In previous posts, we’ve explored different learning styles and the benefits of teaching with a variety of modalities to help increase engagement and student learning outcomes. We examined different frameworks—like VARK—to see how introspection and the self-identification of learning preferences might support students in understanding their own strengths and areas of potential growth.
And we have also dissected some of the controversy around learning style assessments, touching upon research that cautions educators from falling for neuromyths—a commonly-held false belief about how the mind and brain function—and instead encourages instructors to seek information related to neuroscience and learning from evidence-based, research-backed sources.
This conversation has been ongoing for decades and will likely continue as educators, scientists, psychologists, and researchers seek to understand how we learn in different ways. Because at the core of these efforts are individuals whose goal is to provide students with engaging, challenging, and meaningful learning environments.
So, whether or not an instructor chooses to incorporate learning styles and related methodology into their curriculum, the following post analyzes the ways in which aural—also known as auditory—learners may move through the classroom and what this type of student needs educators to know.
What is aural learning?
Individuals at every age develop a variety of preferences related to how they absorb information, process questions, and illustrate their knowledge. Learning styles are another way of saying “learning preferences” and one style of processing and expressing knowledge is “auditory/aural learning.”
“Auditory” is relating to or experienced through hearing, closely related to “aural,” which is “of or relating to the ear or to the sense of hearing” (not to be confused with “oral” which is something spoken or related to the mouth). According to Merriam-Webster: “Auditory is close in meaning to acoustic and acoustical, but auditory usually refers more to hearing than to sound. For instance, many dogs have great auditory (not acoustic) powers.”
Auditory learners learn best by listening and hearing information. When the activities involve verbal communication, group discussions, and oral presentations, they often cue in more readily and are usually able to retain the material more easily.
What is aural vs verbal learning?
It can be easy to confuse the two, as they are related in important ways.
Aural learners, as described above, are inclined to listen and take in information with their ears; verbal learners also like to learn by listening, but because they learn best through spoken and written language, they may also be drawn to written assignments that require their communication on a page or a screen. Thus, a verbal learner might listen to a lecture and take notes, while an auditory learner would likely just listen.
It’s important to note that both “oral” and “verbal” relate to communication, but often the delineation is that “oral” is spoken and/or exclusively related to the mouth and “verbal” can be spoken or written. Consider this: “Oral and verbal are often used interchangeably — both describe spoken words after all. But they're not always interchangeable. If your little sister sticks everything in her mouth, she has an oral fixation. If she can recite the Constitution by age two, she's quite verbal.”
Both aural and verbal learners enjoy discussions, debates, lectures, and oral presentations, the key difference being that verbal learners may also show a predilection for reading and writing.
What are examples of aural learning?
Aural learning can be seen nearly everywhere; many educators likely offer this modality in their classroom without formal planning because basic lectures and group discussions fall neatly into this category.
Other examples of aural learning may be:
- 1:1 discussions or small group conversations that allow for aural learners to participate more prominently.
- Oral presentations that support an aural learner’s public speaking skills and confidence.
- Listening to music or a historical speech.
- Incorporating audio clips into presentations or learning activities, including speaking or instrumental clips.
How do aural learners learn best?
Aural learners may benefit from the aforementioned classroom activities, all of which involve listening to others’ speak, engaging with information aloud, and communicating orally on topics and themes. In terms of seating arrangements, it behooves an instructor to place auditory learners close to the front where they can hear the lectures most clearly. Additionally, be aware of any distracting noises that may cause an auditory learner to lose focus—a squeaky chair, a humming air conditioner, or an open window with birds chirping all might pull an aural learner away from the lesson and into another thought.
As an instructor, ask yourself these questions as you plan curriculum for this modality:
- Could this lesson incorporate an auditory activity in a meaningful way?
- Should I provide headphones for my students, so that they can listen to this audio clip without background noise?
- Is the presenter speaking loudly and clearly enough during this lecture so all of my students can hear and process this information?
- Can I record the directions for this activity, so my students can both read and listen to the instructions prior to the project?
- Does it benefit my students for me to read this section of the textbook aloud, so that auditory learners can hear the words as they follow along in the text?
- Can the homework I assign involve an auditory activity, like reading aloud with family at home or listening to a recording of the previous days’ lecture?
Some instructors suggest giving students the option to sing information aloud or hum a tune while they take in a lesson to help with recall. Known as “aural aids,” these sounds, musical, or vocal additions to a presentation can reinforce and create better comprehension of a concept or idea for learners of all styles.
