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#123: Listening to Students in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared on APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Listening is both a simple and complex skill. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the importance of “listening” in the online classroom, even when classes are delivered asynchronously. Learn about four types of listening as well as three tools to help online educators effectively respond to students.

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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Hello, I’m Bethanie Hansen, and I help online educators through this Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We’re going to hear something about listening today, and how listening is both simple and complex. It is a skill that can serve us incredibly well in life, generally, and, it’s essential to our work as online educators.

We find the job of teaching online to be both simple and complex. There are so many areas that we can explore, expand, refine, and improve.

The simplicity of teaching online means that we can see this experience as simpler than teaching a live, face-to-face class. You basically put content into the LMS, guide students through it, and evaluate their progress. And viewed in its simplicity, we might wonder what can make it a better, richer, a better experience for everyone. And we might ask how we can assure that it is a quality experience. Or, in other words, what makes it worth doing?

The complexity of teaching online means that we can get lost in the many things to do to assure that it is a transformative experience for students. We have frameworks to help us develop curriculum and content. We have accessibility measures that must be followed to help all learners access the content appropriately for their needs. We have various media tactics, including text, picture, video, audio, and interactive forms. We have models of interaction and engagement throughout the learning journey. We have types of instructor presence and strategies to achieve these aspects. And there are quality checks we can use through the OLC Scorecard, or the Quality Matters rubric, or something else. If you’re deeply involved in all of these things I’ve mentioned, you know online education can be rich and quality-focused, designed to promote the growth and transformation of our students from every angle.

In all of its simplicity and complexity, because it is done online, listening is not a topic that often comes up. After all, if online education is asynchronous, there is no live talking happening. But there is asynchronous talking of all kinds. This includes text, timing, tone, perspective, and assumptions. And if there is all of this “talking” going on, there must also be listening.

As an online educator, how do you focus on listening in the online space? How do you interpret what you hear? And how do you respond?

Today, I’m sharing four types of listening and three tools to respond to what you hear. These types of listening are:

  • listen for social connection
  • listen for big ideas and concepts
  • listen for facts and authority and
  • listen for application and relevance

When listening in each of these four ways, some helpful responding tools include acknowledging, validating, and affirming. Beyond these strategies, most educators will naturally add questioning, challenging, building their students’ ideas, and redirecting when needed.

Listen for Social Connection

Building social connection is one way of listening to others. If you’ve ever been in a meeting in which someone was smiling and nodding at the speaker the whole time, it’s possible that his person was listening for social connection. A person listening in this way is not concerned about what is being communicated. Instead, they are participating in the social experience of building relationships by listening to connect with others.

Listening in this way means that I might be trying to see the person behind the speaker or writer. I’m primarily concerned with who they are and how I might understand them as a human being. I might engage in ways that help me build a bridge with the other person and put aside any other agenda to get fully present in the social space. If I listen to build social connection, my primary concern is to build empathy.

As an online educator, social presence is part of our community of inquiry model. To listen in this way, you might make special note of the background of your students. You might listen to their goals and degree plans. And you might also become aware of all that they bring into the online space, and what challenges they are facing as they participate in your class. With this kind of listening, you’re building relationships and becoming more informed and empathetic at the same time.

Listen for Big Ideas and Concepts

A conceptual listener is one who is most interested in the big idea behind a person’s words. It is the underlying theme or big-picture concept. The details might help paint this picture, but listening in this way doesn’t get lost in the details or require them to all be lined up in order perfectly.

Listening in this way means I might try seeing the big concept presented in a speaker or writer’s entire message. I’m primarily concerned with the idea itself and how I might observe their own understanding of this big idea. I might engage in ways that help me see more fully how the other person understands this big picture, rather than trying to impose my own understanding of that idea or concept. By putting aside my own ideas about it, I’m more able to hear how they see the concept.

