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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Training the Brain to Listen: A Practical Strategy for Student Learning and Classroom Management

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

During the school year, students are expected to listen to and absorb vast amounts of content. But how much time has been devoted to equipping students with ways to disconnect from their own internal dialogue (self-talk) and to focus their attention fully on academic content that is being presented? Listening is hard work even for adults. When students are unable to listen effectively, classroom management issues arise.

Explicit instruction on cognitive strategies that can help students learn how to learn may have a positive impact on both academic performance and classroom management by emphasizing that students are in charge of their own behavior and learning. Teachers we've worked with find that classroom management issues decrease over time as students begin to master thinking skills that help them become more self-directed learners.

Learning to listen well is a prime example of a skill that many assume shouldn't need to be taught. The Common Core State Standards for Language Arts recognize the importance of listening as an ability that students must master to become college and career ready:

Students must learn to work together, express and listen carefully to ideas, integrate information from oral, visual, quantitative, and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt speech to context and task.

From a developmental perspective, this Common Core standard is interwoven with the acquisition of verbal and social skills that are critical for students' success across many contexts. Listening is a crucial aspect of school and life, but it is often expected of students without ever being taught. As a former teacher, school psychologist and licensed counselor, Donna worked with many students whose learning challenges were rooted in an inability to listen effectively, and with couples and families in distress for the same reason.

The Anatomy and Psychology of Listening

A lesson on listening might begin with how the brain processes the sounds around us. We find that many students and teachers are fascinated by the inner workings of their brains. The process of receiving and decoding spoken words takes place in the auditory cortex, which is the part of the human brain's cerebral cortex that processes auditory input. The auditory cortex is located on both sides of the brain in the upper parts of the temporal lobes. Its job is to receive signals from the ears and to transmit those signals to other parts of the cerebral cortex for decoding sound into meaning. This system is instrumental in both profound and everyday aspects of hearing -- from the language development of infants to the appreciation of a stunning symphony.

The most common obstacle to effective listening is noise. The classroom can be a cacophony of teacher and students talking, chairs scraping across the floor, papers rustling, pencils dropping, doors opening and closing. While the brain's auditory system is capable of blocking out background noises to focus on specific stimuli, nonetheless all these sounds can be distracting.

"Noise" can also arise inside students' minds -- a persistent song stuck in one's head, pleasant daydreams, or unpleasant doubts about one's ability to understand a new concept or complete an assignment. The HEAR strategy described below is designed to help students recognize and block out that noise as they devote their attention to listening.

Teaching Students to Focus and Listen

Explicit instruction on using the HEAR strategy offers concrete steps to focus on and improve listening -- and emphasizes why and how developing this skill is so important. As Michigan teacher Aaron Rohde says, "Just saying that one is going to be a better listener is not enough to make it happen. One must work hard to improve such an essential skill."

The HEAR strategy consists of these four steps:

  • Halt: Stop whatever else you are doing, end your internal dialogue on other thoughts, and free your mind to pay attention to the person speaking.
  • Engage: Focus on the speaker. We suggest a physical component, such as turning your head slightly so that your right ear is toward the speaker as a reminder to be engaged solely in listening.
  • Anticipate: By looking forward to what the speaker has to say, you are acknowledging that you will likely learn something new and interesting, which will enhance your attention.
  • Replay: Think about what the speaker is saying. Analyze and paraphrase it in your mind or in discussion with the speaker and other classmates. Replaying the information will aid in understanding and remembering what you have learned.

Aaron Rohde demonstrating the hard work of HEARing.

Credit: BrainSMART

Initially, teachers may need to lead several demonstrations of using the HEAR strategy and remind students when it is time to HEAR, but over time, listening should become more automatic. When Mr. Rohde taught this strategy to his third and fourth graders last fall, he wore a hardhat to emphasize that learning how to listen well is hard work. But he also tells his students, "Being a 'listening genius' will be beneficial in all areas of life -- in school, in personal relationships, and in professional work situations." We wholeheartedly agree!

A Few Words in Your Ear

We leave you with three questions.

  1. Is teaching cognitive strategies, like effective listening, part of your school's curriculum?
  2. What would happen to learning in your classroom if students became more effective listeners?
  3. How might you use (with modifications, if necessary) the HEAR strategy in your classroom?

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melissa Enderle's picture

Listening is such a vital skill- assuming that students know HOW to listen is presumptuous and leads to so many issues. The HEAR acronym and method sounds like it would help make the process more explicit. My undergraduate college (Alverno College) actually required a course on listening, as well as other courses on speaking, writing, etc.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching

Tara, Thanks for your message. Congratulations to your school for what you are already doing to help students learn how to learn and for adding the HEAR strategy to your toolbox. Your insight about the importance of adults learning to listen is spot on. Listening for understanding another's point of view is at the foundation of developing a collaborative learning culture.

Do keep us posted on your school's progress!

Donna and Marcus

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching

Melissa, Thank you for your comment. You are right on! We think it is critically important to explicitly teach the cognitive skills that are expected of students at school. When I worked as a school psychologist and conducted over 1,000 diagnostic assessments, I found that underdeveloped cognitive skills essential for learning were often at the root of students academic and social difficulty. Good to hear about your college's attention to skills such as listening, speaking, and writing.


Naomi's picture


This article was truly fascinating! I definitely plan on trying to implement this in some way in my classroom. I teach high school chemistry and feel like my students might not respond to a strategy that is taught so explicitly. What are your thoughts on teaching the same skills in a more covert manner?

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching


We have worked with high school teachers who have shared this process with their students. The key is to dialogue with colleagues in your school to investigate ways to that might work best for your particular students.

Best wishes to you!

Jane's picture
elementary special ed teacher

Love the idea for explicitly teaching listening to my students. I work with students who have identified learning differences so even more than other students they benefit from direct instruction in how to learn.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching


Marcus and I agree that explicitly teaching students how to learn yields high rewards for both students and teachers! As you probably know, listening (and oral expression) are now featured more prominently in the common core standards alongside reading and writing. Best wishes as you enjoy teaching this strategy!


Carrie's picture
Spanish teacher in SC

I think it is important to teach cognitive strategies. Teachers need more training in how to do this. I really like the HEAR acronym. It is logical and student-friendly.

cwoodford's picture

I loved reading about teaching students how to learn and how to "HEAR." As a third grade teacher, I sometimes forget that I need to assume that my students know nothing when they come to me. In other words, I can't assume that they have prior knowledge of a subject or even have the expectation of walking in a straight and quiet line, unless I have personally taught that to them. I think the HEAR strategy is a great thing that I can truly implement in my own classroom. Many times my students seem lost or just are unsure of the expectation, because I have not clearly defined it for them. Using strategies that were suggested in this post can definitely ease this struggle.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching


I'm glad you appreciate our listening strategy post. It seems that what students are often lacking is strategies that can help them be able to 'do school' well such as the ability to listen, organize their learning space and materials, plan to complete tasks, and so on. When I was a psychologist in a district and diagnosing learning difficulties/strengths of each student who was referred to me for a complete psychological evaluation, although they were referred for content gaps a closer look revealed missing cognitive strategies. Importantly, these can be taught. You might also want to check out our other blogposts here on Edutopia as they also have strategies to help students become better learners and to appreciate how smart they can be! Best wishes on your teaching and learning journey!


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