“Strategies to Ensure Your Students Feel Heard” from The Faculty Lounge, brought to you by Harvard Business Publishing Education

cartoon female in red blouse with eyes closed, listening intently

Adapted from 6 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills by Rebecca D. Minehart, assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School; Benjamin B. Symon, faculty for the Debriefing Academy; and Laura K. Rock, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School

When our stressors increase, our executive functioning and cognitive flexibility are taxed, making it harder to give our students the full attention they deserve. We talk when we should listen. Prescribe solutions when we should ask for details. Lose the thread on conversations when we should be helping to find the focus.

The good news is, with practice, we can all be more effective listeners. Here’s how.

Determine your default listening style

Learning to listen well begins with understanding what type of listener you are. In our work, we’ve observed four distinct listening styles:

  • Analytical listeners analyze a problem from a neutral starting point. Example: You listen to two ExecEd students debate the relevance of a recent article to their industry, taking care to explore both students’ viewpoints before responding.
  • Relational listeners build connection and seek to understand the emotions underlying a message. Example: You notice a student’s voice quivers when they talk about an upcoming paper that’s due, so you consider whether they’re stressed and why.
  • Critical listeners judge both the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker themselves. Example: A student challenges you about a grade, so you listen to their reasoning to determine whether this is just about their GPA or whether it’s worth changing your viewpoint.
  • Task-focused listeners shape a conversation toward the efficient transfer of important information. Example: A student asking for a deadline extension attempts to offer a lengthy justification for the request, but you interrupt early to find out how long of an extension they’re seeking.

With these definitions and examples as a guide, ask yourself, Which style do I default to most?

Recognize when your default listening style is disruptive

Sometimes our usual listening style can sabotage our goals. Maybe you tend to use a task-focused or critical listening style so you can make rapid decisions. That’s great when there is time pressure, but it can backfire when a student needs more support.

Consider this scenario:

Student: “I don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. Everyone judges me.”
Educator: “Of course no one is judging you! We all feel like that sometimes, but the best solution is to dive in and give it a try.”

Here, the student is displaying emotion, yet the educator is responding with a task-focused response, missing a valuable opportunity to acknowledge and explore what the student is expressing. The educator’s response is likely to make this student feel unheard and discouraged from sharing.

Recognizing this disconnect is a critical step in improving your listening skills.

Adapt your listening style to achieve mutual conversational goals

There are myriad reasons why we listen the way we do: to be efficient, to avoid conflict, to gain attention, to support, or simply to entertain. When those reasons are repeatedly (and perhaps unconsciously) prioritized, we shortchange other listening goals such as mutual understanding and greater connection.

If we can instead learn to shift dynamically between listening styles—by matching the speaker’s needs with the most appropriate listening technique—we may have more productive conversations.

Let’s go back to our example from above and instead use a relational listening style.

Student: “I don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. Everyone judges me.”
Educator: “That’s a tough feeling to have. [Pause] Do you feel like talking about it?”

When a student expresses stress or fear, responding with validation and curiosity may allow you to capture valuable information and more effectively address the student’s needs.

Here’s another example scenario:

Student: “I’m scared about the midterm test.”
Educator: “I’m not planning on throwing any curveballs into the exam. But it’s normal to be nervous before a big test. [Pause.] What’s scaring you the most?”

What you learn from their response may change the way you approach that student’s learning in the future.

The impact of better listening

Experimenting with how we listen solidifies our active partnership in conversations. It expands the space for others to reveal what really matters to them and can allow us to get to the heart of the matter more deliberately. Through intentionally applying new ways to listen, we can build relationships, better understand others, and collaborate and problem-solve more effectively.

Spring Forward with Perusall

Have you heard about Perusall, the social reading platform that allows students to collectively read, annotate, and discuss the readings, but not sure how to implement it in your class? Have no fear!

Perusall is offering free webinars to help get you started or up-leveling the Perusall skills you already have.

Perusall 101

Perusall 101 will cover how to get up and running with Perusall’s product features such as grouping, building out your Library, and setting up assignments. There will also be an opportunity to ask questions. This webinar is designed for those brand new to Perusall or are looking for a refresher on Perusall fundamentals.

Perusall 102

Perusall 102 is the up-level course from the Perusall 101. We will take an in-depth review of some of Perusall’s technical features, including multimodal assignments, Peer Review assignment creation, auto-grading, grouping, and LMS set up. There will also be an opportunity to ask questions.

2022 Spring Webinar Series: Register at perusall.com/webinar.

Need help with or have questions about Perusall? We’ve got you covered! Contact the ITS Information Desk at 540.458.4357 (HELP), email help@wlu.edu, or stop by the ITS Information Desk on the Main Level of Leyburn Library!

How to Wield the Power of Podcasting in Your Classroom!

Podcasting is a fast-growing storytelling medium for sharing information and personal expression. Beyond the convenience of listening on the go, the power of podcasting lies in the words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind.

Creating a high-quality podcast requires careful planning, quality scripting, and production skills. Thanks to ITS Academic Technologies, StoryCenter returns to W&L once again to offer a workshop of storytelling in the increasingly popular podcast format. 

Storycenter facilitators will guide you through story development, scripting, interview technique, audio hardware options, and training in Audacity software. All participants will gain hands-on experience and practical knowledge with various facets of creating a podcast and construct a complete, polished podcast segment that integrates consistently with an overall podcast identity. Listen to examples of podcast segments that have come out of Storycenter’s podcast workshops.

