The Importance of Listening to Student Learning

Two heads with words coming from one's mouth and going to the ear of another

Last summer, as our institution made plans to bring students back to campus, we prepared to enter the brave new world of hybrid and online teaching and learning. Like faculty around the world, we spent a great deal of time thinking and preparing to engage students with active learning strategies, make the best use of our learning management system, and design meaningful assessments of learning conducive to all teaching modalities. Of course, this preparation was tied to the necessary technology upgrades needed to facilitate this pedagogical shift. New cameras and participation monitors were installed in classrooms and faculty did their best to learn how to use the new technology and integrate it into their course designs. Most of the technology was centered on lecture capture, privileging instructor audio/video for students engaging in the course either synchronously or asynchronously.

As the semester unfolded, there were many bumps in the road, and it was difficult to adapt to this new way of teaching. Webcams and other camera systems successfully captured lectures and course content was available for remote students, which proved critical as students moved in and out of quarantine/isolation. That said, something was definitely missing from the normal class dynamic, particularly during discussions. While our classroom technology successfully captured both remote student and instructor audio/video, much of the student-to-student discussion in the classroom was not. Consequently, remote students had a very difficult time hearing class discussions and, as a result, lost access to the powerful learning afforded by interactions with their peers.

Overlooking the importance of listening seems almost common to do these days, but the diminished interaction between students has had several ripple effects. The dynamic of the classroom became increasingly instructor-focused. Authentic, student-generated learning via robust class discussion became awkward and stilted affairs where the instructor repeated every comment for the benefit of remote students. Not only did this slowdown in-class discussion, but it also had the potential to diminish the impact of a student’s comment if an instructor immediately summarized it. Additionally, remote students, perhaps already less likely to join in the class discussion, grew increasingly reticent to engage as they caught only bits and pieces of the conversation.

Perhaps the biggest loss was the sense of community—integral to a good class. While connected via technology, the sense of connection was not the same between students. The collaboration, encouragement, and enthusiasm that fosters so much learning was greatly decreased. The relational nature of our work that breathes life into our classroom tilted more to a transactional learning environment. The overwhelming focus on content delivery through lecture capture obscured the fact that being part of a community of learners is something as unique as it is powerful. This, in our view, is a key lesson learned as we move forward to the upcoming semester: listening is essential to learning.

To facilitate listening-centric learning in a hybrid class, we propose a few suggestions:
1) Invest in quality, omnidirectional microphones. Obviously, this requires an institutional commitment, but, like other technological upgrades, it should be seen as a wise investment that will serve to facilitate flexible teaching and learning for years to come.
2) Consider an in-class “chat blast” in Zoom/Teams/whatever video conferencing platform your institution uses. Pose a reflection question to in-class/remote students. Instruct students to type individual responses in the chat feature. Ask them to hold their responses until you say “go”. This gives every student a chance to carefully articulate their thoughts on a topic, and for every student voice to be heard. Students then read through the entire chat stream prior to having a full-throated class discussion.
3) Use polls (e.g. PollEverywhere, Kahoot, Zoom) to keep students engaged and to increase connection between one another.
4) Make use of out-of-class discussions to build a sense of community and connection in your classes. Whether you use your LMS discussion forums, or opt for other products such as Flipgrid or GoReact, think about how to establish a community that values dialogue between students in your courses.
5) Use GoogleDocs, OneNote, or other software for collaborative notetaking, allowing students to capture collectively the essence of in-class discussions. These notes will be especially useful for remote students who may not be able to hear every comment.
6) Designate someone as the “Voice of the Chat” to periodically pause class and read contributions from remote students. In addition to providing a voice for the remote students, it also frees the instructor from the burden of keeping track of the chat in the middle of instruction.

Taken together, it is our hope that these suggestions will help our hybrid and online classrooms to become spaces where students come to listen; not just to the instructor, but to their classmates. May these spaces be inclusive of all learners, regardless of the modality they use to engage in the learning experience. May our classrooms capture back some of the relational aspects we cherish and know to be integral to a quality learning experience.

Zachary Taylor is an associate professor in the department of environmental science and studies at Berry College. In addition to his research on the mechanisms and impacts of past climate and environmental changes, he is interested in high impact teaching practices such as inquiry-learning, place-based learning, and academic community engagement.

Casey Dexter is an associate professor in the psychology department and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development at Berry College. In addition to scholarly work related to the parent-child relationship, he is also engaged in research related to inclusive teaching, service learning courses, and faculty learning communities. His teaching approach is grounded in inclusive pedagogy where he strives to create equitable learning experiences for all students.