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Ask HN: Do you prefer to learn by watching videos or by reading books/articles?
33 points by rayalez on Dec 19, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments
I'm curious which kind of learning do you like more and why.

Definitely reading. Videos take too long to extract information from. This is especially true if it is a topic I'm somewhat familiar with. I can just skim while reading until I hit something I'm unfamiliar with or if I find I'm confused later I can just go back and reread. This is much more difficult to do with a video.

Every so often I'll encounter a video that is delivering content at the exact level that I need. But most of the times I'm skipping through it to get past the intro. I worry that im skipping something important, though.

It would be interesting to see some sort of summary (text?) that would help a viewer determine what subjects are being covered in different portions of the video without having to watch the whole thing. Or perhaps even markers that indicate shifts in topic, etc.

Yes. Random access and indexing are two areas where books kill videos.

Also, a fast reader can absorb information at a considerably higher rate than what you get from normal speech.

There have been experiments that indicate that it's possible to understand speech at significantly higher than normal rates (i.e., you can speed up the video and still get just about the same information from it). The "chipmunk" effect is a little distracting, but you get used to it.

I would have said reading, until I realized that some things can be made more explicit in the video. But in most cases, it is by reading. Specific examples were I liked videos explaining something better (or perhaps as good as the book) are: Unix System Calls (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHu7qI1gDPA) and Suffix Trees (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLsrPsFHPcQ). A lot depends upon how much effort has been put into making of a video. Codeschool's guide (https://gist.github.com/olivierlacan/4062929) is a great start.

One issue I see with books/articles is typos. Not many technical book writers are diligent about typos and outright mistakes and coming up with updates for a book is perhaps hard. I become especially infuriated and it stalls my progress when a particular concept/paragraph written in the book is either wrong or I am confused about it and the author is not immediately reachable for clarification. Same might be true with videos, but many videos are live talks and such mistakes are rarer in those settings.

> One issue I see with books/articles is typos.

This is why my book is hooked up directly to GitHub. You can ask questions and get clarification with two clicks.

Neither. I prefer to learn by doing.

It's not even close and it's always been this way.

In school, I really had trouble following lectures. Taking notes helped. It was hard to focus reading at night. Writing in the book helped. For homework, whenever I wrote or solved problems, I retained it forever (it seems).

At work, I rarely understand what someone's talking about when explaining or demonstrating something new to me. So I invariably say, "Stop! Tell me what to do and I'll do it." If they go too fast, I tell them to slow down. This has been the single most important thing I've done with learning in business, for myself and with others. I never teach by lecturing or writing (except here one the internet, of course); I always make the student do it while I tell them what to do. This is the only real way I've ever been able to assure myself that they'll remember.

Just this morning, I had trouble with the credit card swiper at the store register and asked for help. The attendant jumped in and starting hitting buttons. As usual, I yelled, "Stop! Tell me what to do and I'll do it. How else will I learn?"

As the old Chinese proverb said:

  Tell me, I’ll forget
  Show me, I’ll remember 
  Involve me, I’ll understand


I absorb information fine by reading but I get too bored to keep focused. Usually I already know what I want to build so I like to just be shown a reference documentation, example usage welcome. I can't do books on programming languages/webapps/technologies because it's such a slog through dense material, usually with a boring example project, and at the end of hundreds of pages you only end up knowing enough to "get started".

Videos are usually better for "big picture stuff" for me. Broad views on the architecture of a service, advice, or the story of why things are the way they are. I hate having to go through long tutorial videos and screencasts.

Very good advice, at least I feel the same exact way. My brain has very efficient filters, it doesn't bother even hitting any memory if the stuff to process isn't "important" (can't be important if I don't do anything with it) on top of that there is ruthless garbage-collection going on at all times. I need to do. It's the only chance I have to become and stay motivated to even RTFM of anything and remembering..

There is no alternative, at least with my wetware.

Your anecdote regarding the credit card swiper is also interesting in a different way because it goes to show how our day-to-day procedures are often still designed in a bad way. IMHO a very distinct indicator for stuff to think over again and to find better solutions for.

I saw this in a previous HN thread on learning:

"Watch one, Do one, Teach one"

(for doctors learning new procedures - teaching something to others really makes you learn it)

I really hate it when I am searching for some quick info and I am forced to endure a 20 minute video out of which only 20 seconds were what I was looking for. At least with a written article you can skip through to the part you need.

Reading - especially reading concise articles on a focused problem domain, and on the other hand, reading actual code. I think over the years I've gotten a sense for recognizing good, readable code.

Reading. Much easier to adjust pace to match my understanding, and referring back to the material is far saner. Inevitably any time I learn from a video, I find myself scrolling the slider back and forth hunting for the key piece of info I want to rewatch.

