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.