Understanding and improving the classroom listening experience.

Classrooms are difficult acoustic environments. Distance from the talker, background noise including other students voices and reverberation (echoes) off hard surfaces can make it more difficult to hear the talker's voice. When it's difficult to hear, cognitive processing must be used to fill in or make sense of the message. This means that fewer cognitive resources are available to learn or to think about the material. For productive learning, good communication is essential. In short, if an OLLI member cannot hear, they cannot participate! Some changes can make listening easier.

Since 2015, OLLI at Northwestern has worked with Dr. Pamela Souza, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the Knowles Hearing Center to find educational and technological solutions to the hearing challenges in our classrooms. This initiative was triggered by a survey of OLLI members:

20% of members note hearing difficulty in OLLI classrooms (probably underreported)
50%-80% of OLLI members are likely to have some hearing loss.



 The Environment

  • Turn off noisy equipment when it is not in use. If an air vent is overly noisy please advise the office
  • Try to keep windows and doors closed when possible to minimize distracting noises
  • Use assistive devices (microphones/loudspeakers) whenever they are available
  • Turn on movie captions (subtitles) consistently
  • Consider rearranging the tables in your classroom to reduce distance between talkers and listeners

The Talker

  • Remember visual cues are important, and everyone uses them unconsciously. Be sure your face is adequately lit. Face the audience directly when speaking
  • Keep your face and mouth visible don't turn your head or cover your mouth with your hands or your book. Objects in front of your face impede visual cues, and also lower the sound level by blocking the flow of sound
  • Avoid overlapping conversations - only one person should speak at a time
  • Raise hand if you wish to speak
  • Speak up and clearly but don't shout or exaggerate mouth movements. Don't talk in a very soft tone
  • Give your audience a cue before changing topics; for example, "Now I would like to talk about the opening scene of the movie"
  • If you are a presenter and use the whiteboard, do not talk with your back to the group
  • If you are sitting at the podium, be sure you are sitting high enough so that your face can be seen by the group if you are speaking

The Listener

  • Use assistive devices and hearing aids to increase hearing ability
  • Where possible, sit closer to the speaker to maximize hearing
  • If you are unable to hear the speaker, ask the person to speak up/repeat


If you have questions, please feel free to reach out to:
OLLI Staff: Lisa D'Angelo, Lory Richards, or Kari Fagin
Northwestern Faculty: Pamela Souza
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