A recent focus group study involving gifted students in Grades 5 to 8 in the United States has revealed what actions show a teacher is being an effective listener during classroom discussions, and how these actions have an impact on their students’ motivation to learn.
Researchers Cindy M. Gilson from the University of North Carolina in the US and Adrienne E. Sauder from King’s University College in Canada detail their study and findings in their paper, Gifted Adolescent Readers’ Perceptions of How Teachers Should (or Should Not) Listen During Dialogic Discourse. Published in the journal Gifted Child Quarterly, their research found that teachers are perceived by students as being good listeners when they embody the elements of both verbal and nonverbal active listening.
The study focused specifically on literacy and reading lessons where dialogic discourse is taking place. The authors describe this as a ‘cognitively challenging and student-centred approach that supports and enhances student learning and participation, including advanced readers’. This form of discourse is characterised by the use of follow-up questions, inclusion of various perspectives, and collaborative building of knowledge by teachers and students.
The researchers say it was important to focus on gifted readers in this study because their high verbal abilities and comprehension of abstract concepts were anticipated to be most suitable for a qualitative study exploring teacher listening.
Behaviours and characteristics of good listeners
Student focus groups involving the 51 student participants uncovered four key themes relating to classroom listening and discourse:
- Teachers as active listeners
- Teacher character traits
- Student feelings and behaviours
- Listening as a pedagogical tool
‘A major theme that emerged was that students were aware of their teachers’ verbal and nonverbal active listening behaviours,’ the authors write in the paper. ‘Participating students knew teachers were listening to them if they displayed active verbal listening behaviours, such as responding with feedback, adding on to students’ responses, and asking follow-up questions.’
Responding with feedback was the technique most frequently mentioned by students to be indicative of good listening. Students also told researchers that this process of having teacher’s listen to them, and then add to their ideas was an effective way to enhance their learning and ultimately help them become a better student. As one participant said:
I like it when the teacher adds on to what you know and gives you different information and steers you in the right direction, instead of just being like “yes, you learned this and I will tell you it all again”.
Eye contact was also mentioned by many as a preferred nonverbal action, as well as head nodding, body language, using facial expressions, and listening without interruption. Note-taking was another positive action mentioned by students:
I like when they take notes, so that way when we have another discussion about the book or whatever topic we’re learning, they can go back and look at it and see what we understood and if we missed anything.
However, some students find note-taking to instead demonstrate that teachers are not listening effectively:
I feel like when they’re taking notes they’re not present and they aren’t engaged, and they’re not like, they can’t give you feedback.
Four main character traits of teachers that demonstrate they are a good listener also emerged: understanding, interested, respectful and caring. Being understanding was most frequently mentioned, with students sharing that they want their teachers to be understanding of them, understand what they are saying, and grasp whether or not the student understands what the lesson is.
‘It was important for the students to have a sense that teachers were willing to take the time to understand them and in turn respond in a meaningful way to support student learning,’ the report says. Students also expressed a desire for teachers to be authentic in their understanding, and show authentic interest in what they have to say.
When it comes to being respectful, participants shared that a teacher showing respect for their opinions is a teacher who is a good listener. Similarly, caring about the opinions of students was a character trait often mentioned.
Student feelings and behaviours
The study also measured how students feel when they have experienced an interaction with a teacher who is good listener, and conversely, when they’ve felt ignored by a teacher.
‘When students perceive teachers are listening in the way they prefer to be listened to, they feel connected, understood, and that their opinions matter. However, when students feel ignored, our analyses indicated they experienced negative feelings that had an impact on their motivation to participate and learn,’ the authors write.
Overall, the positive feelings experienced by students included feeling valued, engaged, cared for, confident, comfortable, welcomed, and involved. The researchers concluded that when students feel comfortable because their teacher is listening to them, they are more likely to be comfortable coming to school and participating in the learning process. One participant demonstrated this feeling in her comments:
I think if you’re in a more comfortable environment, it makes you feel at ease so you know it’s easier to understand the situation and what’s going on in the book or whatever you’re talking about.
Conversely, the researchers found students can feel annoyed, dumb, uncomfortable and sad if they feel ignored by their teachers during classroom discourse. The negative feelings that come as a result of not being listened to can then have implications for their motivation to participate in class, with some students saying they felt they should stop talking.
‘When students identify their teachers as being good listeners (or not), that influences their feelings toward their teacher, and school in general, and can sometimes be reflected in their behaviours,’ the authors say.
Gilson, C. M., & Sauder, A. E. (2021). Gifted Adolescent Readers’ Perceptions of How Teachers Should (or Should Not) Listen During Dialogic Discourse. Gifted Child Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1177/00169862211009856
As a teacher, reflect on the nonverbal actions that students say are indicative of a good listener: eye contact, head nodding, body language, using facial expressions, note-taking and listening without interruption.
Think about a recent classroom discussion you led. Which nonverbal actions from this list did you utilise? Which did you not utilise? Is there room for you to implement new nonverbal actions in an upcoming lesson?