Active Listening for the Classroom: An Important Motivational Strategy

Active listening.

There is an emphasis on students developing speaking and listening skills. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) promote the academic reasons for providing ample opportunities for students to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations in order to build a foundation for college and career readiness. The CCSS suggest that speaking and listening be planned as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner.


But research shows that it is listening--really listening--to students that is critical to the student/teacher relationship. Knowing their teacher is interested in what they are saying, makes students feel cared about and emotionally connected to a school. Since research shows that feeling connected is requisite to students' motivation to learn, showing that we listen is important not only as a matter of kindness but also as a motivational strategy.

It is easy to perform routine tasks while listening to students. In fact, at times teachers are evaluated for their multitasking ability; however, unless you appear to be completely focused on the student speaking to you, he is apt to think you care neither about what he is saying or him. Consequently, in addition to really listening to students, we must also show we are really listening.

An effective way to demonstrate your attentiveness is to use active listening, a technique extraordinary for:

  • gaining self-understanding
  • improving relationships
  • making people feel understood
  • making people feel cared about
  • the ease with which it is learned

By using active listening with students, you build the relationship of trust and caring essential to students' motivation to learn. By teaching active listening, you help students overcome poor listening habits such as:

  • "Turning a speaker off and dwelling on the plethora of internal distractions we all have.
  • Letting an early remark of a speaker, with which one disagrees, develop a prejudice which clouds or puts a stop to any further listening.
  • Allowing personal characteristics of the speaker or his poor delivery to prevent understanding."

Since these poor listening habits interfere with classroom learning as well as interpersonal communication, learning active listening, specifically, the feedback step, may also improve students' study skills. In the feedback step, the listener summarizes or paraphrases the speaker's literal and implied message. For example, in the following dialog, Para provides feedback to a student by guessing the student's implied message and then asking for confirmation.

"Student: I don't like this school as much as my old one. People are not very nice.
Para: You are unhappy at this school?
Student: Yeah. I haven't made any good friends. No one includes me.
Para: You feel left out here?
Student: Yeah. I wish I knew more people."

Although some people recommend giving feedback with a statement rather than a question, the objective remains the same--to clarify either the factual and/or emotional content of the message.

By refining the listener's interpretation of his statements, the speaker gains greater insight about his own feelings, he may reap benefits of a catharsis, and he knows the listener is really paying attention to him. The listener improves his ability to focus on a speaker and to think about implied meanings.

Active Listening Steps

Although the feedback step is at the heart of active listening, to be effective, take each of the following steps:

  1. Look at the person, and suspend other things you are doing.
  2. Listen not merely to the words, but the feeling content.
  3. Be sincerely interested in what the other person is talking about.
  4. Restate what the person said.
  5. Ask clarification questions once in a while.
  6. Be aware of your own feelings and strong opinions.
  7. If you have to state your views, say them only after you have listened.

    These steps, quoted from The Self-Transformation Series, Issue no. 13, are simple; however, becoming skilled in active listening requires considerable practice after the purpose and steps are thoroughly explained and examples are analyzed.

    Performing the steps effectively depends on skill in giving appropriate feedback and sending appropriate verbal and non-verbal signals.

    Verbal Signals

    • 'I'm listening' cues
    • Disclosures
    • Validating Statements
    • Statements of Support
    • Reflection/mirroring Statements

    Non-Verbal Signals

    • Good eye contact
    • Facial expressions
    • Body language
    • Silence
    • Touching

    Because most of us are occasionally guilty of sending messages that interfere with communication it should be especially helpful to review Gordon's 12 Roadblocks to Communication.

    We've given only a brief introduction to active listening here since an abundance of related Web pages explaining active listening is available. We've also included several papers which do not focus on active listening but might be useful for developing active listening lesson plans--one containing numerous examples of miscommunication between pilots and controllers demonstrating the life and death importance of being clearly understood, and two others showing examples of unacceptable verbal behaviors which we hear all too often. In addition, you will find a slideshow explaining the use of active learning for problem behaviors.


    1. The Art of Active Listening
    2. Lessons in Lifemanship