Teaching What the Research Says

Quick Ways Teachers Can Encourage Students to Listen to Each Other

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 19, 2023 1 min read
Two elementary children around the age of 9 discuss something as they work on a class assignment together.
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Listening is a key language skill and academic habit—it’s estimated people spend 45 percent of their communication time listening versus only 30 percent talking—yet students often get little explicit instruction on how to pay attention to each other.

As schools work to help students recover academic habits that were disrupted during the pandemic, experts have called for more deliberate practice of listening and other communication skills. One new study suggests quick ways that teaching students to listen to their peers can build deeper academic discussions and counter racial and gender stereotypes in classes like math.

Karin Brown, an education researcher at the University of Michigan, recorded and analyzed how 5th grade math teachers in Midwest classrooms led peer discussions in ways that encouraged equitable participation. Common approaches focused on peer listening, including:

  • Asking one student for the answer to a problem and then asking another student to explain the classmate’s answer.
  • Soliciting several different answers to a question, then asking students to consider the reasoning behind an answer with which they disagree.
  • Creating exit tickets or homework in which students reflect on how a classmate’s idea made them change their thinking.

Related

Pinecrest Elementary School Principal Laura Mendicino directs students to take their places in preparation for a teamwork activity at the school in Immokalee, Fla. Twice a week, the Collier County district uses activities to teach aspects of leadership.
Pinecrest Elementary School Principal Laura Mendicino directs students to take their places in preparation for a teamwork activity at the school in Immokalee, Fla. Twice a week, the Collier County district uses activities to teach aspects of leadership.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week

“By giving students the opportunity to practice using questions, [the teacher] is communicating that listening is important enough that we should be practicing doing it together,” Brown said in a discussion at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association last week, where she presented her findings. “Rather than listening just being this generic thing that the teacher’s asking students to do, he’s giving them specific steps that he would like them to take.”

Creating a framework for peer listening may also help reduce stereotypes in classes like math, Brown noted. In general, prior studies have found training in listening can reduce racism and bias. But teachers may also be able to reduce stereotype threat— in which a student feels a fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype about the abilities of their gender or racial group— by highlighting their insights and guiding them to lead class discussions.

“Teachers can prompt students to consider what they’ve learned from their classmates of color, which could interrupt the racial hierarchy of mathematical ability,” she said.

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