On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

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.

6 thoughts on “On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

  1. And, after saying something like “Good question” or “I am sure others are wondering about that, too”, one can then ask the other students if they would like to have a crack at answering it. Even if few (or none!) will, this gets many individuals asking themselves the question and activates the students.

  2. I agree that this change makes sense and is valuable. The thing I’m working on — for in-person questions during lecture — is to keep my acknowledgments of concerns concise! Because if I begin every answer with, “You know, that’s a great question; some students are tempted to conclude X because…” then other students (who weren’t confused, or just want the bottom line) get impatient.

  3. I was curious, did this improve your teacher evaluations?

    I do like when/if students ask or answer questions during lecture, but I think it can be a weird dynamic. I do say “great question/answer!” or “that’s really interesting” (if I think it is) and from the evals, some students get jealous that I’m praising someone else in the class and they say I show favorites. I also find that if I spend any time at all thinking about the question– often to try and see it from their perspective since the question doesn’t make any sense– I get cited in evaluations, as not knowing anything and why are you teaching this.

    But yes! I agree with crowther above that some students don’t love the extra commentary. I admit I’d be a fan of the efficient answering style you had before. 🙂 I know from my daughter’s university, some students will ask completely random questions during lecture and so it can be a challenge to be respectful and efficient.

    • My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.

  4. Listening is a problem for teaching but it applies to professional and other contexts as well. I’ve been on both ends of it, as the not-listening Leader/teacher and the frustrated student.

    the Leader/teacher thinks this:
    “the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. ”

    What really happens:
    Leader/teacher *thinks* the answer is evident so they stop listening. When the student/subordinate is done talking, the Leader/teacher spits out the off-the-shelf answer to the question they *think* the student/subordinate asked – but they’re answering the wrong question. I’m a very persistent person so I would rephrase and ask again, but most students won’t do that.

    As an undergrad this happened to me almost every day but even with that experience I still catch myself doing it to other people. It’s like we have a mental list of what we think people won’t understand so we shortcut to that list just the same way Excel fills in cells with a previous entry as you type. But we don’t know the whole question, and – unlike excel – sometimes we fill the first part in wrong.

  5. I go a bit more extreme, in that situation, I would ask the student to explain why they thought the answer was C. I would do this in as an encouraging way possible

    “Thank you for that question. When I first saw this idea back in undergrad I would have guessed C to this question too, I’m curious why you thought C? its a really common guess,”

    If their reasoning is semi-intelligible you can follow up by complimenting their reasoning, repeat it back to make sure you understand their argument, then explain the issue. Sometimes the reason they thought C is not the same reason why you might guess someone might think C. Often the reason is far more subtle (and smart) and interesting than we would have guessed. Occasionally we just won’t get the reasoning and will have to move on, but this often leads to a really great discussion. Working with a building on the logic students already have is important. Some students might not be comfortable sharing, but I think the benefit is worth the cost here.

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