Active listening for active learning

Active Listening sketch note by Claudio

Advocates of active learning must consider the active learning space from many perspectives. For example, I tend to think about space experientially, creating a picture in my own mind of a space that is used creatively; one in which the learner is challenged to work co-operatively as the basis for deep and critical engagement with knowledge.

This is problematic. Whatever our rationale for reconsidering space, ultimately we must come back to the capabilities and respective agencies of the users. The teachers and the learners.

As an educational developer, I am concerned with curriculum design and the capabilities of the academic to design and deliver the active curriculum confidently. The active learning paradigm for the teacher is full of rewarding creative possibilities, nevertheless making a shift into this active paradigm can be a significant challenge for many academics especially where they are not in step with their colleagues.

But what about the students? Developing the expectations of incoming students, and their ongoing development as independent learners, is critical to successful engagement as active learners, but what exactly are the academic skills and graduate capabilities needed in the active classroom? In the next post, I will consider active co-operativism. Here, I identify active listening, not only as a learning skill, but as a graduate capability. Furthermore, its development at Level 4 signals and enables expected modes of learning within a context of professional behaviours.

Active listening requires the listener to concentrate, check their understanding and apply strategies for remembering what is said and what it means. There are various ways in which active listening can be developed, but most importantly the learner needs to see its value and be supported in applying it regularly as the basis of good learning habits. It is useful for challenging unconscious bias and for developing the respect needed amongst peers in an active learning environment. More crucially, any activity without interactivity is a wasted opportunity in a classroom.

I started to think about active listening because I am designing another learning walk. Learning walks (and twalks) are essentially, like most modes of active learning, conversational spaces. Haigh (2015) has analysed professional learning conversations and has identified serendipity, improvisation, parity, timeliness, contextuality, the use of storytelling, openness and trust as valuable features of conversational encounters. Third place theory (Oldenburg, 1989) identifies neutrality and good conversation as characteristics of an equitable and convivial social space, and that is what we are aiming for in active learning.

Learning walk structures, in my approach, are convivial and immersive. However, conversationally, they can be fast-paced. Managing the conversation so that it elicits learning value requires some skill. In particular, it requires mutual respect and good listening, so that learning can be synthesised through personal or collective reflection.
Good conversations require good listening. I suggest the following characteristics need to be developed to support active listening, therefore,

  • supportive patience to allow peers to find their right words and ideas;
  • open-mindedness and the readiness to hold judgement on ideas and views;
  • good articulation – the speaker must be responsive to the listener, observing signs of comprehension or confusion;
  • confidence to allow silence and to value contemplation;
  • generous encouragement;
  • acknowledgement, i.e. body language and verbal signals;
  • the ability to paraphrase, seek clarification and to clarify.

The attached Active Listening sketch note by Claudio from Flickr provides further useful ideas on active listening.


Haigh, N. (2005) ‘Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development’. International Journal for Academic Development, 10 (1) 3 — 16.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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