How to create effective listening environments for neurodiverse, international and deaf students

It’s important to consider the influence of your learning environment on listening effort, cognitive load and cognitive fatigue. Here are some tips

Lindsey Jones's avatar
6 Feb 2024
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In recent years, academics have had to think a lot about how to adapt teaching to meet students’ learning needs. This has led to some positive change; we’ve created face-to-face, online and hybrid learning environments using a combination of approaches. What we may have thought less about is whether the inclusive environments we have created are accessible to our students.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency 2023 report data show that in 2021-22 there were 451,580 students with a known disability and 679,970 international students in UK higher education institutions. It also showed that there were 532,460 students enrolled on UK courses accessed outside the UK. The data reflect the diversity of our student cohorts, all of whom will have varied cognitive, cultural and linguistic learning needs.

Issues that students face with listening

Evidence shows that putting effort into listening affects cognitive load, the quantity of information that working memory can hold at any given time. The more effort we put into listening, the greater the effect on cognition. If our brains are working too hard to hear what is said, we will find it more difficult to retain information. As educators, if we create an environment where listening is effortful for our learners, be it face-to-face, hybrid or online, we are limiting access to knowledge and subsequently affecting attainment. If we consider the increased listening effort required by neurodiverse students, those with hearing loss or students learning in a second or third language, we can start to realise how important effective listening environments are. If we want to plug the attainment gap, we need to consider access to language for all kinds of students.

What we did to create more effective listening environments

In my role as a lecturer in deaf education, ensuring that learning is inclusive and accessible has always been central to my teaching. As a programme team, we have shared our expertise on the University of Manchester’s initial teacher training (ITT) primary postgraduate certificate in education programme to support trainees’ understanding of how to create accessible listening and learning environments to meet the diverse needs of deaf children in primary schools. We teach trainees about creating acoustically friendly environments, capitalising on technology and ensuring that deaf children who access the curriculum through speaking and listening can do so effectively.

To meet the needs of colleagues in academia, we condensed our lecture for ITT into a short online continued professional development (CPD) session about creating effective listening environments. We have added this to the institute for teaching and learning’s online CPD platform to encourage academics to take small actions to adapt their teaching and learning environments to ensure that their spoken language content is accessible to all students. The CPD session included advice on making small tweaks to learning environments that would not affect preferred pedagogical practices but could significantly improve access.

Make the classroom inclusive

Realise that language underpins learning. If you want your students to remember what you’ve taught them, it’s helpful if they can clearly hear what you’ve said to them! Any restrictions to accessing language will have a negative impact on learning and attainment.

Consider what teaching strategies you use to support learning and how these affect access and the learning environment. For example:

Q&A sessions: it’s great if we can manage the space so that one person speaks at a time, but remember that a student with hearing loss might not hear any spoken language that comes from more than 1.5m from them (because of the limitations of hearing aids’ microphones). Recasting (repeating what a student says but adding in more detailed information to aid learning) and repeating comments ensure that everyone hears input.

Group discussions: these can create powerful teaching and learning opportunities, but the noise generated can be overwhelming for neurodiverse learners and those with hearing loss. Can you create breakout spaces for those who require a quieter space? Asking students to add discussion points to Menti or Padlet ensures that key information isn’t lost for learners.

Manage acoustics

One of the easiest ways to improve acoustics is to manage noise. In lecture theatres, or even in smaller learning spaces, students with difficulty hearing or listening will typically position themselves close to the front. By moving away from the front of the room, you reduce access to your voice. Think about:

Positioning: speak only when you are at the front of the room, or, if you move around, stand still when you speak. This allows students to locate you and support their listening with speech reading (reading lips and getting visual cues from body language and gestures).

The inverse square law (in other words – sound gets quieter as it travels away from you): some students avoid sitting at the front, for example, those who struggle with social interactions or anxiety, so their access to your voice (and thus your teaching) is reduced. Raising your voice above typical speaking levels is unsustainable and distorts it.

Capitalising on the technology that’s available in most teaching spaces. Use soundfield systems, sound systems that can be installed in teaching spaces or in-built lecture theatre mics to ensure a consistent sound level, to ensure that your speech reaches all students (and you don’t need time off work due to voice strain).

Using assistive learning devices (ALDs): for deaf students, using ALDs can overcome some of the limitations of hearing aids. Deaf students who access learning through spoken language need you to use the technology well, so if they ask you to wear an ALD, please put it on.

Managing internal and external noise that competes with your voice

  • Close doors and windows to block out external noise
  • Turn off any unused equipment to reduce internal noise
  • Manage behaviour: It’s difficult to ask adult students to not talk while you’re speaking, but letting students know that this is to ensure access to all demonstrates your commitment to individual learning needs and helps bring others on board (no student wants to be the one who prevents someone else from learning).  

Excellence needs to be accessible. No matter how good you are, if students can’t access your content, then learning opportunities are lost. Working to create an effective listening environment gives students access to your excellent content. To close the attainment gap, consider the influence of your learning environment on listening effort, cognitive load and cognitive fatigue. Remember that small adaptations can make a substantial difference in supporting the diverse learning needs of all students.

Lindsey Jones is a lecturer in deaf education at the University of Manchester.

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