A Guide to Active Listening Skills in Education

What is Active Listening

Active listening is a technique most typically associated with counseling. It is a deep type of listening in which the listener focuses on what a speaker is saying and tries to completely understand. Responses are made based on this deep understanding of what has been said, and responses themselves are typically empathetic and understanding of the listener.

Because of the emphasis on engagement between speaker and listener, including a focus on emotional engagement, active listening is most typically associated with counseling, conflict resolution, and training, since the listener needs to be able to address a range of problems being voiced by the speaker.

Despite the general focus of using active listening in careers that involved engagement meant to address conflict, the concept has also been applied to the area of education. In education, active listening is less conflict focused and is instead used to empathize learning, although that shouldn’t be surprising. Among students, active listening means students give full attention to teachers or their peers. The focus isn’t on resolving conflict but is instead placed on deep learning.

Whether a student is engaging in this deep level of listening can often be gauged judging by whether the student is asking questions and by whether the student visually looks focused on the speaker. Teachers can often pick up on these nonverbal cues that a student is listening when the student smiles, nods, or just generally looks as if they’ve put away other distractions in order to focus on the teacher.

How to activate listening

Active Listening Versus Passive Listening

If active listening is defined by deep engagement with a speaker, then passive listening is characterized by only light attention paid to whoever is speaking. Passive listeners may appear to be listening, but in reality, they only come to a surface understanding of what is being said. In essence, passive listeners are distracted listeners.

These listeners accept what is being said without question, which shouldn’t be considered a good thing. Active listeners question what they’re being told in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the material. In smaller discussions with teachers, this type of listener may speak quite a bit, which actually demonstrates that they’re not listening and instead simply trying to get their point across.

People find that this often happens in politics, when a person on the other side of debate only listens enough to make a counterargument. A similar thing happens in education, where students listen just enough to respond to a teacher but never actually achieve deep understanding. Passive listeners fail to understand the deeper points a speaker is making.

Outcomes of Active Listening

Active listening is important to students for several reasons and has several positive outcomes that teachers like to encourage. When a student is engaged in active learning, they’re less likely to misunderstand what they’re taught.

Their knowledge is deeper and more comprehensive, with fewer gaps in the student’s understanding. Because they have a deeper understanding of the material, students are often more easily able to finish the work they’re given. As such, these students are often more productive than their peers who only engage in passive listening.

They’re also likely to be more efficient at using the resources a teacher provides and drawing upon those resources to finish their work. Because they have a more deeply established knowledge base on which to draw, students who engage in active listening are more likely to be self-reliant.

Active listening in the classroom can be part of a larger pedagogical approach to students known as active learning. Active learning and active listening both involve increasing engagement among students. Active learning encourages students to do something other than listen passively to a lecture. Instead, students are expected to engage in various ways.

Engagement can occur in one of several ways. Active listening can encourage engagement when a teacher uses a “clarification pause.” This pause is intended to emphasize specific points and concepts. Once the teacher addresses a particularly important point, they can take a pause to let that information sink in and engage with the classroom, asking if there are any questions regarding the point that’s been made.

A teacher can circulate through the room, examining student notes and answering questions. The important point here is to provide a space between major points when those points can truly be learned.

Remembering that activities and exercises are important to encouraging learning, teachers can also implement the one-minute paper strategy in their classrooms. Either during the class or at the end, the teacher can pose a question about the topic and give them a minute to respond.

This helps students synthesize what they’ve learned, since they’re given the opportunity to put into their own words what they’ve learned. On the other hand, teachers can also ask students to respond by asking them to write a one-minute paper about what was the least clear point made during the class. This has two benefits. First, the teacher gives the student a chance to synthesize their learning. However, the teacher also creates a chance to receive feedback and address those unclear points in the following lecture.

The idea of the review paper can also be expanded to daily and weekly journals. In these journals, teachers can ask students to go more in-depth regarding the lessons they’ve learned during the class. However, the teacher can encourage even further synthesization by having the students respond to each other’s journals.

This allows students the chance to engage with their learning even further by providing brief critiques in which they draw upon what they know to help inform the learning of their peers. This is yet one more activity that requires students to be actively engaged in the lecture, since they will need to draw upon what they’ve learned to make effective responses to their peers.

Strategies for Students

Students can be taught active listening skills over time. However, it also means that the student adopts new habits when it comes to listening to a teacher. Physically, a student should try to maintain eye contact with their educators. Eye contact is a simple way of focusing on a speaker and improving concentration on the message being communicated.

