Pause and Listen: Teaching in a Fast-Paced World

"My own capacity to listen widely, generously, and attentively becomes my resistance." – Sherri Spelic

In an anxious, sound-saturated world, a few minutes of silence is the space students need to think. While it is ideal to pause for 12 seconds to allow a group to respond to a question, we instead wait about 1.2 seconds. Allowing this mental space is not just a kindness to our students: It can be the difference in whether students remember and apply what they have learned. Our brain needs time to process information and make connections to prior knowledge.

Another form of pause is listening, a lost art in many western cultures. When are we really listening to students, giving them our full attention without sifting their response for the answer we anticipate? How often are students prompted to listen to each other, and how do we teach them to listen deeply?

This teaching tip offers four places to start, from simple strategies to thinking more deeply about listening as radical action.

Reflect on to whom we and our students are listening.

Listening is an intentional act of those we give respect, priority, and value to, and "How well or how poorly we listen often reflects the value we place on the messenger in a given context." In “Listening as Resistance,” Sherri Spelic writes about what it means to listen, how we listen in the texts we read and then the choices we make about who we follow on Twitter and which publications we consult to interpret an event. Rather than just tuning into the voices with the most intellectual expertise or most resources, she writes in bold, "I listen to people who have skin in the game."

Reflect on who students listen to based on your curriculum and course design: texts, podcasts, videos, blogs, social media, guest speakers. Do these prioritize individuals or groups? Do students get a chance to listen to different aural voices rather than only through the voice students generate while reading? Are we willing to bring in nontraditional media, voices, and perspectives, such as those “who have skin in the game”? In our own professional development, are we committed to listening to new voices?

Begin and end with reflective silence.

If you facilitate live class sessions, open class with reflective silence. You could prompt students to close their eyes, recognize the things that currently occupy their thoughts, pause them or let them go for the time being, and invite focus to the course. (For online sessions, you could encourage students to turn off their cameras and mute their mics for this part.)

This opening silence can also be structured by asking students to write a two-sentence review from the previous class session, a review of what they learned in their assignments leading up to class, or what they anticipate they will learn in the class ahead.

At the end of class, reserve five minutes for students to write a simple reflection of what they learned (which has been called a one-minute paper) or remaining questions (which has been called “muddiest point”). This metacognitive act is crucial to students getting the most benefit from the learning they have done in class--switching too quickly can cause much of that learning activity to melt away.

In asynchronous online courses, write these prompts at the beginning of lessons or class messages, and have students to share their opening and closing reflections in a Google Doc, Canvas Discussion forum, or Padlet.

Prompt students to Pause and Write.

This teaching tip offers strategies for intentional pauses throughout the class period, from committing to longer pauses after posing a question to the class to using discussion and activity lulls to bring students back to writing. These strategies help students who need or want to think through an answer (an introvert quality) rather than think as they respond (an extrovert quality). Melissa Wehler offers many ideas for planned pauses.

Prioritize listening in student discussions.

In her work with indigenous educators in Alaska, Libby Roderick facilitates professional development programs on listening in which participants practice fully listening without interjecting responses verbally or even with body language. (See the open access book Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education.) Consider how to direct students to listen fully, such as prompting students in small groups to share responses uninterrupted and sharing out what someone else has said. In group work, emphasize the importance of coordinating group communication and including everyone’s voices rather than one’s ability to direct everyone’s work.

In asynchronous discussion forums, assign some student roles to listening, meaning rather than providing their own response, they either synthesize the responses of a set group, or determine emerging themes by scanning all of the posts. Encourage them to use other students’ names and quote them directly or indirectly.

References and Resources

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium hosted at Western Kentucky University.

Christina Moore
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Oakland University