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Just Listen

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

“Everyone seeking advice has an internal narrative that helps him organize his life, identify the obstacles he faces, and develop strategies for overcoming them.”


The posting below looks at enhancing your discussions with students outside of class. It is by Joseph Lowman and Howard Aldrich of the University of North Carolina-
Chapel Hill and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 2, February, 2016. It is #77 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Revolution in Higher Education (Review)



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

---------- 980 words ----------

Just Listen


Early in the semester Shannon dropped in during office hours to discuss problems with a research project assigned for an under-graduate class. She found it hard to collect information she needed, given other demands on her time. She was concerned about her GPA and wanted to have enough hours to graduate this year. The conversation turned
from completing
the term paper
to larger questions about her
career and life
and whether it
made sense for
her to complete
the course. This
example reminded us that
discussions of
college teaching
commonly focus on what happens during class sessions. But what happens when students seek us out for a private meeting and want professional or personal advice?

Here we offer a range of techniques appropriate to an extended conversation with a student, preferably during office hours, rather than a fleeting encounter after class or on campus. Our goal in such conversations is to help students better understand their situation, consider a wider range of options, and make their own decisions about their future.

Talk little and listen a lot. Everyone seeking advice has an internal narrative that helps him organize his life, identify the obstacles  he faces, and develop strategies for overcoming them. We can help students tell their story by being attentive listeners, using lots of eye contact and moderate head nodding. A positive nonverbal demeanor also reduces negative emotions and students’ reluctance to act. Initially we need do little more than focus on keeping them talking. Being calm and accepting is more likely to make students feel better than reassuring them everything is going to be all right.

Help students think more comprehensively about their problems and possible courses of action. Helpful listening requires more than sitting passively and saying little. Initially, when students hesitate, we may need to repeat details about what they have said to show we have been listening or say “Okay,” to keep them talking. But as the conversation develops and students provide details, we can offer focused reflections of what we heard that demonstrate we understand their story. We may ask for clarification to fill in gaps or correct misunderstandings. Asking students how they make sense of their problems can help them deepen their understanding of problems and options. Moreover, it implies that we cannot fix their problems for them: They are in charge of their lives.

Moderate students’ levels of distress. Talking to someone else about an issue can be cathartic and make students feel better. Remaining calm and confident while listening fosters this. Asking students what they have thought about or tried thus far may also be helpful if no judgment is given. Listen for the judgments of their actions (or inactions) by other faculty, school staff, or parents. Remain calm regardless of how distressing the details may become and affirm the normality of their emotional experience, e.g., “I can see how you’d feel that way.” Do not encourage students to become angry or vent their negative emotions, as that is counterproductive. Our goal should be to understand and accept their depictions and feelings, not to uncover deeper emotions.

Avoid offering advice: “It is always a silly thing to give advice, but
to give good advice is absolutely fatal.” Oscar Wilde was referring here to the pitfalls that come

with offering even good advice. An informal chat offers insufficient information about another’s life to make decisions for her. Questions students bring to their instructors may not provide a complete picture and may even deflect attention from what really troubles them. They may have already been given good advice and not liked what they heard or been unable to choose among the options offered. When students ask for advice they may think they can’t solve the problem on their own. Giving advice could undercut development of their independent decision-making. Students may also conclude they can’t make significant decisions and be less likely to take responsibility for outcomes.

Even when a student’s concerns deal with purely academic issues with which we have considerable experience, we avoid giving explicit advice at the outset, regardless of whether we have a preferred solution. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to subtly shape behavior by pointing out options and routes for achieving resolution. Ideally, students will choose the route we favor, but they should make the choice, not us.

If the concerns are about personal relationships or violations
of institutional policies, we are even less inclined to offer advice because we may make things worse or get blamed if things go wrong, especially if parents or others become involved. Instead, make sure you are aware of where to refer students for personal counseling or to report violations. Support them in seeking help from others whose responsibility it is to help them, rather than becoming deeply involved in trying to “solve” their problems for them.

Close the conversation and recommend follow-up communication. We do not recommend long, time-consuming individual sessions. In fact, a skilled instructor can bring sessions to a close within a reasonable span. Depending on the presenting problem we can imagine a useful meeting ending after only 10 or 15 minutes, and have found that 30 minutes usually suffices. Encouraging students to get back to us in person or via email shows we really are concerned about them and validates their seeking out someone to help them. But it also emphasizes that they are in charge of doing something about their issues and that we have control over how much time we spend in a single conference. Finally, by thanking students for coming in, we affirm that such talk is appropriate for their relationship with us as faculty.



Howard E. Aldrich
Kenan Professor of Sociology, Dept. of Sociology
UNC-CH, CB#3210, Hamilton Hall Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3210 USA Telephone (919) 962-5044
E-mail: Joseph Lowman
Professor of Psychology (retired) Department of Psychology UNC-Chapel Hill