INTRODUCTION: About seven years ago, members of our math faculty developed a series of ten 50-minute study skills workshops to help developmental math students be more successful. These workshops were included in our program as part of the weekly 50-minute lab assignment. Faculty originally chose the original topics; then other workshops were developed as students and faculty requested them. The final list included these workshops: Time Management and Goal Setting, Reading and Understanding Math, Math Note Taking and Studying, Math Test-Taking, Math Anxiety Part 1, Math Anxiety Part 2, Using Your Scientific Calculator, Using Your Graphing Calculator, Memory Aids for Math, and Math Problem Solving Strategies (which lasted two hours). The first four topics were required of all students. The remaining workshops were optional. Each mandatory workshop was offered approximately thirty times during the semester, so that it would fit the students’ schedules.

During the last two years, these workshops have been absorbed into our instructional time when our instructional time went from three to five hours per week, with one of these weekly hours dedicated to study skills and mentoring students. At the same time, our developmental program shrank from four courses to two with all of the overlap in topics (previously about 40%) eliminated. We are hoping to help students reach credit math sooner. Most were dropping out before completing their developmental math program.

While writing the math note taking and studying workshop, I interviewed our campus authority on communication skills, Marlene Cohen. Marlene had put together materials related to listening, and some of it made its way into the background materials and activities for the workshop. But most of the information was lost on me. However, while finishing my journals for the graduate course that accompanies the On Course Workshop, I finally grasped the concept of “active listening.”  It has since become very important to me: I have spent most of my life as a poor listener.  I was the mother whose child stands there yelling something over and over and tugging, a mother whose mind is always on her own agenda. As a peer, I always found it painful for me to listen to others. I was always itching to put in my two cents. I firmly believe, after experiencing On Course, both that I can be a good listener and also that I can help my students become better listeners. Collaborating on problem solving usually yields better results than solo efforts; however, collaboration with others is difficult if you cannot listen well. I believe that active listening is important to good note taking and to understanding mathematical concepts.

Since study skills and mentoring are now included in instructional time, I usually include a short learning skills activity everyday. (Classes last over two hours.) I assign a follow-up activity, often journal writing. The journal writings are simpler than they would be for a writing class, but nonetheless give the student an opportunity to take ownership of the new ideas. It is significant that about half of the developmental math students are also developmental reading and/or developmental English students. There is no prerequisite that a student know how to read or write before enrolling in developmental mathematics.

The following active listening strategy is based on the materials in the On Course textbook. It includes directions, instructor reading, student handout/PowerPoint master, and a follow-up activity.


To acquaint students with active listening strategies that they can use in both note taking and understanding mathematical concepts.


  • Instructor Notes for Active Listening (Attached below)
  • Active Listening PowerPoint slides and handouts (Attached below)


1. Spend some time explaining to students about the pair activity below, so that they realize that the content of the discussion preceding the activity is relevant to the activity. (2 minutes)

2. Distribute copies of the handout, “Active Listening.” Using the PowerPoint slide, discuss each skill, allowing students to brainstorm examples for each type of response.  Tell students: “As we list examples on the board, be sure to write down a few examples under each listening action on your copy of “Active Listening.” (5 minutes)

3. Pair students. (If there are an odd number of students, ask for a volunteer to pair with the instructor. This activity does not work well with a threesome.) Using the prompt “My biggest obstacle to learning math is…”, each student takes a turn explaining to the other his/her obstacle while the other person is the listener. Allow 2 minutes for each student. When finished, allow a couple of minutes for each pair to discuss how well each person listened. Ask for comments from the class. (6-8 minutes)

4. Expand pairs to groups of three or four students. Tell the students: “Each group will now make a list of ways to use active listening in a math class. Choose a recorder and a spokesperson for your group.” (3-4 minutes)

5. On the board, list strategies for “Active Listening in Math.” Go from one group to the next, each group adding one more item to the list, until the class runs out of ways to use active listening in a math class. (3-5 minutes)

6. Brainstorm any other strategies that can improve listening. Share any additional strategies that students may have missed from the Instructor Preparation for Active Listening. (3 minutes)

7. Describe the follow-up journal assignment: Explain how to be an active listener in a math class.  (1 minute)

Total time: 25-30 minutes.


I used this activity in a class of nine students who are enrolled in the “Fast Track” program: They are in class 12 hours per week, completing two courses, prealgebra and elementary algebra in one semester. Nine out of nine students were present for the activity, so I paired with Gloria, who volunteered. The students offered many examples for each type of response. They were very talkative, and all agreed that their partners did a great job at actively listening while they talked about their biggest obstacle to learning math.