While a speaker is communicating their thoughts and major points, the student shouldn’t interrupt. Listeners do not try to rush the speaker but instead let them finish making their points. Listeners shouldn’t make assumptions about what is being communicated or the speaker’s conclusions and instead simply allow the speaker to finish making their points.

After the speaker has finished making their points is when students should feel free to ask questions, and students should be encouraged to engage with their teacher about the topics that were discussed.

Students should also be taught how to synthesize. Synthesis involves repeating what the speaker said in the listener’s own words. Students should learn how to repeat with their own words the points that their teacher made.

They can do this independently or when speaking to a teacher. Finally, students should be taught how to understand the message as a whole. It’s important to pick up on the details of what a teacher is discussing, but it’s also important to identify the overall message. Only by paying attention to both can a student come to a full understanding of a teacher’s lesson.

Strategies for Teachers

In the same way that students can be taught to take certain approaches to active listening, teachers can also adopt certain strategies that make it more likely that students will engage in active listening. The first and most important step is to create a connection with students. The closer a student is to their teacher, the more likely they will listen deeply during school lessons. The teacher becomes more than just a talking head and becomes a real person that students can connect with.

Teachers should also remember that deep listening involves engagement, and so more talking isn’t always best. Sometimes, it’s more important to keep lessons concise and engage in more questions and answers to help encourage deep understanding. For that same reason, teachers should let students speak, within reason. Lettings students speak out loud about what they’re being taught, synthesizing what they’ve learned and talking their way through the problem, can help them to better understand the material that they’ve been taught.

Teachers should design lessons in such a way that they encourage active listening. Provide skeletal outlines that students can fill in as they listen through the lecture, and provide comprehensive power points at a later date so that students aren’t splitting their attention between listening and note taking.

Set aside part of the class every day so that students can check their notes with one another, which gives them a chance to synthesize and engage with one another regarding the material. Finally, during the lesson, interject brief activities regularly and knowledge checks. If students know they could be asked to complete an activity or answer questions at any time, they’ll be more likely to actively listen to their instructors.

Benefits to Teachers

Although active listening is important to students, it is also important to teachers as well. Teachers can benefit greatly from learning active listening skills that they can employ during the course of their teaching. One report indicated that active listening was particularly important when dealing with parents, a common situation that most educators are familiar with.

Teachers routinely have to engage with parents and try to build relationships that lead to better outcomes for students. Parents can become partners in the education process and carry over lessons learned in the school over to the home. However, teachers need to be able to appropriately communicate with parents.

Active listening was important in this context because it helped teachers to better understand the perspectives of parents and make empathetic comments. Active listening was also important to helping teachers understand what questions to ask of parents and to be able to condense and summarize parental concerns.

Consequently, it was necessary for teachers to work on developing their own active learning skills. By having teachers learn about what active listening was and go through exercises in which they listened to other conversations and heard what active listening sounded like, they were able to model the behavior and become better active listeners themselves.

There are several ways that teachers can maximize their active listening when engaging with parents. When engaging with parents, teachers should pay special attention to the nonverbal cue that parents give off. Some parents may not feel as comfortable as others engaging with teachers, and teachers should try to pick up on some of these cues. Teachers should try to understand the concerns of parents regardless of whether the parent feels comfortable or not.

Part of making a parent feel comfortable includes taking a nonjudgmental approach to the parent. It can be difficult to tell what background a parent has come from. Some may have been high performing students themselves and others may have very little in the way of education.

As such, not all parents will know how to support their children as students. Teachers should set aside any biases they may approach in these conversations. Parents come from diverse backgrounds and teachers need to be able to have honest, open conversations with a wide range of people instead of expecting parents to possess certain knowledge or skills.

Outside of setting aside biases, teachers should adopt some of the recommendations that are typically made of all active listeners. Teachers should focus on the speaker, keep interruptions to a minimum, and avoid listening only to respond. Instead, teachers should focus on the intent of the parent and their larger message, with an emphasis on helping to address the parent’s concerns instead of being combative.

Parents who feel comfortable with a teacher will be more willing to learn from the instructor and adopt practices in the home that support learning. These same parents will also be more likely to express their concerns to teachers, which may help the two to take a joint approach to addressing a student’s needs.


Active listening is important for students, but also for teachers. Among students, active listening can help increase learning, and teachers should structure classes and teach strategies that help students engage in active listening. However, teachers themselves should also learn to be active listeners, since this can help them better engage with parents.

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