The Value of Listening

Cultivating the skill and the orientation to listen to your students — and help them hear each other

September 7, 2017
Colorful cartoon illustration of two groups of people listening to each other

This post is adapted from Into Practice, which shares effective and evidence-based teaching practices from faculty across Harvard University. It has been augmented for Usable Knowledge.

Listening. It’s a simple, disarmingly effective pedagogical tool that signals respect, underscoring the value of student contributions and the importance of the classroom conversation you’re guiding. It’s also a skill to model — and a norm to set — as you build a community where all perspectives are welcome.

"When I listen really carefully, it allows me to push students hard and help them see what they have within themselves," says Harvard Business School professor Joshua Margolis, who makes intensive listening a requirement for himself and who asks the same of students.

While students speak, he makes direct eye contact and maintains it even when he moves around the classroom, so students are addressing the rest of the class, not just him. Margolis asks a series of follow-up questions and then summarizes after every three to five interactions.

The Benefits of Active Listening

This active engagement is understood by students to be a sign of respect not just for their knowledge and insight, but also for their capacity to teach one another. It reinforces the value of coming prepared, thinking independently, listening carefully, and working as a team — as one student picks up where another hits a wall. In the HBS context of management training, these skills will be as important as the content of what they’re learning, he says; the same skills will be key to growth and success at most levels of education and in navigating other fields.

The Challenges

Teaching in this way requires a mix of hyper-preparedness and flexibility, so the instructor can adapt to student comments in a way that guides class discussion toward key lessons. It can be both mentally and physically taxing for the instructor and can make some students anxious. “If they’re anxious, I want to stick with them," Margolis says, "because I want them to see they’ve got the fundamental capability and can build upon it.”

The Bottom Line

Careful listening builds trust and demonstrates to students that it’s not just the first thought that matters. Students participating in a listening conversation come to realize that the goal isn’t to come to class with a “satchel of golden nuggets and try to figure out when to insert one,” Margolis says, but instead, to use preparation to follow and jump into class discussion wherever it goes, so they can contribute to their classmates’ learning.

Active Listening: Takeaways for Teachers
  • Set ground rules. One rule that governs classroom conduct at HBS is "no hand-raising while someone is speaking." Says Margolis, "If a student’s hand is up while others are speaking, it shows they’re focused more on what they are about to say rather than listening, and our goal is to build a learning conversation."
  • Reframe rather than correct. "Students feel much more appreciated when you are close to their words as opposed to when you transfer their words into your own. The closer you can stick to the students’ language, the more you bring them with you," Margolis says.
  • Take notes and assess. Right after class, Margolis documents what worked and what he might do differently. He's found that this has helped from class to class, and from year to year, to refine the questions he wants to ask students. 
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.