Tools You Can Use: Active Listening Exercise

Educators know there’s a difference between hearing and listening. When students are listening actively, they are more engaged in the classroom, they ask more questions, and they retain more information. Moreover, when students have the skills to actively listen to one another in class discussions, instead of passively hearing the words being spoken by their peers, they gain a deeper understanding of others’ views. Put simply, real learning occurs. So how can teachers teach active listening?

Part of a Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, the United States Institute of Peace’s active listening exercise is a tool educators can use to develop students’ listening skills. While the tool kit was created as part of a larger mission to encourage students to become peacebuilders in their communities and in the world, the skills students gain from the activity can improve discussions and encourage students to learn from one another in any context. Here are the key steps in the interactive lesson the tool kit offers educators for teaching and practicing active listening with their students.

Recognize Poor Listening

Ask one student to speak about what she or he did after school the day before. The listener (you or another student) should model poor listening skills—for example, look at your watch, interrupt, avoid eye contact, look bored or impatient, tap your foot or fidget.

Brainstorm Alternatives

Ask students to describe the poor listening skills they observed. What could the listener have done differently? What makes a good listener? Compile a list of student responses.

Define What Works

Using the Active Listening Techniques Handout, introduce and define the principles of good listening and their corresponding skills. Review the examples of nonverbal and verbal communication skills the students can use as active listeners.

Make It Personal

In pairs, students describe a problem or conflict they had that was not resolved or in which they were not happy with the way it ended. While one student speaks, the other student in the listening role employs active listening techniques. The speaker then gives feedback to the listener about his or her active listening skills. The students switch roles and repeat the exercise.

Reflect and Synthesize

Lead a class discussion to help students internalize and process what they’ve learned. Ask them to consider questions like the following: What did it feel like to really be listened to without being interrupted? What made this activity challenging for you as the listener? How can being an active listener enhance your understanding and learning when engaging in a dialogue or discussion?

In a literature class, active listening can take the form of role-play using characters from a narrative. Speaking from the point of view of the characters, talking from their experiences, surfaces the values in conflict in a story and pushes students to a deeper understanding of the work. It begins to teach them how to have conversations across differences, in which their values and perspectives might collide with others’.

Active listening works especially well in first-year writing classes as a way to help students learn to ask better questions about one another’s work. Students report that they can develop their ideas better in writing after the give-and-take of active listening, when a peer is genuinely probing so as to understand the points the student writer is trying to make. Instead of suggesting edits right away, active listeners push their peers to articulate ideas verbally, clarifying ideas before engaging in on-paper editing.

Some of us are lucky enough to benefit from such active listening in our own professional lives—in dissertation groups or writing circles. Some have benefited from really good listeners at convention sessions—you know, those audience members who ask genuine questions that force you to articulate your thinking more clearly than you did in the presentation. It’s nice to have a tool kit that lays out just how we can produce in our classrooms the kind of listeners we’d like to have ourselves.

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