Reading, unless it's something really suited to video. Programming is not, as far as I'm concerned: I can't scan things quickly, I can't grep, it's harder to skip around, and I can't cut and paste. I hate videos for anything having to do with programming.

I've just finished my first online course, in Python. I'm not new to programming but was completely new to Python.

I find the spoken word helps me with engagement, so listening to someone talk through something helped me to maintain focus.

In this case the Coursera course website allowed me to do listen to the whole lecture course at 1.5x speed - as part of the screen shows the work area with the code/slides at all times it was also easy to skip on once I'd grasped the point being made or when all I was doing was scanning over a new syntax and I felt I didn't need to listen (at higher speeds the software didn't make the audio clear enough). Similarly I could easily scan the video if I wanted to review something. The lectures followed a book, but I never used the book - in part because it was online rather than a proper book and bizarrely I don't really like reading long texts on a screen.

Before this I've only ever done formalised education using books. Though I've learnt to throw pots (on a pottery wheel) largely from watching YouTube videos.

My intent here is not to disagree but to add some complexion.

> Though I've learnt to throw pots (on a pottery wheel) largely from watching YouTube videos.

Something like that I could see making sense. Still pictures might not give you as good an idea of what's going on as continuous video.

Videos have several advantages for some kinds of tasks. Also less spam (eHow etc). For example, to learn how to shuffle a deck of cards, I would go directly to Youtube. Or how to clean a car. Or how to do a margarita. I would watch several videos about the subject and see what each guy does differently. Stuff that post on eHow would miss.

This guy is showing how to write a game from scratch, by recording his screen and face for 2 hours per day. https://www.youtube.com/user/handmadeheroarchive

It would be very hard to to learn that amount of tricks and details from a text.

Videos are good for something that is generally informative and interesting, but which I don't need to learn anything specific from. Like a conference presentation or a documentary. I learn from watching them, I'm entertained, and the experience is enjoyable. That's the whole point.

On the other hand, there are times where I just need some reference material to figure something out. That's when I need text. Videos-as-reference-material are generally terrible; they're slow and hard to seek and scan through. The only time a video is worth the compromise is when the content can't be explained any other way.

Both. Each has their strong point, I usually divide them into:

* Directed learning by reading.

* Undirected learning by videos.

That is, if I know what I want to learn then I can usually go straight to it in books. If I just have a general fuzzy idea then videos tend to offer a higher level view that can help me to clarify my understanding.

I think videos are a poor medium for highly detailed learning. If you're looking for specific information then a book is much more easier to skim than a video is, it's not a good prospect to spend time watching a video to discovered that only 1% of the content was novel and relevant.

Definitely reading. Personally, videos are annoying, especially when big part of it is useless -- speaker introduction, "jokes" and other unrelated small talks. Of course, the biggest shortcome is that you simply can't ctrl+f a specific keyword your are interested in and it takes much longer to find related info in a video. The only exception is social sciences, arts and humanities where context matters more and information I am looking for is broader than "what's the function name that does X".

Apparently, according to my dad who's a psychologist, there are four major learning styles, and people can fall into any of those as a "preferred" learning style:

- Learn by reading how to do it (books, articles, etc)

- Learn by being told how to do it (audio lessons, in-person teacher, etc)

- Learn by seeing someone do it (video, demonstration, etc)

- Learn by doing it yourself (tutor, coach, instructor, etc)

Neither of those modes is superior to the others. Some people find one mode works best for them. Others find another works best for them. Everyone has a preference. Everyone is capable of learning in any of these modes, but is better at one or two of them.

So, I would suggest to all those whose comment summarises as "I think learning works best by doing A, not B, C or D" to consider that as the original question implies, this is a preference, not a universality! Everyone's different.

I would say that 1-3 are superior, because 4 costs more than 1 person's time. The others can be done for a group and/or redistributed. Additionally, I'd say 1 can be superior to 2 and 3, because 1 can take significantly less time with practice...

That being said, I play tut videos on fast speed in the background, I've learned a lot this way. Type 5: Osmosis.

Realistically, everyone probably benefits from multiple factors. There's understanding to test, to do, and to discuss. They are often learned at different times.

There is a third option - listening.

I use a service - http://www.narro.co, I built it - to extract text from any web page and listen to it via podcast. It's great for listening/reading to articles and blogs while doing other things.

Reading. In college I discovered that I just don't have the brain wired to absorb knowledge from someone talking. This is not just about videos but also about teachers in front of a class. When there is difficult stuff that really requires deep meditation to understand, I'd rather have deadlines to learn something (an exam, e.g.) and be given the proper written material to learn it. It needs to be of good quality however -- not just bare powerpoint slides with a couple of unexplained equations.

