Amplified Learning

When Susan Kirschner tried an experiment so she could better hear her students, she ended up teaching them how to listen.

October 3, 2008

After years of successful teaching, early neurosensory hearing loss (late-40s rather than mid-60s) inherited from my mother gradually worsened for me, to the point that I couldn’t hear my students in class discussions, even with high quality digital and programmable hearing aids and a small, quiet seminar room with acoustical tile and carpeting. Professors with hearing loss more severe than mine teach successfully with lectures, using hearing aids and various strategies to ensure that student questions are heard and answered. But in my writing and freshman core courses, lecture isn’t an option; discussion is a primary means for students to gain a deeper understanding of the material. However, discussion situations of any kind (professional, social, family) present the most difficult challenges to me or anyone else with any degree of hearing loss or hearing disability. I’d sought expert advice from audiologists, searched for classrooms with the best acoustics and most flexible seating arrangements, and changed how I led discussions, but the problem persisted. Last semester I experimented in my two sections of Lewis & Clark College’s core freshman humanities course with using a “sound-field system” (an FM system that distributes sound evenly throughout the room) to amplify everyone’s speech, my own included. If it hadn’t worked, I would have had to give up. Fortunately it did.

In one sense the story could end here, with a recommendation that teachers -- and not just aging baby boomers -- get their hearing checked. (Experts estimate that 1 in 10 people of all ages suffer from significant hearing loss, frequently undiagnosed, with little-known side-effects, including isolation, anxiety, irritation, fatigue, depression.) But solving my problem, it turned out, is only part of this story, because along the way my students and I discovered an unexpected bonus that has implications for every classroom: their learning was amplified, along with my -- and their -- hearing.

This is how we worked and what we learned. At the start of the semester, along with the syllabus, I handed out a letter explaining why and how we were going to use two hand-held microphones to amplify all speech. I asked students to read the letter carefully and write to me about comments, questions, and concerns. I was apprehensive about their response to being asked to take on an extra challenge in their first semester, but I needn’t have been. Some students admitted to being nervous about using the microphones (including students who confessed that they were shy about speaking in class in general). Several mentioned close relatives with hearing loss; none mentioned their own. A couple of students expressed concern about germs. But they seemed genuinely willing to try this experiment we were taking on together.

Before each class meeting, as students took their seats around a rectangular seminar table, I set up the system and wiped down the mics with anti-bacterial wipes, which I kept handy so anyone could reach for them at anytime. I handed one mic to a student on the other side of the table and used the other to open class. After the introduction I passed my mic to the first person wishing to speak on my side of the table, while the other mic was put into play on the other side. Usually I stood throughout class for two reasons: It enabled me to position myself quickly to be able to see the speaker’s face, making it possible for me to speech-read, and it also helped me to move the mics around a little more quickly. Sometimes I inserted a comment of my own as I passed the mic; sometimes I just facilitated getting it swiftly to the next speaker.

A week into the semester my pleasure in teaching -- along with my sense of confidence, competence, and well-being -- began to return. I could hear without strain and fatigue, and the quality of class discussions seemed strong. Students seemed to listen and focus, and even build on others’ contributions. But since I had been struggling so long in hard to follow discussions, I didn’t entirely trust my perceptions. So I invited the director of the core program to sit in, and he confirmed my impressions that the process was indeed working well.

Then, as the semester progressed, I began to get unexpected feedback from students who stopped after class to talk. At first they usually just commented on their way out the door that, to their surprise, they liked using the mics, some of them admitting they’d had concerns at the start. Then one day a couple of students lingered longer. One told me that until this course she had never voluntarily talked in class because she found it so hard to fight her way into a discussion, and once she did, no one listened because they were thinking of what they were going to say next. Her friend nodded and added that she didn’t talk in other classes. A few days later a student who was less confident of her speaking skills because she had learned English as a second language in elementary school, told me she was especially grateful because she felt she could follow the discussion so much better than in other discussion classes; another time she told me she felt “smarter” on the mic because she was listening to what she was saying. She was not alone with these reflections. Over the semester it became more and more clear that the mics had become a catalyst for a striking mindfulness; individual students were reflecting meta-cognitively about their own learning, and about how to contribute to good discussions as speaker and listener. The mics provided a feedback loop that helped students to monitor themselves and others as speakers and listeners, and behave (individually and together) in ways they felt made good, focused, productive discussions possible. I joked with them that my colleagues would be jealous.

