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Transformative conversations with students: what are we listening for?

26 Apr 2021 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) In her blog this month, Kim Ansell emphasised the importance of listening to understand. Ahead of this month’s @advanceHE_chat on 28 April, 8:00-9:00pm BST with #LTHEchat, Kay Hack explores what that means for our conversations with students.

In her blog this month, Kim Ansell emphasised the importance of listening to understand. Ahead of Wednesday's tweet chat Kay Hack explores what that means for our conversations with students. 

A familiar scenario?

A two-day professional development programme was rapidly converted into an online offer that would be delivered through a series of webinars. The intended outcomes had been addressed, there was plenty of interactivity built in, and the new mode of delivery provided time for the learners to reflect and implement some of the ideas discussed in the workshop.

So far, so good. But what could have made it better? I had forgotten to make time for conversations. Bringing together colleagues from different faculties and departments for a workshop provides the opportunity to connect or reconnect and involves coffee and conversation. Serendipitous, often inconsequential, occasionally inspiring and at times, transformational, conversations.

Spaces and places for conversations

The pandemic has caused a shift in the place and space we make for conversations with students – the opportune meeting in the corridor, the chats before and after a teaching session, the conversations that take place during practical classes and workshops.  A recent graduate from Belfast School of Art, Zara Mclaughlin recognised the value of these conversations:

It was inspirational to get a valued second opinion from an experienced tutor…they were always floating about in the background working on their own projects so it was nice to be able to grab them for a chat if I was feeling stuck.”

Although innovations in digital platforms have enhanced virtual conversations, the reluctance to switch on cameras and the absence of non-verbal cues can make learning and teaching challenging for students and teachers in the online environment. However, the benefits of virtual collaboration have been acknowledged, with some students indicating a preference for using chat channels to engage in live teaching sessions and access support services. Virtual working is set to continue to be a core element of both education and the work-place so our ability to relate virtually will be a key skill for learning and working in a post-pandemic world. 

What are you listening for?

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Whatever the mode of listening, it is important that we reflect on what we are listening for. There are a number of ways of listening, but a classification that seems relevant to the classroom and partnering with students, includes:

Evaluative listening As a teacher you are listening for understanding comparing responses to the ‘correct’ answer?

Interpretive listening involves students making sense of, and paraphrasing, what they have learnt. It is an important element of constructive learning and aligns with Phil Race’s ‘Ripples Model’ which recognises and values the importance of providing space for students to verbalise what they have learnt and allows the teacher to listen for misunderstanding and reflect on their teaching.

Generative or transformative listening requires the listener to be willing to let their experiences and assumptions become transformed, question themselves and how they should act in the light of what was heard. Both students and teachers need to be open to transformative listening.

“In one 90-minute convo, @laperryman managed to not only make my DAY, I think she made my career. For 90 mins of my life, whatever impostor syndrome I've been living with over my scholarship & contribution to education disappeared.” Maha Bali, PhD via Twitter

Transformative conversations, whether focussed on academic matters or the wider student experience, must be built on a platform of partnership. Best practice staff-student partnerships are inclusive, ethical, and reflective, they nurture power sharing, and accept that partnership is a process with uncertain outcomes. (Matthews, 2017). Transformative partnerships require all stakeholders to engage with open minds and be ready to understand the perspectives of others. Conversations built with emotional intelligence, self-awareness and empathy are well-positioned to influence action and transform outcomes. This requires us to consciously move away from the evaluative or interpretive mode of listening that can be our default position.

“Effective conversations are informed by an understanding of how issues of privilege, power, diversity and bias can impact on the way we communicate. A focus on the skills required to build authentic and positive relationships which acknowledge diversity, respect lived experiences and address unacceptable behaviour, will help participants navigate their way through these issues in a way that is both supportive and challenging.”  Advance HE Transformative Conversations Enquiry Framework.

In this week’s tweetchat we will explore how teaching and feedback practices can promote transformative listening for everyone and consider how we as teachers can and should be transformed by feedback from students

If you don't make mistakes, you're doing it wrong. If you don't correct those mistakes, you're doing it really wrong. If you can't accept that you're mistaken, you're not doing it at all.” Richard Feynman

Join us on Twitter for the Advance HE #AdvanceHE_chat #LTHEChat Wednesday, 28 April 2021, 20:00-21:00, for a potentially transformative conversation

Advance HE has just published ‘Transformative Conversations Enquiry Framework enquiry framework.

As part of the April and May ‘Transforming organisations: from student to board’ theme month, Advance HE has created a visioning activity as an example of how institutions can listen to all stakeholders about the journey of transformation. Take a look at Don’t tell me, show me and participate in this in order to experience a different way to students. Full details on this theme and related outputs can be found here.

Find out more about Advance HE's Transformative Conversations Programme supporting participants in developing an understanding of context, self and others and helping build confidence to have difficult conversations within their teams and higher education institution.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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