Creating an Environment for Listening

hands holding headphones on a desk with a mouse, keyboard, and tablet sitting on it

How does this course make space for listening? When I’ve finished designing a course, I go through a series of questions that help me to engage in self-reflection and focus on specific aspects of my course that I may otherwise overlook.

I added this question recently after reading social media posts by college students who were reflecting on the best parts of learning in a pandemic. Overwhelming, students were grateful for faculty who gave them space to reflect, decompress, vent, and talk. They were grateful for faculty who acknowledged the realities of working, living, and studying during a pandemic. They were grateful for the faculty who listened.

Let’s talk about ways we can deliberately design space for listening:

Start with your teaching philosophy. We have to believe that listening to our students is fundamental to what we do in the classroom before we can hope to manifest it. Reflecting on your teaching philosophy, can you identify places where you prioritize listening? Do you talk about using feedback? Prioritizing student voices? Giving space for student experiences? Encouraging student agency? What keywords in your philosophy focus on listening?

Think about learning outcomes. When we create our learning outcomes, we want to write them for (or maybe with!) our students. These outcomes set the tone for the course and outline what it is you’ll be working on together. Consider the way you frame them in your syllabus and with your students. Look at the language, tone, and delivery. If you don’t have input into the learning outcomes for the course, think about where you can make learning outcomes your own such as weekly, assignment, and lesson outcomes.

Consider the syllabus. Review the syllabus for language that invites students to talk with you. Think about how you name and frame office hours. Review (or create!) places for listening such as community guidelines, inclusivity statements, and participation guidelines. Consider using video, audio, images, and interactions to deliver your syllabus. Frame the syllabus as a resource to help students connect with you.

Design for listening. Be deliberate about designing activities and times for listening to students. Start and/or end the class with a quick check-in activity that activates prior knowledge, encourages reflection, and/or takes the class temperature. Structure time for debriefing and decompression after difficult topics and large assignments. Schedule specific times for more in-depth listening sessions.

Focus on student voice. Create activities and assignments where students are leading the class. Ask students to host a discussion, teach a lesson, or moderate an activity. Give students opportunities to create activities and assignments. Invite students to present their work, experiences, and research. Allow students different ways, formats, and methods to complete classwork and assignments.

Use different communication methods. Create opportunities for students to talk to you privately (office hours, journals) and publicly (check-ins, discussion) as well as personally (assignments) and anonymously (surveys, polls). Using different methods addresses the power dynamics in a classroom while also giving you an opportunity to listen to individual needs.

Listen actively. Take the feedback you receive as a sign that students are engaged in their learning and want to be active participants in shaping that environment. Approach the feedback as valuable and relevant and take time to consider what you’ve heard.

Respond to feedback. Talk to students about the feedback you’ve received, your process for considering it, and any changes you’re going to make. You can acknowledge feedback in informal ways by noting changes as they come up, and formal ways by creating space for discussion and review.

Listen to the silences. One of the most profound ways we listen in the classroom is to listen to the silences: emails that aren’t returned, assigned that aren’t submitted, appointments that are missed. These silences can help us know when to reach out to individual students or make space to discuss as a class.

Making space for listening is making space for learning. How do your courses make space for listening?


Want to learn more about making space for listening? Join us in the OLT Community for resources and conversations about this and other topics.

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