Eight tips to boost active listening in university students

Active mental engagement enhances students’ understanding and their ability to remember the ideas we teach. These simple tools and skills can help to move students from passive to active modes of listening and keep them there

David Geelan's avatar
The University of Notre Dame Australia
17 May 2022
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Dog with ear cocked listening
image credit: iStock.

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It’s easy to tell when students are physically absent, and not much harder to tell when they’re not listening at all. Much more difficult to diagnose is a passive listening approach in which our words flow into their short-term memory and out of their heads again almost immediately.

Active listening leads to deeper understanding and better knowledge retention. It occurs when students are keenly paying attention, anticipating what is coming next, challenging the ideas presented, thinking through how these ideas fit with their existing knowledge and perspective, and reflecting on how to apply the new learning in their work and life.

So, how can lecturers actively foster these actions in their students?

1. Tell a story

I don’t mean a fictional story or even one from history (although I do tend to talk about Newton’s apple and Archimedes’ bath in my science teaching). Rather, I mean a story in the sense that your presentation has a beginning that sets up expectations, a middle that complicates them and an end that resolves them. Teaching the science around atoms does often follow the historical sequence, but another approach is to begin with the concept that “everything is made of atoms”, then to complicate and elaborate this by considering the diversity of matter and materials and the different kinds of atoms that make them, and finally to introduce the periodic table that organises and explains our thinking about atoms. This keeps students engaged and intrigued to find out where the story is going.

2. Offer signposts early

While a lecture or talk should have a story, it shouldn’t resemble a mystery novel where we don’t find out “whodunnit” until the end. Setting out the topic clearly at the beginning and then outlining the steps to get there might seem like giving spoilers, but it can help to orient students towards the most important and relevant information and therefore where to focus their attention. Different kinds of thinkers will respond differently to this approach – “sequential thinkers”, for example, are happy to receive one piece of knowledge at a time, while “global thinkers” need to see the big picture to make sense of something. But it doesn’t harm anyone, and it really helps some students to have an outline of the territory before they march into it.

3. Highlight key concepts

Just as signposting at the beginning of a presentation is important, so too is drawing attention to the key concepts, the Big Ideas, along the way. This can be as simple as offering an overview on an early presentation slide or a whiteboard or pausing to say explicitly: ‘This is a key idea because it explains X”. We’re usually experts in our subject area when we teach, and part of expertise is deep knowledge. Our students are novices in the topic, and without some clear guidance from us they may well focus on peripheral details and miss the essential points. It is up to us as experts to direct attention to the most powerful and important ideas and transition novices towards expertise.

4. Model active listening

In teaching – as in life – it’s best to practise what we preach. That means that if a student makes a comment or asks a question, we owe it to them to listen carefully and actively, and to clarify if we’re not sure what they’re asking. Similarly, it’s tempting to pose “Guess what’s in my head?” questions; these are open-ended with a lot of possible answers. But if the presenter (that’s you) is seeking one specific answer and rejects all other offers, that’s not authentic communication. Moreover, it doesn’t model active listening and engagement. Instead, craft intentional questions that ask for deep thinking, and then direct those questions to particular students, and engage deeply with their answers.

5. Cut distractions

Distractions can take many forms: mobile phones, laptops, overdue assignments for other classes. While many of us, and many of our students, think we can multitask effectively, the best evidence suggests that we can’t. Attending to more than one thing means splitting our attention and giving less of it to each task. If students have a social media app open in our lecture, with the best will in the world, they will take in and retain less. Their listening is likely to be passive at best, absent at worst. Discouraging these kinds of distractions is only part of the picture – noise from classmates can also be a distraction, especially in larger lecture rooms. Insisting on quiet may seem authoritarian, but it’s really only fair; students with hearing or auditory-processing difficulties may find that the level of ambient noise harms their learning. The students chatting are also unlikely to be actively listening.

6. Encourage note-taking (on paper)

Any notes are better than no notes, both for getting the ideas inside students’ heads and processed, and for creating a record for later study. The best evidence we have available, though, suggests that taking notes with a pen or pencil on paper is much more effective for learning than taking notes on a tablet or laptop. This might be partly because the electronic device offers distractions in the form of social media and messaging, but it seems to also relate to the fact that typing becomes more “automated” and the words can pass from the lecturer, through the student and into the machine without making much of an impression on the brain along the way. Citing the evidence, strongly recommending handwriting notes, carrying a notebook yourself and using it to take notes can all help to get the message across to students.

7. Change up students’ learning activities

In our modern, accelerated world, sitting and doing the same activity for an hour or two may be more challenging than it’s ever been. Mix up learning activities so students use different mental “muscles” and keep actively engaged. The range of possibilities is almost endless: a lecture to deliver new ideas, pair work or small groups to discuss new ideas, time for students to respond and have input into the content or to share experiences, or a short quiz to check understanding.

8. Focus concentration with directed questions

“Anyone got any questions?” is a staple of lectures and is almost always fruitless. With classes up to perhaps 30 or 40 students, a class list is a great means of randomly (or intentionally) selecting a student to ask a specific question. This can be highly effective as it is directed to a student, strongly linked to content, and checks understanding and engagement. More importantly, though, knowing that a question can come to them randomly keeps students on their toes and actively listening. Deep conceptual questions that require thinking and both engaging with and applying the ideas to novel contexts are much better than simple factual or recall questions. Follow-up questions and dialogue are more powerful than the clichéd “initiation, response, evaluation” pattern, such as: “What is the capital city of Australia?”, “Sydney”, “Incorrect, it’s Canberra.”

Active listening is more effective for learning, and these simple tools and strategies can help invite and support our students to listen and engage actively in their lectures and tutorials. Targeted deep questions, a variety of learning activities, encouragement of active, distraction-free note-taking, and using signposts and narrative structure to direct attention can all help to avoid passivity and disengagement, and to foster active learning.

David Geelan is the national head of the School of Education at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.

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