This workshop is designed for those who are new to podcasting; eager to learn the basics of long-form, narrative audio storytelling; and interested in using podcasting in the classroom. All W&L faculty are encouraged to apply at go.wlu.edu/podcasting


  1. All participants meet in-person with Academic Technologies (but virtually with StoryCenter staff) for a 2-hour introduction session during Winter Academy: Wednesday, December 15 at 9:15 am, breakfast provided.

  2. During Winter Break, each participant conducts an interview (45–60 minutes in length) on their own to use in their podcast segment during Winter Break.

  3.  In January or February 2022, each participant meets on-on-one via Zoom with a StoryCenter facilitator to review their interview and discuss a possible segment to build on based on that interview. 

  4.  All participants meet in-person for three days during Feb Break: Monday, February 21 through Wednesday, February 23, 2022; lunch and snacks provided.

Questions? Contact Julie Knudson at jmknudson@wlu.edu.



On #Ungrading, by Mikki Brock

What an honest, eye-opening, and marvelous summary of how Dr. Mikki Brock, Associate Professor of History, incorporated ungrading this past term!

I want to share some reflections on my first semester of #ungrading, which I did in my 100-level survey & 300-level seminar. This will be a long thread, but the TLDR is that I think it went really well. I loved it, the majority of my students loved it, & we all learned a lot. 1/ 

First, though, let me acknowledge that it is easier for me to do this type of experimentation than others because of my own privilege: tenured, white, a “known quantity” to my students, and supported by a dept. chair & cohort of colleagues testing the waters with me. 2/ 

My own positionality matters, and we need to keep pushing for *all* faculty to have these opportunities. 3/ 

So: the vast majority of my students reported that they enjoyed ungrading. Yes, some felt anxious about it, but most said it freed them to take risks, to think deeply about their learning, and to pay attention to my feedback rather than simply glance at a number on a page. 4/ 

Many also noted that it reduced their stress and left them more empowered and engaged than they expected. Others also said that ungrading made them want to work more, not less, because they were motivated by curiosity and commitment to the class—things beyond just pleasing me. 5/ 

A few did say they preferred traditional grading (interestingly, all men), but they also said they understood *why* I chose to ungrade. Even if they didn’t love the system, I think moving forward they’ll have a more expansive view of what learning is, and what it is for. 6/ 

I think there are some things I did well this term. Above all, I kept things simple and transparent. Lots of check ins and no mystery. Individual assignments included short self-assessments, and I also did longer, more general ones at midterm and finals. 7/ 

I cannot stress enough what a joy these self-assessments were to read. They were, for the most part, honest, vulnerable, and insightful. Above all, they provided an important opportunity for feedback and dialogue beyond just commenting on their work itself. 8/ 

There are some things I’d do differently. Next time, I’ll hold more required student conferences. I’ll try to be a bit more precise in sharing with students *my* objectives for the class, rather than just asking for theirs. 9/ 

I gave them even more feedback on their work than I usually would, but I probably could have made this feedback structured in a way that made it clearer for them and less time consuming for me. This is perhaps the one downside to ungrading: it is actually more work! 10/ 

In the end, students graded themselves, because my institution requires grades. As someone who tends to like lots of control and oversight, this was actually a really big step for me, and I am proud that I took it. 11/ 

One of the things that put me at ease was that I set a “floor”: students had to complete all assignments *according to the directions* in order to earn a B- or above. Most of my students did so, and I did not feel the need to change any of the grades students gave themselves. 12/ 

The final grade distribution was similar to previous terms, if maybe a smidge higher, which I attribute to the fact that I assigned a bit less work than usual (pandemic!). Plus students just did a really great job, esp. given all the things they were grappling with this term. 13/ 

For anyone curious about ungrading, I have a four suggestions for getting started. First, read @SusanDebraBlum‘s Ungrading and @Jessifer‘s blog; these were essential in giving me the confidence (and practical advice!) to do this. 14/ 

Their work also afforded me the language to explain to my students *why* I was doing things this way. And I did a lot of explaining, because I think students deserve to understand my approach to their learning, even if a few ultimately remain unconvinced. 15/ 

Second, I recommend starting small. In fall, I did only participation; students assessed this part of their grades based on their preparation + engagement. This was low stakes & helped me understand the process. There are also other ways to ungrade. It isn’t all or nothing! 16/ 

Third, try ungrading in a senior-level class first, as upperclass-folks tend to be more confident, they often know you, and these courses are generally smaller. My jrs and srs seemed to really like & appreciate the ungraded approach. I was surprised by how onboard they were! 17/ 

Last, if you are able, find like-minded colleagues who want to go on this journey with you. Meet regularly and talk about anxieties, aims, and strategies. We were also very lucky to have @curriculargeek provide us with constant encouragement and practical help. Thanks, Paul! 18/ 

In sum, I’ll continue to improve my own process, but I doubt I’ll ever return to the traditional system, because I just don’t believe in it. Ungrading was more work, but it was also more joyful. It put trust & curiosity at the center of my classroom. 10/10 would recommend. /fin 

Want to hear more from Dr. Brock and other W&L professors who adopted ungrading? Look for the Ungrading panel session at Fall Academy, which will be August 23 – September 3, 2021.