3.3 Are You Really Listening?

Learning Objectives

  1. Listen actively in social situations and in class environments.
  2. Apply strategies that make listening more effective.
  3. Ask good questions.

Are you a good listener? Most of us like to think we are, but when we really think about it, we recognize that we are often only half listening. We’re distracted, thinking about other things, or formulating what we are going to say in reaction to what we are hearing before the speaker has even finished. Effective listening is one of the most important learning tools you can have in university. And it is a skill that will benefit you on the job and help your relationships with others. Listening is nothing more than purposefully focusing on what a speaker is saying with the objective of understanding.

Figure 4.3 – Active listening requires focus and attention
Robert Nichols – USDA – (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This definition is straightforward, but there are some important concepts that deserve a closer look. “Purposefully focusing” implies that you are actively processing what the speaker is saying, not just letting the sounds of their voice register in your senses. “With the objective of understanding” means that you will learn enough about what the speaker is saying to be able to form your own thoughts about the speaker’s message. Listening is an active process, as opposed to hearing, which is passive.

You listen to others in many situations: to interact with friends, to get instructions for a task, or to learn new material. There are two general types of listening situations: where you will be able to interact freely with the speaker (everyday conversations, small discussion classes, business meetings) and where interaction is limited (lectures and Webcasts).

In interactive situations, you should apply the basic principles of active listening (see “Principles of Active Listening”). These are not hard to understand, but they are hard to implement and require practice to use them effectively.

Principles of Active Listening

  1. Focus on what is being said. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Clear your mind of anything else. Don’t prejudge. You want to understand what the person is saying; you don’t need to agree with it.
  2. Repeat what you just heard. Confirm with the speaker that what you heard is what he or she said.
  3. Ask speaker to expand or clarify. If you are unsure you understand, ask questions; don’t assume.
  4. Look for nonverbal signals as well as the words used. Nonverbal messages come from facial expressions, body positioning, arm gestures, and tone of voice. Confirm these body language messages just as you would verbal messages by saying, for example, “You seem very excited about this idea.”
  5. Listen for requests. A speaker will often hide a request as a statement of a problem. If a friend says, “I hate math!” this may mean, “Can you help me figure out a solution to this problem?”

Activity: Listening with Your Whole Body

Think of a person you consider an excellent listener. Picture that person clearly in your mind. Focus on what she does, not what they she is saying. Describe what actions and postures she uses to show she is listening. Put this list on the left-hand side of the page.

Think of a person you consider a poor listener. Picture that person clearly in your mind. Focus on what he does, not what he is saying. Describe what actions and postures he uses to show he is not listening. Put this list on the right-hand side of the page.

Now compare these lists with your own behavior. How many of the body language signals from each side do you think you exhibit? How can you add more of the left column’s attitudes and actions to your own behaviors? How can you control those behaviors you recognize in yourself from the right column?

Listening in a classroom or lecture hall to learn can be challenging because you are limited by how—and how much—you can interact with an instructor during the class. The following strategies help make listening at lectures more effective and learning more fun.

  1. Get your mind in the right space. Prepare yourself mentally to receive the information the speaker is presenting by following the previous prep questions and by doing your assignments (instructors build upon work presented earlier).
  2. Get yourself in the right space. Sit toward the front of the room where you can make eye contact with the instructor easily. Most instructors read the body language of the students in the front rows to gauge how they are doing and if they are losing the class. Instructors also believe students who sit near the front of the room take their subject more seriously and are more willing to give them help when needed or to give them the benefit of the doubt when making a judgment call while assigning grades.
  3. Focus on what is being said. Eliminate distractions. Turn your cell phone off and pack it away in your backpack. If you are using your laptop for notes, close all applications except the one that you use to take notes. Clear your mind and keep quiet. Listen for new ideas. Think like an investigative reporter: you don’t just want to accept what is being said passively—you want to question the material and be convinced that it makes sense.
  4. Look for signals. Each instructor has a different way of telling you what is important. Some will repeat or paraphrase an idea; others will raise (or lower) their voices; still others will write related words on the board. Learn what signals your instructors tend to use and be on the lookout for them. When they use that tactic, the idea they are presenting needs to go in your notes and in your mind—and don’t be surprised if it appears on a test or quiz!
  5. Listen for what is not being said. If an instructor doesn’t cover a subject, or covers it only minimally, this signals that that material is not as important as other ideas covered in greater length.
  6. Sort the information. Decide what is important and what is not, what is clear and what is confusing, and what is new material and what is review. This mental organizing will help you remember the information, take better notes, and ask better questions.
  7. Take notes. We cover taking notes in much greater detail later in this chapter, but for now think about how taking notes can help recall what your instructor said and how notes can help you organize your thoughts for asking questions.
  8. Ask questions. Asking questions is one of the most important things you can do in class. Most obviously it allows you to clear up any doubts you may have about the material, but it also helps you take ownership of (and therefore remember) the material. Good questions often help instructors expand upon their ideas and make the material more relevant to students. Thinking through the material critically in order to prepare your questions helps you organize your new knowledge and sort it into mental categories that will help you remember it.

