Listening vs. Hearing: A Key to Empathetic Engagement  

Capturing and maintaining student engagement is one of the greatest challenges in education today. It is both key to students’ success and difficult to execute because students and educators have a lot on their plate. Practicing empathy is one of many strategies that can help improve student engagement 

But how is empathy cultivated in classrooms and on campuses? One of the answers lies not just in what we say, but whether and how we listen.  

Listening vs. Hearing

Many of us might equate hearing with listening. However, there is a significant difference between the two. Hearing is a passive process and a physical response to sound waves that reach our ears. We hear traffic noises, notifications on our computer, even a student’s question without truly registering its content. 

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, multi-layered process. It’s a conscious decision to not just hear the sounds, but to interpret them and understand the meaning behind the words. It’s about focusing our attention, filtering out distractions, and putting ourselves in the speaker’s shoes. 

Listening can also go beyond sounds. Listening to students can mean paying attention to their behavior to get a deeper understanding of what they are experiencing. At a large scale, listening can mean paying attention to data patterns showing student needs and making changes to meet those needs. Ultimately, listening differs from hearing because it aims to understand the meaning behind actions and words and do something with that understanding. This is empathetic engagement. 

Examples of Listening in Education

Imagine a student struggling with a math concept. They might blurt out, “This is impossible!” Hearing this, a teacher might simply repeat the instructions or move on. But an empathetic teacher who is actively listening would delve deeper. They might ask clarifying questions, like, “Can you tell me what part you’re finding difficult?” or “Is there another way I can explain this?” This shift from hearing to listening fosters a connection because the teacher shows empathy by recognizing the student’s frustration. 

This empathetic connection is key to student engagement. When students feel their voices are heard and that their challenges acknowledged, they become more invested in their education. 

Here’s another scenario: imagine a college student is consistently late or doesn’t show up to class. Hearing this might lead a professor or advisor to reprimand the student with a warning that unchanged behavior could lead to academic discipline. However, listening to the student with an empathetic approach would aim to understand and address the root cause. The student could be struggling with a personal issue unrelated to academics and need support. By actively listening, schools and colleges can offer relevant support to keep the student engaged. This approach demonstrates not just empathy, but a genuine interest in the student’s well-being, a key factor in boosting engagement. 

Benefits of Listening

Listening instead of just hearing benefits students in many ways. Students who feel heard are more likely to feel invested in their education and trust their teachers or professors. This sense of trust is foundational to creating a safe space where students can learn and seek help when they need it. Trust is also an important part of feeling a sense of belonging. Research shows that students are more successful when they feel they belong to the school or campus community.  

Listening instead of hearing also empowers schools and colleges to have rich data on students and how to support them. As an example, an end of year survey on a class may give helpful insight on students’ experience but combining that with focus groups can add a lot more color. Changes needed to help students succeed would be listening instead of just hearing students. Listening to students helps schools and colleges build institutions that work for today’s students. In the long run, it may even lead to more loyal students, higher retention, and greater alumni engagement.  

How AI Can Help Educators Listen to Students

Truly listening to students is a fantastic practice. However, it can be time consuming and limited to one-on-one interactions. AI can help educators augment their ability to engage, be empathetic, and truly listen to their students.  

AI tools can automate and scale insights that help educators understand their students better. For example, AI tools can quickly analyze data to identify where students are struggling and recommend an engagement strategy to help them. AI can help educators get a better understanding of what students are experiencing or what they need. Without it, it will continue to be challenging for educators to create relevant, engaging experiences for students.  

Discourse Analytics’ Digital Counselor, for example, gives educators insight into student mindsets. It can also flag students who may be at risk for a variety of challenges, like social or emotional challenges in or out of school. These insights help educators listen to students and have a holistic picture of who they are. 

Listening as a Powerful Tool

By listening to students instead of just hearing them, schools and colleges unlock a powerful tool for fostering empathy, building a sense of belonging, and ultimately, creating a more engaging learning environment for all students. True engagement goes beyond simply capturing attention. It’s about listening and creating an educational experience where students feel heard, valued, and empowered to learn. 

Want to be able to listen to your students? Request a demo to see how we can help you authentically engage with students.