It is clear that these students know how to listen actively. In fact, some of the journal comments surprised me: I realized I had forgotten to mention the esteem given by direct eye contact, but Angela mentioned it in her journal. Here are excerpts from three journals:

Angela said, “Active listening is when you are listening to someone say something, but you are not only listening, you are reacting to what they are saying. You do not talk the whole time that they are talking, but you say things to let them know that you are listening.”

Gloria responded, “You made a great point to me personally when you mentioned that you cut people off when you listen to others. I do the same thing!! As a matter of fact, I do it all the time!!! I listen to only what I think is enough, then BOOM!!!! Faster than a speeding bullet, I’m already speaking my mind. People virtually have to speed talk to….” Gloria is great with words.

Candice told me that “Whether you are listening or not, show that you are whether it be verbally or orally… To make sure that you listened well you can reflect on that person’s thoughts or feelings to see if you heard or understood correctly.” I hope she ends up listening.

When I got to class the next day, my students asked more questions than usual. For the first time, they had actually put a list of troublesome problems on the board before I arrived. I believe the listening activity had a good effect on improving communications in our classroom.

Listening is necessary for good note taking. Next I will work on a short note-taking activity for use in our math classes. It will be an opportunity to mention active listening in a new context.


Listening is an important skill that I have lacked most of my life. The good news is that we, students and instructors, can become active listeners if we are taught how. I remember being aware of my lifelong friend, Vicki, listening. She is probably the best listener I know. I felt guilty for my bad habits of interrupting and not questioning. She questions all the time. It never dawned on me that I needed to “learn” to listen. Since On Course, I have made big steps in befriending a colleague.  For twenty years he was hostile to me because of my habit of interrupting him while he talked triggered bad memories. Silence is golden.


On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life, by Skip Downing, Cengage Learning.

Successful Math Study Skills, by Nolting and Savage, Academic Success Press.

Interview with Dr. Marlene Cohen, Coordinator of Communications Across the Curriculum at Prince George’s Community College, Largo, MD.



Leading a discussion on HOW DO YOU LISTEN ACTIVELY?

1. To listen actively, you must listen with the purpose of understanding. Listening to get a chance to share your own opinion is not effective. Listen to understand what the other person thinks and feels. True listening demonstrates the high esteem in which you hold another person.

2.  Clear your mind and remain silent.  Listen for the entire message including facial expressions and movements. Let the speaker know that you are listening with appropriate responses that indicate you are listening: sitting alert, nodding your head, “Mmmmmm…”, ” Uh huh…”,  “Sure…” , “Yes…” and similar responses. (List students’ examples on the board.)

3.  Ask the speaker to expand (provide more details) or clarify (explain). (List student’s examples on the board.)

  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • ” What exactly do you mean by …”

4.  Reflect the other person’s thoughts and feelings. In your own words, restate what you have heard, including your sense of the other person’s feelings. Don’t assume that you understand. Make sure the other person agrees that you have understood correctly. (List students’ examples on the board.)

  • “It sounds as if you’re really angry about the instructor’s comments in class. You believe his remarks were very sexist and made you feel uncomfortable. ..”
  • ” I think what you’re asking is that the problems be worked out completely and numbered. Otherwise you’re not going to look for them on the paper. Is that what you meant?”

Leading a discussion on CLASSROOM STRATEGIES:

Dr. Paul Nolting, a learning specialist, recommends sitting in “the Golden Triangle of Success.” This triangle includes the seats in the front row and converges to the middle seat in the back row. In these seats you would face the instructor directly. There is less distraction by noise in or outside the classroom. You can hear the instructor better because his/her voice is directed towards the center of the room, the middle of the back row. As a result, you will have a better chance of understanding the instructor.

Prepare your mind for active listening before class by reviewing the last day’s notes. Review the reading material. Review the homework. Make up questions to ask the instructor. This warm-up refreshes your memory and gets you thinking about important topics and questions you may have.

Try to figure out how the lecture is organized. Look for outline clues about what is important.

When you need to remember what is being said, take notes.

Ask yourself questions as you are listening, like “What is the most important idea here?”

To guarantee that you understand a new concept, reword what you have heard in your own words. Read what you have written and make sure that it makes sense to you.


Active Listening

1.        Listen to understand.

2.         Clear your mind and remain silent.

Examples of “silent” listening responses:



3.     Ask the speaker to expand or clarify.

Examples of questions that ask the speaker to expand:


Examples of questions that ask the speaker to clarify:

4.        Reflect the other person’s thoughts and feelings.


–Roxanne King, Faculty, Math, Prince George’s Community College, MD

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