They Can’t Listen

Some of the complaints that the older generation has about the younger generation have been voiced almost as far back as there has been a way of recording those complaints, and they’re all familiar enough. They young don’t respect their elders; they don’t listen to their elders; they have no respect for tradition; they think they deserve something without really working for it, etc., etc. And, frankly, there’s some validity to those complaints today, and there always has been. That’s the nature of youth, to be headstrong, self-centered, and impatient with anything that hampers what they want.

But being adjacent, shall we say, to a university, I’m hearing what seems to be a variation on an old complaint, except it’s really not a variation, but a very troubling concern. What I’m hearing from a significant number of professors is that a growing percentage of their students can’t listen. They’re totally unable to maintain any focus on anything, often even visual presentations, for more than a few seconds – even when they seem to be trying. When they’re asked what they heard or saw, especially what they heard, they can’t recall anything in detail. We’re not talking about lack of intelligence – they do well on written multiple-guess tests – but an apparent inability to recall and process auditory input.

Unless there’s something of extraordinary interest, their attention span darts from one thing to another in a few seconds. Whether this is the result of a media driven culture, earlier teaching methods pandering to learning in sound-bites, a lack of discipline in enforcing focus, or some combination of these or other factors, I can’t say. But, whatever the reason, far too many students cannot focus on learning, especially auditory learning.

Unfortunately, the response of higher education has been to attempt to make learning “more interesting” or “more inspiring” or, the latest fad, “more experiential.” Learning through experience is an excellent means for attaining certain skills, provided the student has the background knowledge. But when a student hasn’t obtained that background knowledge, experiential learning is just meaningless and a waste of time and resources. And, generally speaking, learning has to begin with at least some listening.

Furthermore, in the “real world,” employers and bosses don’t provide “experiential learning.” They give instructions, usually vocally, and someone who can’t listen and assimilate knowledge from listening is going to have problems, possibly very large ones.

Despite all the academic rhetoric about students being unable to learn from lectures, lectures worked, if not perfectly, for most of human history. That suggests that much of the problem isn’t with the method, but with the listener. And it’s not just with professors. They can’t listen to each other, either. That’s likely why they’re always exchanging text messages. If this keeps up, I shudder to think what will happen if there’s a massive power loss, because they apparently can’t communicate except through electronic screens.

8 thoughts on “They Can’t Listen”

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    The ‘entitlement culture’ hasn’t helped either. People ‘moving up’ without the requisite knowledge.

    Nor changes in culture/curriculum that have reduced emphasis on critical thinking.

    And the fact workplaces rarely have any sort of training program anymore is definitely an issue. My own workplace has no formal training for the job my group does – people get taught the basics, then flounder unless they ask questions. I have several co-workers who haven’t learned beyond the basics – they rely on the ‘experts’ to come in and solve their problems. Just last week I had to go solve someone’s problems – using basic algebra.

  2. Matthew Runyon says:

    Interestingly, I’ve noticed this particular issue but with a completely different understanding of what it means. I, and quite a few people I know who are roughly in the age range discussed, learn much better from seeing than listening. It doesn’t particularly matter if the writing is electronic or paper, but I have never been particularly good at understanding things merely by hearing them, but the exact same information (even word for word) written down is easy enough to understand. I’d always put that down somewhat to personal preferences and more to the fact that in essentially no case in school or elsewhere was verbal information given that was not duplicated (and usually expanded upon) with written material. The same goes in my office now. I focus a lot more on the moods, reactions, etc. of the people I interact with because any relevant information will be written down and made available to me later.

    I’m not sure that there is anything more to this than a skills issue. Processing auditory information has not been important so I haven’t practiced it that often.

  3. Tom says:

    Matthew’s experience is somewhat similar to mine except for my finding 1) it easier to concentrate on what interests me; and 2) anything in any media is more difficult to assimilate when in ‘Baroque’ compared to ‘Nordic’. I also admit that I find it hard to ‘listen’ to important information about curtains when the Rangers are on a power play against the Bruins. Yet I also understand the concern about students not ‘hearing’ lecturers – perhaps these students ‘have done the “preparation” expected by the tutor and so feel they don’t need to listen? So if the youth do not listen how do we get their attention?

  4. D Archerd says:

    A number of studies have shown that different people are “hard-wired” with a preferential learning style, styles I’ve seen described as Visual, Auditory, and Kinetic (i.e. learning by doing or ‘experiential’). This is why a good teacher will provide a mix of methods to convey the necessary information.

    However, as someone who, as a student often found it hard to concentrate in class (and still do in business meetings today) what I’ve realized is that it is much easier for me to listen if I care about the topic (either because it interests me, or I can anticipate negative consequences if I don’t get it) and/or the information being imparted fills in gaps in my knowledge where I already have a framework of knowledge and understanding upon which I can hang the new pieces of information. It’s much harder to stay focused on a speaker when I really don’t have much clue as to what they’re talking about.

    Even now that I’m no longer young by a long shot, I find I have to ‘trick myself’ into paying attention; for example, I often volunteer to take the notes in a meeting because doing so forces me to focus on the content where I otherwise might let my mind wander.

    So I don’t know if today’s youth are worse in this regard in general – I don’t deal with young people much in my current situation. But I do know there were plenty of people in earlier generations who had difficulty listening, because I’m one of them.

  5. Andy Finkel says:

    I had the same experience as Matthew; when I was in college years and years ago, I noticed the same thing the professors are complaining about, in myself. Basically, if I didn’t take good notes, I would not retain the contents of the lecture. So I made sure I either took good handwritten notes, (or studied the written material, which worked especially well when the professor used a textbook he write) I don’t remember it as being that unusual, either. There were a number of us who had a similar problem, and we all solved it in the same way.

    Perhaps the problem is that either the current crop of students no longer knows how to take notes, or their use of a laptop/tablet to take notes doesn’t trigger the same memorization that handwritten notes did for me.

    It would be interesting to look at the class notes of some of the students to see if this could be a factor.

    1. Actually, there has been a recent study that indicates that taking hand-written notes results in far, far better retention of material than using a notebook or other computerized device to take notes. Apparently, hand-writing triggers better memory.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    I ended up developing my own shorthand for medical school. No one else could read my noted, but I depended on them because listening/writing is how I learn best.

    Some profs would say ‘just listen to the talk, it’s all in the handouts…’

    I still took notes.

  7. Matthew Runyon says:

    Oh, I absolutely had to take notes. I didn’t notice a particular difference between handwriting and electronic, and I was intrigued by the mention of a difference, so I took a look at the Mueller and Oppenheimer study on this, and the issue seems to be the type of notes taken. If you do verbatim notes on a laptop, that doesn’t help learn. If you actually take good notes on the laptop (synthesizing, summarizing, etc.) instead then it seems likely there’s no difference.

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