Listen Up! Strategies to Promote Student Active Listening

20 Jan

Listen Up!

This phrase is certainly a dramatic way to call people to attention, to call people we care about into a conversation, and to mark that we have noted someone cutting out of a conversation.  The tone a speaker selects to fuel this command is as important as the phrase itself:  A loud voice can bring a crowd together.  A sharp command can reprimand wayward listeners.  A lively rolling of the words can mark the start of a new phase in group process.

“Active Listening” is multi-dimensional, involving those acts of listening that human beings need to engage (in) as meaning-makers who hope to become capable decision makers – that is, creative, agile, reflective, information and idea rich decision makers.  Elisa Carbone reports that

thought speed is estimated to be about 500 words per minute, while speech speed is only about 125 words per minute.  This means, roughly speaking, that we have about 400 words of extra thinking time between listening and speech…The differential between thought speed and speech speed leave a bit of time for the mind to wander…I encourage my students to counteract this by using the extra thought time to mentally summarize the lecture material.”

What happens, then, when we use “Active Listening” to engage learners in processes of comprehending, retaining, and responding to what it is they are encountering in processes of learning, which we – teachers, learners, parents, administrators, citizens – hope will produce “understanding”?  Perhaps we open practices for a culture of learning.  Learning is social.  Listening is a social action.  Both require exchange, saying back what one has taken in, and listening again to how others respond to one’s learning so far.  Both listening and learning require what Carbone calls “time to think about and process what they [learners] have just heard and to become curious about what is coming next.”

And being called into Active Listening is perfectly timed for that early-term transition as first weeks of learning in a new course roll out toward more analytical thinking, deeper modes of investigation, and complex problem solving.

So, some ideas that could be used starting tomorrow – in four sections to follow:

  1. Structuring Active Listening into a Lecture / Presentation
  2. Incorporating Supports for Active Listening
  3. Structuring Active Listening into Discussions / Seminars
  4. Conclusion and Resources

When I don’t like a piece of music, I make a point of listening to it more closely.

Florent Schmitt (French Composer, 1870-1958)

1.  Structuring Active Listening into a Lecture / Presentation

Clarify the day’s underlying topic and name the embedded learning objectives to illuminate the big picture.

    • It’s additionally helpful to offer a one-word recap of the previous day’s focus and a one-word/phrase preview of the topic to follow – we can do this as teachers and/or develop a daily habit among students of starting their notetaking with this recall and retrieval, planning and prediction exercise.

At the beginning of lecture, establish connections with recent lessons: review main ideas covered previously or ask students to summarize main points from previous lecture.

    • As teachers: This is a practice of providing transitions for lectures / presentations akin to those we would write into research articles and conference papers.  We both cue and queue listening at these points.
    • As learners: At the end of a segment, students can also be cued to write in the margins of their notes (or as a comment text in a word document) a summary sentence or nagging question signaling their understanding of that segment of a presentation.

To “chunk” the lecture as a meaning-making process, provide transitions throughout the presentation that set out clear sign-posts (e.g., What I plan to discuss today, Moving on to subtopic three) rather than relying on fleeting verbal or non-verbal cues (e.g., OK, all right, next; pointing to a screen or text)

Capitalize on PowerPoints’ strengths by planning active learning and listening opportunities at strategic points in a presentation; see Active Lecturing: The Potential of PowerPoint for more ideas.

Bring closure to a class session by incorporating five minutes during which students can synthesize a class session by comparing notes: swapping notebooks (paper or computer versions) to review for and note 3Ms: what’s missing, what meaning they make from the notes, and what’s the main memorable point (or collection of connected points).

2.  Incorporating Supports for Active Listening

Allow the use of recording devices so that learners can review the material as many times as necessary.

    • This might include allowing taking of photographs of white-board notes/overheads, saving the corner of a whiteboard where you can spell out acronyms, define key terms/jargon (again these could be photographed).
    • Encourage recall and rephrasing by allowing students to download from GoogleDocs an outline of the class session seeded with difficult to spell terms, disciplinary jargon, reminders of links to follow up readings/resources to guide their notetaking.
    • Format outlines such as these in two columns – a wider column on the right where your notes appear and can be supplemented, puts a narrower left column for students’ questions and notes connecting to earlier reading/lectures.  Encourage students to format their own notetaking in similar ways.

When presenting challenging information orally, complement with visuals; as students link verbal and visual their brains listen more actively – one bit of information linking up with another for a thicker description.

    • These illustrations, charts, advance organizers, concept maps, photographs need not come only from the teacher, ask learners to find or create and bring to class their own diagrams or illustrations as they unpack and explain challenging concepts.  In providing a narrative for these drawings, whether written and/or spoken, teachers and learners alike learn by listening, by speaking to learn.

Make use of lecture capture software or podcasting to post lectures.  Some teachers do this daily, some at key junctures in a course (with a short list of key integrative questions to prompt reflection and synthesis ahead of an exam), some at the end of a week with small groups of students in a weekly rotation providing video annotations (main points, links to readings, suggestions for where to learn more) for the group of lectures posted.