As an online educator, cognitive presence is partly satisfied through the communication of big ideas and concepts. Listening in this way helps us learn how students construct knowledge for themselves and how they understand the concepts needed in any subject area. This kind of listening can help us detect where additional knowledge might be helpful or where we can support and redirect our students. With this kind of listening, you’re going to know when your students have sufficient understanding to play with theories and work to apply them.

Listen for Facts and Authority

A listener focused on facts and authority is most interested in the primary subject matter experts in the field, and the ways in which students use them in writing and speaking. Facts are just that—undeniable details. These might be core principles, dates, names, and other evidence or data. Authority means that well-developed source materials and quotes are integrated into the conversation, and where needed, these are cited appropriately.

Listening in this way means that I might hear what is said but wait for the supporting evidence or authority to back it up. I’m mainly concerned that the ideas are not just one person’s opinion, but something more well-known and research-based. I might engage in ways that provide this kind of information to others, showing by example. I might ask follow-up questions to prompt my students to share more about what they read and what they said and what they wrote.

As an online educator, facts and authority are another way in which we satisfy cognitive presence. Listening in this way helps us detect what students are actually learning specific to the subject matter and about engaging as academics and scholars themselves. And listening for these details, we can help mentor them to communicate on an academic level about ideas in the field that others believe are essential.

Listen for Application and Relevance

A listener focused on application and relevance is mostly interested in what can be done with the ideas being shared. The facts and authority might be important, and a solid discussion of the big picture concept. But more than that, it would be all about what we can do with these ideas.

Listening in this way means I might think, “This is nice, but why does it matter? What can we do with it in the real world?” I’m mainly concerned with how it can apply to me in my own life. Or how it can be implemented in the workplace. I might engage in ways that bring up various scenarios or what-if proposals. I might ask questions about making it real and trying it out.

As an online educator, especially with adult learners, applying the learning is a priority. Our students want to know how the ideas and details are relevant to them, and they want to be able to do something with the knowledge they have gained. Listening in this way helps us communicate on that same level with our students about areas they care most about. And this brings us full circle from learning social connection about who they are to the application of learning into more of who they are.

Respond by Acknowledging, Validating, and Affirming

Even when listening in different ways, it can be challenging to know how to respond. Three easy responses that help online students feel seen, heard, and understood can be learned and practiced and chances are, you’re already doing them.

Acknowledging means that we let others know they were heard. In the online classroom, this might mean that we provide a statement about the student’s message to indicate we have seen it or read it. Even a simple “thank you for posting about the topic,” and adding a few details you noticed in the post, helps a student know you read it. Acknowledging is a basic exchange and does not require additional interpretation or any discussion.

Validating goes beyond just acknowledging. Validating means that in some way, we let others know we accept their point of view and their feelings, even if we don’t agree. We are basically saying that their statements are valid. You don’t try to correct them, persuade them, or tell them their viewpoint is wrong. Validation is an empathetic way of communicating and is not judgmental. This isn’t about facts and data but much more about others’ life experiences and preferences and opinions. To be helpful, validating must show that you really hear the other person and understand why they feel the way they do.

Affirming is a way to recognize a person’s strengths or positive behaviors and improvements. The intention behind these statements is that they support a person’s growth and their capacity to learn and change. They are only effective when they are true. As online educators, we might respond to a student’s idea as a helpful suggestion or respond to their application of the concepts as original and resourceful. As they continue to learn and develop, affirming statements help our students feel seen and understood, and they also praise evidence of their growth with specific evidence along the way.

As we close out this episode about types of listening and three ways to acknowledge what we hear, I realize this is a lot of information! My suggestion is to pick only of these ideas to try out and see what happens. And remember, that these are foundational ideas. It’s likely you’re already going beyond these strategies by questioning, challenging, building on students’ ideas, and redirecting them when needed. And by trying one new concept this coming week, you’re going to add variety to your listening approach online. And who knows? Your students might even like it! Thank you for listening today, and best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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