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Are students really listening?
Owen offers tips to engage class
March 2, 1998

Difficult though it is to be sure students are listening in class, there are a number of strategies teachers can use to improve chances that their students are learning, Steve Owen said Wednesday during the second in a series of lectures sponsored by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to improve the general education curriculum.

"We use the term (listening) as proxy for a wide range of student behaviors," said Owen, addressing a group of faculty members at Bishop Center. He said the apparent outcomes can be measured, with the assumption that if students perform well, they must have been listening. But how do professors know if they really were.

Owen said most of the interaction in a classroom is one way - from teacher to student. "Teachers influence students, but do students influence us?" he asked. "As a group, teachers are fairly resistant to modifications on our behavior.

"And sometimes no causal connection occurs, no matter how attentive (students) seem to be. They may be gazing but are they listening."

There are many well-researched ideas about what teachers can do to help students improve their learning skills, said Owen, a professor of educational psychology who specializes in social cognition, or how beliefs, skills and content form in the brain from the social environment.

The first, he said, is to keep it simple. "It's easy to get caught in high-tech wizardry ... sometimes we're so busy, we lose sight of what we're trying to convey."

Highlighting important points is helpful, he added. "Students are sometimes not very crafty in distinguishing core material from peripheral material."

Lecture outlines are instructive for both teachers and students, and help ensure the teacher doesn't wander too far from the topic, he said.

Then review, review, review, he said. "Paraphrase, bring new examples ... show linkages between what you're talking about now and what you covered before." Students have a hard time recognizing interconnectedness, he said. "Each piece may be interesting but they fail to see the larger picture."

Owen urged faculty to make practice exams available and to encourage students to rehearse items as they learn with each other. "It's an advantage to have them study together," he said. "The alternative is passive."

How do students know when they've mastered content? "I often hear about logging time," he said. "It's not time spent but the quality of what they're producing." They also say they recognize the material, but recalling and applying it are totally different cognitive tasks, he added. "Students usually overestimate their preparedness to show what they have learned."

Give more, smaller assessments, Owen advised. A number of quizzes give more opportunities for redress and redirection than just a mid-term and a final exam.

Finally, use a grading system with standards established in advance, he urged. Most college grading assumes a normal range of students in the class: those who do best get an A, he said. To base grading on this type of rank ordering of students is a disincentive to study hard. "In a rank ordered system it is possible to get a good grade without knowing much, or to get a poor grade and know a lot," he said.

"Students are obsessed by grades," he added. "If some grading is subjective, they try to do things to get on the professor's right side," and may cheat. On the other hand, he said, "criterion-referenced grading which depends on set standards tends to encourage more cooperative learning."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu