Teaching students to communicate in writing or by speaking is only half of the task of a W or a C course: you should also help your students learn to listen to what others are communicating. Your students need to become not only attentive and critical readers, but also attentive and critical listeners.
Helping students hone their listening skills has another benefit; the class experience will be improved for everyone if your students can learn to listen attentively. So stress the importance of listening from the outset to ensure all presenters have a receptive audience for their work.
To encourage students to become better listeners,
- Discuss the topic with them, asking them for examples of situations where they feel listening matters or times when they have suffered the consequences of failing to listen.
- Remind them that listening is important to both their personal and professional lives.
- Talk about what keeps them from listening effectively, such as a stuffy room, a boring speaker, or a restless audience.
- Brainstorm ways to surmount those obstacles to listening effectively, such as sitting closer to the speaker or taking notes while listening.
- Plan activities that test their listening skills.
- Allow them to practice their skills by assigning them specific tasks to complete while listening to their peers’ presentations, such as identifying the main idea, evaluating the effectiveness of the evidence, or analyzing the components of the presentation.
Critical listening is a component of critical thinking, and it is as important for writers as it is for speakers. Communicating ideas requires a thoughtful start in which a topic is investigated from an impartial perspective, then analyzed and considered from various angles. Often, this investigation is done through conducting or listening to interviews or witnessing oral performances. Perhaps you ask your students to watch an episode of PBS’s Frontline, to attend a lecture given by an expert in your field, or to interview a client as part of a project. In all cases, they must both understand and evaluate the content.
Students should be able to accurately summarize what they heard before they come to any evaluative conclusion. Accuracy should include content and also tone. If a speaker who is being sarcastic is taken literally, a misunderstanding is inevitable.
Don’t take it for granted that students know how to take notes. Various methods are used, some of them with specific disciplinary guidelines, so be sure to review the possibilities. If they are taping an interview, permission is required, and it is also good practice to suggest they check any quotes with the interviewee to be sure nothing was distorted or taken out of context.
Characteristics of good listeners
As a teacher, you know that good listeners are easy to spot. They’re quiet, but engaged. They make eye contact with you, smile or nod at appropriate points, and make notes at key moments.
Good listeners are those who:
- Listen with their eyes: they take in the speaker’s overall appearance, and note things such as facial expressions, body language, gestures, and dress.
- Hear more than words. They take note of the speakers’ tone of voice, pauses, and choice of words.
- Listen with their whole body—they lean forward, they smile, they jot down notes, they nod in agreement.
- Make connections between what the speaker is saying and what they’ve read, heard, or experienced in their own life.
- Listen with an open mind. While they are critical listeners, they also reserve judgment, hearing the speaker out even on a controversial subject.
Types of Listening categorizes and explains four types of listeners: informative, relationship, appreciative, and critical.
George Petersen gives advice from the masters and more on critical listening for music majors, but it applies more generally as well.
Carter McNamara provides information on conducting interviews at General Guidelines for Conducting Interviews.