When Is Audio Narration Helpful?

When is audio narration helpful to adult learners? Research tells us that it’s generally beneficial to use audio with on-screen visuals, but to avoid redundant on-screen text.

In a discussion on eLearning Heroes, Judith Reymond asked about the research on when or whether audio narration is helpful to adult learners.
Speaker and sound waves
In Clark and Mayer’s eLearning and the Science of Instruction, they say that the research generally supports using narration with on-screen visuals. Adult learners retain more from a narration plus visuals approach than from reading on-screen text. They call this the “modality principle.”
Generally speaking, when you have narration, you shouldn’t also have that same text on the screen. This is called the “redundancy principle.” Clark and Mayer note some exceptions when text should be shown on screen (pp. 87-88, 107-108 in the 1st ed):

  • Complex Text: Complex text like mathematical formulas may need to be both on-screen and in narration to aid memory. (In practical experience, I also do this for text that has to be memorized word for word, such as screening questions for addiction.)
  • Key Words: Key words highlighting steps in a process or technical terms
  • Directions: Directions for practice exercises. “Use onscreen text without narration to present information that needs to be referenced over time, such as directions to complete a practice exercise.”
  • No Graphics: When there are no graphics or limited graphics on the screen
  • Language Difficulties: When the audience has language difficulties. I have used redundant on-screen text for an audience with very low literacy and a high percentage of learners with English as a second language. It might be enough to simply provide a transcript or closed captions in those situations so people who don’t need it can ignore or turn off the text.

In practical terms, I’ve found that if every page has narration and you suddenly have no narration for a practice exercise, some learners think something’s broken on the page. I generally have the narrator say something short to introduce the practice exercise, but leave the directions as on-screen text.
However, it’s also tiring to listen to a voice. I usually don’t provide audio feedback on practice activities to give people a break. I’ll sometimes provide other kinds of interaction or content delivery to provide a break from the audio (tabs or “click to reveal” text).
In the book, Clark and Mayer say this:

“Does the modality principle mean you should never use printed text? Of course not. We do not intend for you to use our recommendations as unbending rules that must be rigidly applied in all situations. Instead, we encourage you to apply our principles in ways that are consistent with the way that the human mind works—that is, consistent with the cognitive theory of multimedia learning rather than the information delivery theory.”

The principle of avoiding redundant on-screen text is sometimes treated as sacrosanct. I’ve seen some big names in the field practically yell that this is a firm rule that should never be broken. In real life, it’s not as clear cut, as even Clark and Mayer acknowledge. There’s plenty of redundant on-screen text that has no business being there. You should be thoughtful and intentional if you’re going to provide on-screen text. Generally, it shouldn’t be there, and you need a real reason to break the redundancy principle.
What are your experiences with audio, especially with on-screen text? What have you found works with your audiences?

9 thoughts on “When Is Audio Narration Helpful?

  1. Hello, I am currently enrolled in a MS-IDT program and this really supports my current position where I work. We are attempting to create videos of our presentation in our course, but not sure this is best approach because we have some challenges with the format that is compatible with Blackboard Learn. I think that many students dislike reading slides and find it boring and uninteresting. Giving voice to propose critical thinking and relevance to materials presented in a Distance Learning Module is fantastic. I would like to know more on the best formats for Distance Learning Technology.

    1. I am not a fan of talking head videos, which is often what ends up happening in higher education (and workplace learning, for that matter). A little intro showing the instructor to provide some online presence and credibility is fine, but I wouldn’t do more than that.
      Recorded lectures with PowerPoint are a little better than talking head videos, but not much. If you do audio with slides, keep the presentations much shorter than you would for a classroom. 15-20 minutes is a practical maximum; some research has shown 6 minutes as the optimal length for videos.
      I actually think it’s reasonable in graduate courses to expect students to do some reading. If all they’re doing is reading, I recommend putting it on pages rather than PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint is hard to read; html pages or even PDFs are better for reading deeper content. Search for work by Jakob Nielsen and others on how to write for online reading for better retention so you know how to edit and format the content.
      If you combine reading material with short presentations with audio or videos on the most critical pieces, that’s a good foundation for content delivery. Then you can focus on the real learning, which happens in the discussions and assignments. With online higher ed, keep in mind the 3 types of interaction: 1) students with the content 2) students with the instructor and 3) students with each other. Plan for all three types of interaction. If your courses aren’t successful, that might mean your balance between those types is off.

    1. Captivate includes built in text to speech. I wouldn’t recommend it for final products (I wouldn’t recommend any text to speech for polished courses), but it works pretty well for prototypes and getting initial timing.

    1. It’s important to look at research, but we also need to think about what applying research looks like in the real world. Sometimes strategies that work great with undergraduate psychology majors (common subjects for research) don’t quite work the same in workplace learning.

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