy in the subject--an emotional response will in turn encode memories more strongly.

  • Lastly it depends on how well the concept is explained. If a student does not understand a concept then for them to perform the calculations it will require a lot more memory work. If they understand something, then the actual memory work will be less, because they need not recall as much information in order to solve the problem.

In general though I would say that videos and lectures have more potential of creating memory retention due to providing more stimuli for the student.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. Concerning the first point of boring lectures: do you know of research supporting that claim? This study link.springer.com/article/10.3758%2Fs13423-013-0442-z cast some doubt. The last point you mention suggest that it is better not to explain to well if we want students brain to be activated (i don't doubt that in addition one should incorporate activities like solving problems). Again I'd be glad to know of research on this. $\endgroup$ – Michael Bächtold Feb 7 '14 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ Boring the students is not the same as leaving "gaps" for the students to fill to facilitate elaboration. Elaboration is a central and important concept in this context. You might want to familiarize yourself with it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 7 '14 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @what: thanks. I don't quite understand the first part of your remark. I didn't think that "boring the students" is the same as "leaving gaps". Neither does the article I linked to talk about any of these points. $\endgroup$ – Michael Bächtold Feb 7 '14 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't follow that link. I thought you saw a contradiction between Klik's first and last point. If not, then forget my comment. I just misunderstood. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 7 '14 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelBächtold The experiment provided by your link does not specify the observers being in a state of "boredom"; it only shows how the perception of learning changes when the lecturer is fluent or not. Here is a much better article on the effects of boredom academia.edu/1912999/… . The last point I made was not intended to infer that it is better not to explain a concept very well. How did you interpret that? $\endgroup$ – Klik Feb 8 '14 at 15:18

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