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.
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.