Academic advising and coaching often involves us – the advisors and coaches – giving lots of information to students. We explain policies, discuss classes, review academic progress, etc. Our job entails lots of talking – much of the time talking at students. However, remember that in a truly developmental setting, we should be attempting conversation, not mere information presentation.

The key to having true conversations with students, and with understanding where they are coming from, lies in listening to them. We often perceive listening as a passive activity, receiving information. However, active listening can help us truly engage with our students, revealing information and connections that we might not otherwise have noticed.

What is Active Listening?

Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term active listening in 1957.[1] They held that supervisors and executives employing active listening would “help employees better understand their situations, take responsibility, and cooperate with each other.” They describe the process as active because “the listener …does not passively absorb the words which are spoken…He actively tries to grasp the facts and feelings  in what he hears, and he tries, by his listening, to help the speaker work out his own problems” (1).

Three Components of Active Listening[2]

Listen for total meaning – “Meaning” has two parts – the content or information being presented and the feeling or attitude that accompanies it. This attitude can be incredibly illuminating when you are trying to understand where a student is coming from.

For example, a student enters your office and says, “I think I finished the three subfields requirement in my Political Science major.” They are conveying the same information as one who says, “Pretty sure I got that third stupid subfield done last semester.” The subject matter is the same, but the overall meaning is different.

Respond to feelings – Sometimes the most important part of what a student is saying isn’t actually the words coming out of their mouth. It is the feeling, the attitude, behind the words. Again, many different phrasings can present the same information – the more hyperbolic or emotional the statement is, the less important on-the-surface meanings become as you respond to the deeper context.

For example, a student comes to your office for spring registration advising, saying, “I just got out of my Econ test, and now I might as well give up and drop out – it doesn’t matter what classes I take anymore.” They most likely aren’t going to be failing out of college and career due to one rough exam. There is probably some larger stress or issue that can be discussed or worked through, but only if you respond appropriately. Such situations aren’t the time to simply say, “Well, you still have one core and two electives to get done to stay on map.”

Note all cues – Remember that communication involves more than just simple words. You should pay attention to all the cues a person gives, verbal and nonverbal. Verbal cues include volume, clarity, speed, and hesitation in speaking. Nonverbal cues include body posture, eye contact, hand and eye movement, and breathing.

Responding as Part of Active Listening

Active listening also involves thinking about how to respond to students.

Allow the student to actually speak – Remember that having a conversation requires students to be able to speak, too. Don’t just jump into response mode as soon as there is a lull in the conversation or as soon as you know an answer. Sometimes students need a moment to process before they say something. Sometimes they need to keep going in order to feel comfortable, saying everything at once. Sometimes waiting will actually make the conversation more efficient because the most important issues to be addressed aren’t actually the first ones mentioned in the list.

Clarify understanding – You want to make sure that you understand what the student means, especially when they are frustrated. A straightforward way to approach this is to use clarifying statements such as, “So what I understand you’re saying is…” It may seem repetitive and you may sometimes feel as if you’re using the communication equivalent of baby-steps, but it’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Clarification helps avoid confusion.

Clarifying is not necessarily agreeing – Remember that just because you ask a student to restate something or repeat it yourself doesn’t mean you have to agree with the content or the attitude behind it. However, actually understanding what is being communicated is a key part of a conversation, whether you agree with it or not.

William Hogan - About the Writer

About the Writer: William Hogan is a first-year advisor at FSU and with Advising First. He primarily works with students majoring in Political Science and International Affairs and is a part of the College of Social Sciences Academic Recovery/Probation Advising Task Force. Prior to joining the AF team, he was a social sciences and history tutor for FSU Student Athlete Academic Services and a high school teacher and department chair in his home state of Louisiana.

[1] Rogers, Carl R., and Richard Evans Farson. 1957. Active listening. Chicago: Industrial Relations Center, the University of Chicago.
A pamphlet-style reprint of the original article (approximately 25 pages) can be found on Amazon at

[2] These three components are directly adapted from Rogers and Farson to be applicable to coaching and advising