What do aural learners want their teachers to know?
For many auditory learners, they simply want to be recognized and understood by their instructors and peers. As an educator, it’s important to cultivate a sense of belonging in the classroom, as learning outcomes increase when students feel seen.
Clay Drinko offers the following reflections when working with aural learners:
- They may gravitate towards audiobooks over reading texts in the library. This option turns reading into an auditory experience for these students.
- They may close their eyes to focus on auditory information. By closing their eyes, they eliminate their sense of sight, which may heighten their sense of hearing and help them to hone their focus.
- They may talk and move their lips to process information. This is a strategy that allows a learner to repeat aloud a fact or insight, helping them to absorb new information.
- They likely easily remember people’s names. While not always true, often auditory learners can hear someone’s name once and effortlessly remember it.
They do not like noisy learning environments. While this may sound counterintuitive, these types of learners need clear, audible sounds to focus and struggle with auditory distractions. This means finding a quiet place to study without traffic, phones, and televisions benefits this type of student.
It’s important to remember that even if a student often expresses a preference for auditory learning, they can be multimodal, which is to say that they can engage in different modalities for learning successfully. 50 to 70% of students are multimodal learners, which means it’s worth considering integrating a variety of instructional strategies so all students can access the material.
How can I support students who are hearing impaired?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 15% of school age children have significant hearing loss in at least one ear. This ranges from mild, where a student may have trouble hearing over background noise, to severe, which would signify that a child is completely deaf.
As we dive into auditory learning techniques, it’s important to recognize that educators should also consider students who are deaf or hearing-impaired as they plan their lessons and not simply to increase their visual aids. In fact, many incorrectly assume that individuals who are deaf can see better than people who can hear, which is referred to as the “sensory compensation hypothesis”. In their research, “Don’t Assume Deaf Students are Visual Learners”, Marc Marschark et al. note:
“That deaf individuals depend more on vision than audition both in communication (e.g., speechreading, sign language) and in information processing in the world at large appears obvious. A greater reliance on vision than audition, however, does not make one a visual learner, at least in contrast to being a learner with a more verbal/linguistic orientation or learning style” (2016).
In many critical ways, strategies that support multiple modalities can also support students with hearing loss, including providing visual vocabulary lists in advance, checking frequently for understanding and questions, and arranging seating in a horseshoe or circle. Nationwide Children’s Hospital offers a few more ways that instructors can empower students who are hearing impaired:
- Pause during lessons. Take time to be sure the student understands what was said. Repeat and/or rephrase information when needed.
- Change your speech pattern, rhythm, stress and tone. This shows that you are excited about what you are teaching. Students hear it in your voice. Make lessons predictable by repeating the content. Pre-teach new words before the actual lesson. Review lessons that were taught earlier.
- Provide a peer note-taker or lecture outlines to help with understanding what the lesson was about. It may be hard for a student with hearing loss or an auditory processing disorder (APD) to take notes while listening. This is because it is hard to watch the teacher’s face for visual and speech cues while trying to listen and take notes.
Furthermore, location and acoustics in the classroom greatly affect the ability of these students to successfully absorb auditory information. It’s important to:
- Be aware of how close you are to the student. The closer you are, the better they can understand what you are saying. Make sure to face the student when speaking. Do not turn your back and speak while writing on a board or hold your hand over your mouth while speaking.
- Teach in a well-lit area. This helps the student see speech signals on your lips and face. The light should be on your face, not in the student’s eyes. Do not stand in front of a window or bright light.
- Arrange chairs in a circle. This allows the student with hearing loss to interact well with other classmates.
- Ensure classroom acoustics are setting all students up for success. Instructors can close the classroom door; fix squeaky doors and windows; cut an ‘x’ in tennis balls and place them on classroom chairs and table legs; use an FM (frequency modulated) system to help students with hearing loss listen in noisy places, such as a classroom.
Overview: Aural learning styles
Just like aural learners may want their teachers to know that they prefer audiobooks over textbooks and oral presentations over independent projects, all students want to be seen and understood. And while it is unreasonable to think that educators can offer learning opportunities for all modalities, all the time, it’s worth taking small steps towards inclusion, whenever and wherever possible.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if a student is experiencing a learning difficulty, expressing a learning preference or style, or arriving to the classroom with a disability or diagnosis, it’s essential to try and offer differentiated instruction in order to create a welcoming, safe, and engaging learning environment for all types of students.