October 1st, 2012

Active Listening: Seven Ways to Help Students Listen, Not Just Hear


The title of Nadine Dolby’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education makes a great point about teaching that often goes unspoken: “There’s no learning when nobody’s listening.” It seems to me that most of us take this for granted. How many of us take steps to ensure our students are not only hearing the words uttered during our classes, but actually listening to them. Should we? And what might this entail?

Dolby, an associate professor of curriculum studies at Purdue, organized a panel discussion to expose her students to “diverse perspectives on classrooms, education, and the complex relationships between teachers, parents, and children.” But during the event, she realized that the act of listening was nearly impossible for them. “Unable to talk, to tweet, to update, to text, or to otherwise refocus attention on themselves, they were left with the one activity they felt was useless: listening.”

Somehow satisfying her students’ preference for connectivity and self-expression might have helped, she concedes, yet I second Dolby’s stance that it is our responsibility to teach students not only how to derive and articulate their own views, but also how to listen to those of others. Plus, most college courses will expect students to acquire information aurally (as lectures continue to prevail), and few of them have developed the ability to do so. Here are seven things you can do to encourage active listening:

1. Get to know students—and let them get to know you: Students are more likely to listen to instructors who have taken the time to get to know them as individuals. They’re also more likely to listen to someone they view as three-dimensional—as opposed to a talking head. Make a concerted effort to learn their names, hobbies, and interests, and help them see that you are a warm-blooded and even (gasp!) fallible person.

2. Talk less: Regardless of your class size, remember that your ultimate goal is for students to learn, and that listening to you talk about something in no way ensures they learned it. If and when you find it necessary to lecture, make it a mini-lecture on a crucial/complex matter or a longer lecture punctuated by individual, pair, or group work—i.e., opportunities for active learning.

3. Let others do the talking: Listening to each other grapple with issues, think through problems, and share viewpoints can be just as (if not more) illuminating for students as hearing you do it. A guest speaker and carefully-selected video or audio clip are other good alternatives.

4. Hold them accountable for listening: If you truly want your students to listen, you’ll have to give them good reasons to do so. At the very least, you should avoid giving them reasons not to listen. Providing access to detailed PowerPoint slides, for instance, discourages listening and note-taking because the slides seem so clear and comprehensive. If you, instead, provide only skeletal/outline versions of your slides, students have to listen to fill in the gaps. Impromptu activities and questions based on what was just said can also hold students accountable for listening.

5. Model good listening behavior: Too often, we start to formulate our next statement while students are talking and don’t listen as intently as we should. To enhance your own listening skills, consider trying what the counseling profession calls “restatement.” Basically, you would paraphrase your students’ responses to convey that you are genuinely listening and to make sure you understood them correctly. You could also ask them to restate each other’s or one of your points.

6. Let them help each other listen: Inevitably, students will miss something important now and again. Instead of letting this upset you, consider allocating a couple of minutes for what’s often called a “note-check.” Students compare notes with 1 or 2 students sitting near them and fill in any major gaps they missed.

7. Keep ‘em on their toes: Nothing encourages drifting off into one’s imagination, falling asleep, or inattention more than monotony. If students realize that at any moment you could call on them or ask them to work on an exercise, they are much more likely to stay attentive.

Dr. Isis Artze-Vega is the assistant director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Florida International University.

Now it’s your turn. What are some ways you encourage active listening? Please share in the comment box.

  • Useful stuff here actually. Thanks.

    *edited for typo.

  • kbarnstable

    Great points here! I think we have a lot to learn in this area of encouraging active listening. Your point #4 on the use of powerpoints is well made. We have gone astray with our perfectly designed slides and actually discouraged them from note taking or listening. The best way to avoid "death by power-point" is by building in slides with nothing but a key question or two that signal time to stop and discuss with each other the information presented in the last few slides.
    Another idea to add to #7 is to have a set of cards or a container that has a paper with each student's name on it. Whenever you ask a question, pull a card or paper and "reward" the "lucky winner" of the draw with the chance to answer that question. This may help to hold their attention as anyone could be called on at any time.

  • evecarlin

    With regard to active listening, I teach law classes. I actually have students create and do mock mediations in class.
    The active lsiening is done so very well. The co-mediators actually do restate what the conflicting parties have said. This exercise has the students engage in mediation techniques (to learn the process of mediation), and to learn active listening.
    Conflicts actually get resolved as well!

    Prof. Eve Carlin, Montreat College

  • Lee Anne

    Turn to the person next to you and explain …whatever I've just said. I use this frequently to break up the monotony of taking notes and me talking, and encourage students to rephrase in their own words. After they have a couple of minutes to talk to each other, I randomly call on individuals to rephrase for the entire class. This works especially well with complex relationships and cause and effect concepts.

  • Buz Jacobson

    Open ended questions provide opportunities for expressing thoughts and feelings, but acknowledging a students' competence in a specific area during discussion can reduce potential defensiveness… thus, more interaction due to comfort level.

    Business Dept. Chair
    Bryan University

  • G Rajasekaran

    The listening to a single teacher may sometimes be a monotony; in stead, Team Teaching provides for listening to at least three personalities which provides for variety, more information etc., leading to intensive listening and learning.
    The initial motivation should be sustained through out the session by strategies like telling stories, jokes, – all lasting for a very brief duration but frequency may be there. This will attract the listeners to the source of information!

  • Nadezhda

    REally, these points work and can be of help to draw and hold the attention of our listeners. Thanks a lot for sharing them.

  • Teach back 2013

    I keep my class laughing. This is research currently under development. A student came up to me after class apologizing for laughing in class. I said to him, its ok. I like students to laugh it keeps you awake. He replied, ":you're right i actually retain more because you always keep us laughing." this is the basis for my Doctoral studies. If anyone is interested I will be speading on this topic at the ACICS conference http://www.acics.org/events/content.aspx?id=5000 Dr. Kataria from laughteryoga.org While many may think this is a laughing matter its not a joke. There is research to prove how laughter increases student attention and listening skills. My dissertation on this should be published within the next 2 years. If anyone has questions do not hesitate to contact me.Thanks. check my blog also http://www.laughologist.blogspot.com its new.

    • Elizabeth

      Love it! I always try to incorporate something funny into my class. Students definitely seem to appreciate it, as well as the fact that it makes me more "human."

  • shirley devone

    Wow, I found the pointers very insightful, and interesting. I plan to implement some of the strategies in my classes. I see how this would really help in my Teen Living classes, where I have different levels of students.

    Furthermore, I would like to recommend a book that talks along these same lines, entitled "How to listen Better", by Pramila Ahuja.

  • chit

    KUDOS for those humors.
    Also, engage them to role play scenarios, pair them to do concept maps, group them to search for answers, and share experiences during the day!

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  • vasundhara

    thank u very much for this……

  • Tungesh G.M.

    In advanced classes students are serious , a joke may the ease the complex situation. But, jokes should not offend any one as we are living in a comple society.

  • susan oguta

    I encourage students not to just take notes but to be effective listeners

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