A key to comprehending material that is presented to you is listening effectively. Whether you are in a group discussion, class lecture, or even a one-on-one meeting, using effective listening skills will help you understand and remember information more effectively.
Fundamentally, effective listening means listening well. This means tuning out distractions, focusing on the speaker/content, and training your brain to recall the information. There are plenty of ways to listen effectively, and, as you grow as a student, you will develop your own methods that work for you.
In the following lesson we will discuss the fundamentals of effective listening.
Active listening is a blanket term to describe a whole range of listening techniques that help you tune in better and walk away with more understanding. Some active listening techniques to try include note taking, making eye contact, asking questions, and using comments to assure the speaker you are listening. We will talk more about note taking below, but following are a couple of techniques to show the speaker you're listening:
Making eye contact will show the speaker that you are listening. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every setting; if you are watching a film in class, or you are in a large lecture hall where the professor is very far away, this strategy is not important. Still, for smaller groups or one-on-one meetings, making eye contact goes a long way for making the speaker feel like you hear them. In smaller group settings it’s best to look at the speaker whenever you’re not taking notes.
Asking questions shows the speaker that you are engaged. Even asking simple clarifying questions is a great way to show your teacher or peers that you are listening. Below is a list of ways to start these questions so that you can show you are listening:
So, what you’re saying is...
Let me see if I am understanding. What you mean is that…
For my understanding, could you repeat…
How did you come to the conclusion that…
Asking questions like this will let the speaker know that you are focused on understanding what they are saying. Of course, your questions must be asked at appropriate times so that you don’t interrupt. Wait for gaps in the conversation, or for the speaker to ask for questions, before you chime in.
Using comments is similar to asking questions. That is, dropping in small comments here and there will help show your speaker that you are following them. These comments are typically small affirmations that you are listening to them. Nodding is a good affirmation of listening when you're unable to comment. Some examples of comments are:
These words might not seem to do a lot on their own, but when combined with other techniques, such as eye contact, you will show your speaker that you are listening intently. When you use these small comments, make sure you are mindful of the situation you use them in. While they are effective in a one on one or small group setting, they would come across as interrupting during a class or large group.
Following are more key techniques that can help you actively listen.
1. Taking notes
Taking notes is an extremely important part of listening effectively. Whether you are in a meeting with a teacher, a group discussion, or a lecture with 100 students, chances are you will be taking notes of some kind.
Taking notes serves two primary functions:
Research shows that the process of writing content as you hear it helps you commit that information to your memory better.
The notes provide you with a reference that you can go back to if you don’t remember all the information, or if you need to review.
There are tons of methods for taking notes, so finding a method that works for you will require some trial and error. Regardless of what style you use for your note taking, make sure that your first priority for notetaking is overarching ideas and correlations. If you get too bogged down in trying to scribble down everything that is said or presented you will inevitably stop listening well. Therefore, it’s best if your notes are concise and cover the big ideas – if you have enough time left after writing the big ideas before a new topic or page of information is introduced, then go back and fill in any important details.
Some students think that notes should only contain the information that was presented, but, in reality, your notes are for you. So, integrate any diagrams, information organizers, and charts that you think would help you learn best.
Of course, you may not have time to draw charts and diagrams during a lecture or meeting. These kinds of things should be done afterwards so that you don’t risk failing to listen to what is being said.
Lastly, including any questions you might want to ask later in your notes is a good idea. Asking questions is an important part of learning. If you jot down your questions in your notes, then you ensure that you remember them later.
2. Listening critically
Listening critically is a way of making sure that you are analyzing everything that is being said rather than simply memorizing it. When you listen critically, you listen under the assumption that not necessarily everything the speaker (whether it’s a teacher, classmate, or even movie/audio recording) is saying is correct or agreeable.
As a student, you are allowed to have differing opinions about the interpretations of things. Listening critically means comparing what you hear with what you think based on your own knowledge. This might lead you to have additional questions or comments. Making these questions or comments known (at the appropriate time) is a great way to show that you are listening.
3. Analyzing speakers
Sometimes, you’ll need to use effective listening skills to analyze speakers for a class rather than to engage in discussions or learn from lectures. In these situations, you are taking a more analytical look at what the speaker is saying. In these cases, speaker might not even refer to a person; it could address a video clip, advertisement, or anything else you might listen to. There are many aspects of speakers you can look to and analyze:
One way to analyze what the speaker is saying is by thinking about purpose. A speaker’s purpose is similar to a writer’s purpose. It is what motivated them to speak in the first place.
For instance, if you are asked to analyze a radio ad for a car manufacturer, then clearly the purpose is to try and get individuals interested in buying their cars.
The purpose can go beyond this and be looked at with an even finer lens. One can also ask themselves why the speaker chose that particular medium to try and fulfill that purpose. With respect to writing, an author can only communicate through their written word, but now we are looking at far more mediums for communication. To name a few, there are TV commercials, speeches, radio ads, songs, spoken word poetry, movies, TV shows and documentaries, and historic audio snippets.
Another great way to analyze a speaker is to actually pull apart their presentation to see what is working behind the scenes. We do this by identifying specifically what the speaker’s argument is and what claims the speaker makes to support that argument.
To identify the speaker’s argument, we must ask ourselves what the speaker is trying to accomplish. This is closely related to the speaker’s purpose, but there is a difference between the two. Where as purpose identifies what motivates the speaker, argument identifies how the speaker acts on the purpose.
Let’s use the car ad on the radio as an example. The purpose of that ad is to convince some of the people that hear the ad to buy a car. Meanwhile, the argument that the speaker uses might be that their cars are far better than any other manufacturer’s cars.
After we identify the argument, we can move on to the claims. The speaker’s claims are what they use to support their argument. In other words, the claims are the reasons that support the argument. If we have a good idea of what the argument is, then it shouldn’t be difficult to identify the claims.
To refer back to our car ad—the claims the speaker uses might be any number of the following reasons: their cars are the fastest, most comfortable, best priced, safest, etc. As listeners we can analyze the validity of each claim to determine how strong the speaker's argument truly is.
Perhaps we know for a fact that the advertising manufacturer’s car is not the safest in its class, but nonetheless the manufacturer cites this as a claim to support their argument. Then we, as effective and critical listeners, might deem the speaker’s argument to be weak.
To summarize, claims are used to support arguments that fulfill purposes.