George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

5 Strategies to Improve Students’ Listening Skills

Middle and high school students not listening is a common complaint, but listening is a skill like any other—it can be improved with practice.

October 7, 2022
High school students listening to their teacher in class
carlosalvarez / iStock

It often ends with a sigh of relief. The feeling of knowing—they got it. You explained it, offered time to process, and asked for clarification—you know the cliché question “Does everyone understand?” As you peered into the crowd, youngsters nodded with assurance, giving you overall satisfaction. They definitely got it!

A minute later the question gets asked, “What do we need to do again?”

This behavior happens often in the classroom. Whether it be with understanding directions, comprehending a topic, or gaining insight into new content, sometimes students simply don’t understand.

Listening is tough. And as teachers, we need to develop strategies that offer opportunities to listen with understanding.

The 2 Types of Listening

In the classroom, listening can be separated into two categories: passive listening and active listening.

Passive listening can best be explained as hearing something without responding to it. In the classroom, this might look like students listening to music, texting during class, or watching an enticing YouTube video. This does not necessarily mean that students are not listening—they might be, although their full attention is not front and center. As a result, their ability to identify details might be diminished. Passive listening tends to result in confusion.

Active listening involves listening, reacting, and responding to another individual. It’s a way of indicating that you understood what was said. Mostly, the signals that show you “understood” can come through gestures (nodding, thumbs up, facial expressions, etc.) or by verbal confirmation. While these active listeners might not immediately understand fully, they figure out ways to get to understanding.

Ultimately, the purpose of listening is to gain understanding. Not just for directions but for lectures, discussions, and activities. Listening to understand is a practice that takes commitment and focus; however, sometimes it’s not always that simple. As teachers, we need to make sure that all students in the classroom have opportunities to display this practice.

Most likely your students don’t come to school with the ability to effectively listen. We need to fill in listening skills just as we would fill academic gaps in learning.

5 Strategies to Try in Your Classroom

1. Three to Flee. (Best fit for presentations.) This strategy encourages active listening, participation, and opportunity for sharing insight.

Whether it be students or teachers presenting material, keep the audience on their toes. A powerful way to do this is by stopping every 5 minutes to ask for three takeaways, insights, or pieces of information about the material. If the presenter does not get three responses from the audience, they wait. In order to flee, or move on, the presenter needs three.

2. Bundles, Bullets, and Views. (Best fit for understanding directions.) Are you a paragraph (bundle), orderly (bullets), or visual (views) type of person?

Research suggests that when you write things down, you tend to remember them better. This thinking is similar to understanding directions. In the classroom, you might find that students struggle with following directions on assignments, projects, and activities. By providing students with three options—bundles, bullets, and views—you offer choice in how they best process directions, although it doesn’t hurt to use all three.

This strategy is quite simple. When providing directions to a classroom full of listeners, allow them to engage in this strategy. They can write out the directions in paragraph form (bundle), list the directions in order (bullets), or draw a picture (view).

3. Scales and Signs. (Best fit for checking in.) A thumbs-up is a positive indicator. A 10 on a scale of 0–10 is fantastic. That’s it—keep it concrete and straightforward. This strategy for understanding how and where students are in their level of understanding is efficient and effective. This may look like your students rating themselves on how well they understand a reading piece by pointing to a number. Or it might sound like students doing a quick round of “yay” or “nay” in reference to whether they grasped a math concept. Not only are they communicating that they get it, but also you are offering them an opportunity to self-measure and clarify their understanding.

4. What is it that you do not understand? (Best fit for general understanding.) It’s all about the way you phrase it. If you ask students, “Do you understand?” most of the time you get nodding heads or crickets. Phrasing the question this way, “What is it that you do not understand?” encourages students to think and respond.

Another way you can phrase this question to the class is by asking, “What about this idea does not make sense?” The more students engage in clarifying questions, the more inclined they are to develop the habit of metacognition. Getting your students to think about their thoughts, knowledge, and feelings about a topic offers much more certainty for teachers than just receiving a nod.

5. The Interval Clock. (Best fit for group work.) Allow the clock to manage time for listening to one another. Begin by setting a timer for a specific amount of time you believe your students should talk and listen to one another’s ideas about a specific assignment or topic.

In a history class, getting students to engage in this strategy might sound like this: “In your groups, you will have 5 minutes to discuss a historical figure that all of you believe would be worth researching. Listen intently to one another’s ideas, thoughts, and suggestions. Be ready after 5 minutes of discussion to share your group’s ideas with the class.”

Here are some great questions you could ask to show that your students were listening:

  • What were some ideas that your group came up with?
  • What is a suggestion that a group member made?
  • Can anyone summarize your group’s conversation?

If listening can improve productivity, avoid misunderstanding, and improve accuracy, why wouldn’t we teach this skill? It would be rewarding to hear less of What do we need to do again? and more of I understand!

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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