On the other hand, integrating highly interactive visualizations is, in my opinion, a key aspect of learning, and that's where video should be used most. Developing intuition behind equations/code is what triggers connections and understanding.

Programming and configurations: reading, particularly on the same machine where I'm following along with my own working code so I can copy/paste samples, and skip around.

UI/Tools: video, especially when several tools are being used together in a somewhat complex workflow.

I prefer to learn from short, focused articles, tutorials, book chapters or answers.

Nonetheless, I've learned a lot of interesting concepts from video lectures like "Software as a Service" by Armando Fox and David Patterson, and "Functional Programming Principles in Scala" by Martin Odersky. But when I need to apply those concepts I will look for written matterial, like "Engineering Software as a Service: An Agile Approach Using Cloud Computing" by Fox and Patterson (covering the subject matter of their video lectures), or "The Neophyte's Guide to Scala" by Daniel Westheide, explaining particular topics about how to write idiomatic code in Scala.

Doing. - Tutorials and step by steps via video or reading sometimes assist in this, but often they are to slow. This assumes we are talking about "learning" how to do something-- not for instance "learning" who the first 5 presidents of the US had been. In this case though "research" -- using multiple sources and short bursts of reading from those sources relative to the topic provide the longest lasting knowledge for me. Then toss something in like a long form biography or history book after the research has established interest, or even doing more research after the book has established more interest.

Given the general trend, I find it surprising that I learn a lot better by watching videos. Though, the videos have to be clear, stay in the topic and move on fast enough. Reading books and/or articles is slow and exhausting and for some reason I cannot see the full picture of the underlying concept. On the other hand, videos give me larger and deeper understanding of almost any subject, programming included. I consider learning the concept and the theory is far more important than copying and pasting examples. Fortunately, there are a lot of tutorials that offer documentation, examples and videos altogether.

A third option: I prefer to learn by working with an expert. Pre-fixed materials can only go so far. Just by watching someone do it you can absorb much more than the equivalent video. Then you have the opportunity to switch roles and the expert can watch you, providing vital feedback at the critical moment. It's all about having tight feedback loops, and the crude indicator of "did I succeed" or whatever doesn't provide the same level of insight.

Worse yet, if you learn a concept from a book or video and don't effectively apply it correctly, there's a danger you can have the wrong idea about a thing.

I prefer to read and do projects. But I think it's important to mix learning modalities.

While the idea that different people may be more or less effective with different learning styles seems reasonable, I don't think you want to focus too much one method.

As an earlier poster said different modalities have different strengths.

But beyond that I think there's a synergistic effect when you combine modalities. There's insight you get by comparing what you learned via different techniques that you can't achieve by using one method alone.

I often like to listen more than watching and reading. There is a tremendous amount of online lectures which can be listened to while working out or while running. Some Podcasts are also instructive. I would never have "read" GTD by David Allen if I hadn't gotten the audiobook, some topics don't interest me enough from the get-go (non-technical books) or have started to feel like a waste of time over the years (fiction) to really convince myself to sit and focus on the actual book.

I'm the same way! I've recently created a service that will take any web page and extract the text and read it back to you in high-quality TTS: http://www.narro.co - Your feed is available as a podcast, so you can have new readings immediately sent to your phone/whatever. I think you'll really really enjoy it!

Thank you very much - this is wonderful, great work (usability, privacy policy and especially the quality of the voice synthesis)!


Videos take longer, and I have to following their flow and pacing instead of my own. Also, there are very low standards of quality for videos these days, especially in the tech world, where it is now OK for someone with poor speaking abilities and presence to be on-screen. Clearly, most people are not bothered by this, but it bugs me. To each their own.

I will use video if reading just isn't getting the point across to me. But I will look for specific points in a video to see a specific visual example.

I agree, doing is the best way to learn. But it is most effective when what you are"doing" is attempting to solve a problem. However, since learning can't be done without any teacher or access to a repository of the knowledge you need, you must seek out this knowledge. For me, consulting books or sourcing opinions from those considered knowledgeable on the web seems to work best for me.

I almost regress in knowledge by watching videos.

I do reading a lot, because i can skim through all content and look what is the big picture. It save my time to decide "should i read this?" Or "is it solve my problem/make me more understand after reading it?"

And whenever read are not enough or i'm not fully understand i watch some video from Khan Academy. For example, when i learning about Laplace Transformation i watch some video from Khan Academy

Most of the time reading for the reasons others have stated(scannable, copy examples, etc). That said, there are times where I read something a number of times and the concept still doesn't click. In those instances a short video of just that specific concept is great. Short, hyper-specific screencasts are useful where exhaustive videos are not as much (to me).