Such conversations confirmed my own sense that students were unusually attentive: listening to each other with real care, making extremely thoughtful and increasingly articulate contributions, often building on what others had said, or referring to a previous point. I, along with other teachers, have worked hard for years to help students develop just such skills. It isn’t easy, especially in an era when TV and radio talk shows provide models of “lively” discussions in which interruption, rudeness, and talking over others is the norm, and in which careful listening that results in probing an idea or interpretation, and checking it against evidence, gets lost.

One day before class a couple of students started talking about how they were finding it difficult to follow discussions in other classes. Everyone talks at once, and talks over each other, they complained, adding that they thought no one could really hear, and they were lost. In mid and end of semester evaluations students picked up this comparison indirectly, noting that with amplification there are “no outbursts before someone else has finished their thought,” and “it keeps people from blurting things out,” and “we all really listen to whoever is speaking and the mics promote a respectful and organized environment.”

Students listened to each other and themselves differently: “I’m more aware of what I’m saying,” wrote one; “You need to think about what you’ll say instead of speaking mindlessly”; “I can hear myself think, so I find myself articulating my thoughts better,” noted others. The student who learned English in elementary school, who signed her name on the anonymous evaluation, wrote: “My ideas became more eloquent and elaborate.... I understand/ hear things better. I actually believe it helps me learn better by allowing me to think more clearly. I really wish my other classes had them too.”

Of course, there is always trouble in paradise. A few students wrote at the end of the semester that, “It scares me away from participating,” and “They are intimidating.” It would be interesting to know what helped the following student move from intimidation to empowerment: “At first, the mic was intimidating, but now I see it as empowering. People have to listen to me when I’m on the mic.” Shyness, feelings of intimidation, fear, and anxiety are of course common when learning something new, especially among college freshmen. It was striking, however, how many students who thought of themselves as reluctant to speak in class, talked about how speaking on the mic changed this because they felt powerful: People were listening.

The most frequent complaint centered on the slower pace of discussion. I’d anticipated this problem and was concerned about the possibility that students would be resentful or impatient. I also knew that slower speech is itself helpful to someone with hearing loss, often as much or more so than increased volume. (In fact, the boost in volume needed is modest, and not uncomfortably loud for those with normal hearing; the increased intelligibility, for me and students, comes from adjusting the upper frequencies to sharpen the soft consonant sounds [s,f, t, th] crucial for distinguishing between words.) But it is interesting, however, that comments about the slower pace was not all negative. One student noted “the delay between speakers provides time for contemplation.” And my favorite: “The mics definitely focus the class on one person’s ideas and help prevent people from talking over each other. The delay between raising my hand and receiving the microphone gives me time to properly compose my thoughts before sharing them.” Even students who complained about the slow pace frequently added that they liked the mics; several suggested solving the problem by putting a third mic into circulation.

These benefits, in one sense, aren’t surprising. There is strong evidence from elementary school studies that increasing intelligibility by amplifying the teacher’s voice -- first done to assist hearing impaired students -- increases the learning of all students. These studies indicate that test scores of all students go up; behavior problems go down; teachers need to repeat themselves less frequently; and teacher voice strain and fatigue decreases. ESL students test scores also improve significantly, and some studies find that ADHD students have fewer problems. The evidence is so convincing that school systems are increasingly installing sound-field distribution systems; last fall, the Salem, Oregon system installed them in all elementary school classrooms. Studies of the upper grades and college years show similar positive results.

All these studies, however, assess classes in which only the teacher’s voice is amplified. I am unaware of research on classes that use amplification as we did, in discussion classes, where students learn from each other, not just from the teacher, and where amplification simultaneously enhances learning of content and the habits and practices and appreciation of productive discussions. Last but not least, amplification seemed to activate many students’ reflective and meta-cognitive capacities, giving them a concomitant sense of power and control in relation to their own learning.

This experiment began as an effort to solve problems presented by my hearing disability well enough for me to be able to continue teaching productively. A happy byproduct of success in that area is the discovery that people with and without hearing loss benefit from such amplification in discussion settings. An even happier one is that the ability to listen, focus and hear others better, and to become mindful of habits and practices that make good discussion possible, seemed to feel intrinsically rewarding to students. As one student put it: “Everyone listens to each other and [we] work harder to discuss constructively versus arguing. There is more a sense of communal cooperative learning.”


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