It’s easy to say listening is important in the classroom — but actually listening well can be a different story. During any class, teachers need to keep the whole class engaged, cover a long list of topics and assess how well students are learning. Pausing to really listen to one student’s question or idea can be a challenge.
Gillian Parrish, a research and communications specialist at the Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis, offers these tips on how to create a classroom atmosphere where students feel heard:
It’s important to make room in the conversation for students’ questions or ideas — and that means not simply answering them immediately. Parrish suggests “pausing to let their questions reverberate in the air for a moment, not just answering in that quick reflexive circuit between our head and mouth.”
This brief pause can help you assess not just the student’s words but the emotions underlying their question. It’s important to “take in what’s under the words, too, which may be the student’s worry or excitement,” Parrish said.
“Students’ voices are more than a question-and-answer session tacked onto the end of presenting material,” Parrish said. “Their voices need to be integrated throughout the lesson so that their insights and questions help to shape the presentation.”
She suggests weaving interactive components throughout the class plans, allowing students to speak in pairs, small groups and larger groups in addition to in front of the whole class.
Not every student is interested in asking a question in front of everybody.
“In our extroverted culture, facilitators tend to be voluble, which means we must ensure that we make space for students’ voices when we are designing our lesson plans and presentations,” Parrish said.
One innovative way to do this is through reflective writing, which helps learners who prefer to process their thoughts silently before speaking aloud.
“A common obstacle to listening is being caught up in our thoughts, even if what we are doing is rifling through our mental files” to compose our response, Parrish said. This is especially common when teachers are trying to answer quickly to keep the class on track.
“When we are preoccupied in these ways, we are not fully present for the student talking, and we may miss an important opportunity for the whole class to learn from this student’s question,” she said.
Classes have to keep moving to cover the material, and teachers may not always be able to answer every question.
“We can get more skilled in moving fluidly between being present with the student who is speaking and noting the time,” Parrish said. “The key to striking the right balance between listening and speaking is practice.”