Books and tutorials. Apart from a sport, I don't think I've ever learned anything by watching someone do it, and even then it took hours and hours of repeating what I had seen to actually learn it.

Where video can shine is when it comes to explaining concepts or using analogies to clarify things, much as a lecturer would. Watching someone code is coma-inducing to me.

I start with reading, and that's sufficient most of the time. If I just don't get it, then I'll look for a video. I'll set playback to fast to reduce the time it takes to get through it. When I heard what I needed, I hit stop.

Just did this recently with the new async/await keywords in c#. I just wasn't getting it, but a few videos did the trick.

I prefer both.. that is a nice video along with an accurate transcription and code samples directly below it. It's the best of both worlds..

example: http://railscasts.com/episodes/222-rack-in-rails-3

^ that's the kind of thing I'd whip out the plastic for any day of the week :)

I actually do both, Simultaneously. Put a lecture on one screen, read up and google things on the other.

Unless it's a physical activity, I prefer reading. I find the rising prevalence of explaining by video annoying. It takes too long to extract information that I could have read in 30 seconds. That, and most videos are crappily done and distract from the content.

Really depends on the subject but I find myself reading more than watching videos.

Probably because most videos I happen to watch are either bad quality (both in content & literally), too slow or too fast. But then again, some things I understand better when seeing them.

Both, plus doing. I like watching a video to get an overview of what I'm learning is and what it does, then I start my own project using what I'm learning and read up on things that I need to know to get my project finished.

Definitely reading. For programming stuff, you can't skip around videos, you can't copy/paste and you have to watch the author tabbing between windows, typing commands and waiting for things to happen (like compilation).

Books. Definitely. And printed books at that. You can't scan a video quickly for relevant content (I don't mean digitally scan, I mean look at quickly), and it's easier to flick through a book than an e-book/pdf.

I prefer bashing it out myself with a mentor within arms reach: "Hey, when you're free..."

But of the two given options, it's reading, because it's much easier to reread an important bit than to go back in a video.

Reading, no question. Even more so if it is a question of programming, or configuration, where step-by-step examples -which I can copy-paste into the terminal- are orders of magnitude more useful than a video.

While I find reading way more productive, I'm a fairly lazy person, and I find I tend to bear with whatever I need to study better when watching videos. I simply lose focus too fast with books.

It depends on the subject. I need to read -preferably examples- to learn/evaluate a programming language, and, obvoisly, you'll look for videos in order to learn/evaluate a GUI.

Reading. But videos are occasionally useful if there is something tricky with the user interface. I think I needed a video to help me link objects in Xcode the first time I used it.

Videos are good for stuff that involves hand manipulation (tying knots or dragging stuff around in a GUI). Text is good for stuff that involves mental manipulation.

Doing / reading seems to be the most effictive..

Video's are way to slow for me, when a book has an easy chapter (eg. on a topic i already know things from). You can just skip it

It depends what I'm learning. If its software development related learning I'd prefer to read. If its for learning a new recipe I'd rather watch a video.

We need something new. Something disruptive. Adaptive learning, with audio, video, questions, answers. Everything. A wiki for knowledge. A search box of knowledge.

Definitely reading. Specifically I like structured, linear reading such as books. Jumping around from blog post to blog post just boggles my mind.

I use all of them depending on the subject matter, but usually the more difficult the subject is the more strongly I lean on printed books.

Reading. It's faster for me, and too many videos don't have closed captioning so I miss too much of the information in them.

Reading for the most part, although videos work if they have the 1.5x speed enabled. This way I can watch it faster.

depends. i mostly learn by doing. like cars/physical things, i get some tools out, and go to work. might take a while, but i always get there and usually learn a lot in the process.

same with computer stuff, although then there's a lot of looking at examples as well

Preferred learning medium is very context sensitive for me too: why are you enquiring.

Definitely reading and videos for design stuff or when I want to discover a new tool.

Books, especially the kind with exercises at the _end_ of each chapter/section.

Videos for getting a broad overview of a topic.

Reading for looking for something specific.

In my case i prefer Text tutorials with copy/past able code scripts

Reading, but with direct examples (formulae, code, screenshots etc).

Reading - because I can go at my own pace. Videos are like tl;dw.

None of the above : I'd rather have one on one tutoring.




Well, before I get started ... can you read this? I can't tell. Well, I'll get to my answer in a minute.

I'll get started in a few minutes but how many of you liked your lunch today?

Yeah ... yeah...


Did any of you see that movie last night? I think it relates to this. What was it called?

Ok. Ok.

Now, if you're all ready. I'll get started. You can all read this right?

What I'd like to write about today is my preference for reading about something compared to watching a video.

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