The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece that focused on “How to Listen”. When I saw the title, I immediately clicked on it because I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and how to help people build skills that will allow for better mentoring relationships. Communication skills are clearly important for mentoring, and obviously communication is only effective if someone is listening. But while I clicked on it in that context, what ended up striking me the most was how it relates to a teaching challenge I had faced.
Near the beginning of the piece, the author, David D. Perlmutter, says,
Don’t just listen — show you’re listening. Many people have habits that betray us when we are not paying attention: wandering eyes, fidgeting, tapping fingers, and, everyone’s favorite, cutting off the speaker in midsentence. In administration, almost as important as listening is that people perceive you to be.
Here lies the rub for academic administrators: Most of the concerns brought to us are remarkably limited in variety. Often the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. Nevertheless, good listening involves steeling yourself to silence.
Sometimes what we learn from a conversation or a public forum is less a set of facts and figures than a confirmation of emotions and feelings. If you jump in too quickly, you risk coming off as brusque, inattentive, and, yes, a poor listener — even if you deliver the wisdom of Solomon.
This made me think of a challenge I had faced while teaching: I felt, based in part on student evaluations of teaching, like a subset of students in my large lecture courses didn’t really feel like I cared about them or their learning. The issue wasn’t that I don’t care — I care a lot about teaching and about my students and their learning. But apparently I wasn’t doing a great job of conveying that to students.
I talked about this with a couple of people who were familiar with my teaching and whose advice I really valued. One thing they noted was that, when a student asked a question in class, I just answered it. I didn’t cut them off – that part of Perlmutter’s advice doesn’t apply – but I think I still came off as brusque. If a student said something like, “I don’t understand why the answer to that clicker question is not C”, I would explain why C was wrong, then move on. That seems reasonable, right?
What the people I spoke with noted was that some other instructors, before getting to why C is wrong, will thank the student for asking their question, and, basically, just be a lot more encouraging to the student. So, their answer might be more like “Ah, yes, I see why that was confusing. Thank you for bringing that to my attention – I bet lots of other students were wondering about that, too, so I’m really glad you did” and then launching into the explanation of why C was wrong.
The change is not big, but I think this little change really did have an impact. I also think it’s worth noting that, when adding on that preface to my response, I’m not acting – I really, truly do want to know what things are confusing my students, and I am definitely grateful to the students who are willing to raise their hand in a sea of 300+ students and admit that they don’t understand something. I also shifted to using a similar approach when responding to emails from students, making sure that I always started by thanking the student for writing.
The class I teach is unfortunately impersonal – there are 550 of them and one of me – so reaching out to me requires a certain amount of courage, especially for students who are struggling. I appreciate it when they do. And, now, I make sure that I let them know that.