Jayme M. Yeo shares some things she’s learned about listening to students for our Teaching Tips series. See her other writing for the ESN blog here.
For me, there is no more challenging—or important—pedagogical exercise than listening. At its most basic, listening to my students signals to them that our conversations in class are real, and that I respect and value their contributions. But it does more than that: really listening to my students also challenges me to see course material with new eyes—their eyes. It forces me to approach the familiar grounds of knowledge using unfamiliar pathways. At its best moments, listening to my students equalizes us as we become collaborators in the project of learning.
I offer here three concrete practices for listening in the classroom:
- Be present. You are entering the classroom. Pause. Breathe. Acknowledge your students. Repeat this practice throughout class to avoid pushing too quickly past student questions or feedback. Being present is slow and slowing. It means that you may not “cover” all the material you want to. You may abandon entire Powerpoint presentations to pursue students’ questions. At the same time, it doesn’t mean you’ll allow a misplaced question to derail the conversation. It’s a balancing act, being present.
- Give students the tools to speak. Reading questions or, even better, preparation assignments ensure that students will have thought about the conversation before it even begins. In classes of up to 25 students, I assign daily writing tasks. Far from “busy” work, these are questions we directly discuss in class. Sometimes I ask students to revise their initial responses during a class session. They challenge their thoughts, hopefully change them. I grade preparation writing on good faith effort, which takes about 10 minutes for each class session.
- Ask students for feedback. Conduct mid-term formative reviews using a teaching center or a colleague if necessary, at week 4 or 5 in the course. I ask students three questions, based on my institution’s teaching center evaluations: “what has helped you learn in this class, what has prevented you from learning, and what changes to the class would help you learn better?” Mid-term reviews are not for the faint of heart: be prepared to make real adjustments. For weeks following a midterm review, I will point out changes I make in class. “You asked for more small group work, so that’s what we’re doing now.” I want students to know that I heard them, that, like them, I’m learning. I want them to know that, from where I stand, we are all always learning.
Jayme Yeo has a PhD in English from Rice University and joined the English department of Belmont University in 2013. She specializes in seventeenth-century British devotional poetry, early modern political culture, and affect. Her current book project explores the affective and political dimensions of religious experience in early modern poetry. She teaches classes on British literature and academic writing, including one class that integrates poetry with community service and political activism.