A note about tape-recording lectures: You may want to record a lecture to double-check what you heard in class, but it’s usually not a good idea. Depending on a recording may lead you to listen less effectively and think less actively. Additionally, many instructors do not allow students to record their lectures, so recording is usually not even an option.

Dealing with Special Listening Challenges

What to Do If…

  • Your instructor speaks too fast. Crank up your preparation. The more you know about the subject, the more you’ll be able to pick up from the instructor. Exchange class notes with other students to fill in gaps in notes. Visit the instructor during office hours to clarify areas you may have missed. You might ask the instructor—very politely, of course—to slow down, but habits like speaking fast are hard to break!
  • Your instructor has a heavy accent. Sit as close to the instructor as possible. Make connections between what the instructor seems to be saying and what he or she is presenting on the board or screen. Ask questions when you don’t understand. Visit the instructor during office hours; the more you speak with the instructor the more likely you will learn to understand the accent.
  • Your instructor speaks softly or mumbles. Sit as close to the instructor as possible and try to hold eye contact as much as possible. Check with other students if they are having problems listening, too; if so, you may want to bring the issue up with the instructor. It may be that the instructor is not used to the lecture hall your class is held in and can easily make adjustments.

Now That’s a Good Question…

Are you shy about asking questions? Do you think that others in the class will ridicule you for asking a dumb question? Students sometimes feel this way because they have never been taught how to ask questions. Practice these steps, and soon you will be on your way to customizing each course to meet your needs and letting the instructor know you value the course.

  • Be prepared. Doing your assignments for a class or lecture will give you a good idea about the areas you are having trouble with and will help you frame some questions ahead of time.
  • Position yourself for success. Sit near the front of the class. It will be easier for you to make eye contact with the instructor as you ask the question. Also, you won’t be intimidated by a class full of heads turning to stare at you as you ask your question.
  • Don’t wait. Ask your questions as soon as the instructor has finished a thought. Being one of the first students to ask a question also will ensure that your question is given the time it deserves and won’t be cut short by the end of class.
  • In a lecture class, write your questions down. Make sure you jot your questions down as they occur to you. Some may be answered in the course of the lecture, but if the instructor asks you to hold your questions until the end of class, you’ll be glad you have a list of the items you need the instructor to clarify or expand on.
  • Ask specific questions. “I don’t understand” is a statement, not a question. Give the instructor guidance about what you are having trouble with. “Can you clarify the use of the formula for determining velocity?” is a better way of asking for help. If you ask your question at the end of class, give the instructor some context for your question by referring to the part of the lecture that triggered the question. For example, “Professor, you said the Union troops were emboldened by Lincoln’s leadership. Was this throughout the Civil War, or only after Gettysburg?”
  • Don’t ask questions for the sake of asking questions. If your question is not thought out, or if it appears that you are asking the question to try to look smart, instructors will see right through you!

Key Takeaways

  • In all interactive learning situations, apply the basic principles of active listening.
  • Focus on what is being said, confirm that you heard the right message, ask for any clarification you need, watch for nonverbal messages, and listen for requests.
  • Specific strategies are helpful for listening well in a lecture hall.
  • Be ready to compensate if your instructor speaks too fast, has a heavy accent that makes understanding difficult for you, or speaks too softly.
  • Don’t be shy about asking questions. Asking questions is easier when you are prepared and positioned for success.

Checkpoint Exercises

  1. List two things you should do before the class to prepare yourself for active listening.



  2. Where should you sit in the classroom? Why?



  3. What are some of the ways instructors signal important material?





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