3.  Structuring Active Listening into Discussions / Seminars

Whole Class – Circular Response, Learning Circles

Learning Circles rely on skills of listening, summarizing, synthesizing and reporting on materials studied/reviewed for a class session.  Teachers seed the discussion by asking What? So What? and Now What? questions – or setting out of key points; making meaning/drawing analysis from readings, experience and observation; articulating what comes next – in action, thinking, question formulating, analysis.  A learning circle relies on a series of ground rules:

  1. No one may be interrupted while another is speaking.
  2. No one may speak out of turn in the circle, but may skip a turn until others in the circle have spoken.
  3. Each person is allowed a specific amount of time to speak.
  4. Each person begins speaking by paraphrasing the comments of a previous discussant or combination of comments from a cluster of discussants.  (Perhaps noting convergent points, divergent ideas not fully addressed, missed points.)
  5. After each discussant has held the floor once, the discussion is open for general discussion – perhaps building from questions the teacher has noted and puts forward for further discussion.

Smaller Groups – A Circle of Voices

To build discussion skills as an integration of reading, speaking, listening, small group discussions afford an opportunity for students to draw on homework and lectures to take on topics and problems posed by an instructor who wants to take the learning “up a notch.”  For this modification of a learning circle, the ground rules can look something like this:

  • Form groups of 4-5 students (self-selecting, ongoing, or set out by teacher according to a plan that works best for this course, this session, these students)
  • Pose a question, supply a scenario, or read a passage (put into play by teacher but perhaps drawn from passages students nominate ahead of class) that provide initial focus for the discussion.
  • Allow students a few minutes of quite time to organize their thoughts – perhaps reviewing homework, drafts of a paper, a related but new short reading.
  • Provide each student in the group with a set number of minutes of uninterrupted time to respond (this can be done sequentially, or in whatever order, as long as everyone speaks for 3 minutes).
  • After everyone in the circle has spoken (as in learning circle above), the discussion is opened up with the following provisions:
    1. Students are to talk only about other people’s ideas.
    2. Students can be asked to expand upon their ideas – perhaps to clarify an idea or to provide an example or to more clearly link ideas to readings.
    3. Students can prepare to summarize points made overall for other small groups – noting points in common, divergences, possible but missed – for time or other reasons – topics of discussion.

Cultivating Individual Listening Skills – Designated Listeners

The Designated Listeners role is appropriate for face-to-face and online interactions.  Note that listener has been make plural here – listeners. In my own experience as a teacher and consultant, it seems the best experiences of this approach are those relying on reports from 2-3 designated listeners; not surprisingly, having multiple listeners unmasks how and why and when we “listen differently” depending on topic and timing.

The basic format looks like this:

  • Each student takes is a designated listener at least once during a term.  Ideally, the students are tapped into service quietly and are not introduced as such until the end of a class session.
  • During a discussion, the designated listeners contribute by listening, by mapping/tracking the discussion, and by asking for clarification of someone else’s spoken contribution.
  • At the end of the discussion, the designated listeners respond to the overall discussion by providing a summary of key points – again, synthesizing, pointing to evidence drawn into the discussion, noting errors or “mis-takes” in reasoning, and – as is comfortable for the learners and the level of the course – showing where discussion lagged, steered away from difficult issues/points.
  • The students who spoke during discussion now become the listeners, so that the closing activity may well be a short writing or turn to a partner prompt that asks these students to draw on what they’ve just heard to reconsider or extend or re-make something they’d spoken earlier.

Where there are multiple listeners, they can be called upon to make their reports in smaller clusters of students (which can facilitate #4 above) or can quietly move out of the classroom at the teachers’ signal 10 minutes ahead of their reporting to determine points they want to make in class.

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.
Jiddu Krishnamurti (Indian Philosopher 1895-1986)

Conclusion and Resources

 Expecting students to “Listen Up!” requires we embed listening as a regular component of learning, and an expected part of communication that’s central to classroom structure.  We know from research that students who leave a course feeling that they have been seen and heard by a teacher (the teacher knowing their name, examples in class linked to their interests, comments and questions invited into the classroom by actions as well as rhetoric) report being more engaged in the learning.

“Active Listening” calls equally on cognitive and affective learning.  In this process of bridging intellect and emotion, learners sort through not only relevant information and ideas, they also acknowledge opinions, weigh feelings, and communicate that – and what in – a speaker’s message is being heard.

Finally, we who teach at English-speaking or English-intensive universities need always to be active listeners and to help activate student listening in classrooms where World English is the spoken with multiple accents.  As Joan Rubin notes in her research,  improving listening comprehension where multiple accents of English are spoken is possible when we mindfully confront the (mis)perception of, for example, native English speakers that their learning comprehension will be compromised when subjects are taught by a non-native speaker of English.  For strategies on helping students face and learn from this misperception see ideas in “ACCENTuate the Positive.”

  • Lectures / Presentations

Some ideas in this segment spring from the “Active Listening” PDF created by the Writing Center at the University of Adelaide.

  • Discussions / Seminars

Some ideas in this segment spring from a post in Thoughts on Teaching – University of Colorado, Denver

Learning Circles – For further thinking on this strategy, see “Notes on Learning Circles” by John Wallace, UMinn Professor who builds courses on the learning circle model.  Learning Circles have long been practiced in many indigenous communities.  The practice was developed by Highlander Folkschool from 1930s onward; and is explored – alongside Circle of Voices and Designated Listeners (and a host of other strategies) – by Stephen Brookfield & Steven Preskill in Discussion as a Way of Teaching.

  • Designated Listeners

YouTube video by Jim Canterucci.

  • Accented English

On Listening Elisa Carbone, “Listening the the Classroom: A Two-Way Street.”  Essays on Teaching Excellence.

World English as a Components of World Education: ACCENTuate the Positive

(Updated from September 2011.)

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