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Training the Brain to Listen: A Practical Strategy for Student Learning and Classroom Management

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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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?
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Comments (32) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


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!


Kitt Kelleher's picture

Hello again Dr. Wilson,

I contacted you recently (end of 2014) on a blog site just to introduce myself as a current Ed. S. student in BrainSMART. You replied quickly and I was thrilled to hear from you! I wanted to share something I've started for 2015. As a district- and state-wide professional developer (in Broward County, FL), I have access to our district's teachers through Internet and Intranet. In January, I started a monthly "newsletter" type correspondence to share the wonders of brain-based learning and teaching and am specifically aligning it to mathematics for teachers working with students with disabilities (my passion!). The first newsletter introduced "Brain-Based" learning and provided resources for surveys, checklists, etc. to help identify student learning preferences.

The remainder of the school year, the newsletter-type articles will promote "SMART" within BrainSMART (yes, your work is professionally referenced!). For the month of February, I provided a few activities to promote positive learning STATES such as movement, "high-fives" and success folders. I always add online references for additional support as well as books or articles promoted through the BrainSMART program.

I wanted to share this concept as I truly am beginning to see where my future is taking me. Additionally, I will be attending a couple of Neuroscience/neuropsychology seminars and conferences starting in April (through the summer) which will focus specifically on math and disabilities. I can't wait!

Thank you for listening!
Have a great day!
Kitt Kelleher
Ed. S. BrainSMART student

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Kitt,

It is good to hear from you again! I am excited to learn of your in-district outreach and would love to see a copy of your newsletter. We like to know that elements of our work is being referenced and you are telling other teacher leaders about how they can earn a degree in brain-based teaching! Would you be able to share your story of how you are applying your learning in our program? Please let me know!

Keep in touch!

All the best,


Kitt Kelleher's picture

Greetings Dr. Wilson,

I would be more than happy to share my February Math Brain Buster with you. I have already received wonderful praise and feedback from teachers and other district personnel, so it is exciting to see that this information has been positively received. Since this newsletter is a PDF version, what would be the best way to send it to you?

Additionally, I would gladly share how I am embedding my newfound knowledge within my work. Since my "classroom" is more global and on a larger scale as a district/state professional developer, it is a new view into brain-based learning and teaching.

Please let me know how I can better contact you for future correspondence.

Have a terrific weekend!

Jeanne's picture

Given that "the most common obstacle to effective listening is noise," more emphasis should be placed on creating better listening environments for all students, Also, reference was made to the brain's ability to block out background noises. Most people don't realize that the auditory neurological system does not fully develop until the teen years. Young kids expend much more cognitive resources in trying to listen in noise than adults do. More and more schools are incorporating Classroom Audio Distribution technology for this reason. Results are astounding. Studies have found an increase in test scores, improvement in behaviors, and a decrease in the number of students in special education. is a terrific source of unbiased information about this technology.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your comment. We agree that effective learning environments should seek to minimize distractions while also guiding students to learn better how to listen. BTW: I have recommended Project MARRS as a way to minimize classroom distractions and notice that it is referenced on the site you mention.

Best to you in your work!



Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your comment. We have found many teachers enjoy using this strategy for helping students learn to listen more effectively while decreasing classroom management issues! We will check out the resource you mention.


Donna Wilson

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