Technology Impact On Listening Skills

Kirsten S. Ericksen, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Associate Professor
The Ethelyn R. Strong School of Social Work
GW Brown Memorial Hall
Suite 335.16
700 Park Avenue
Norfolk State University (NSU)
Norfolk, Virginia.
Phone: 757-823-8296
Fax: 757-823-2556


Carol J. Beathea, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Retired Assistant Professor
Norfolk State University
Phone: 574-293-0706


The rapid rise in the use of electronic devices in college classrooms has become problematic for both professors and students. Specifically, active listening skills can be compromised by students who are stimulus driven and multi-tasking. This article examines the literature to determine the trends in electronic device use in college classrooms, explores the pros and cons of electronic devices as a learning tool, and recommends advancements that will preserve the necessary active listening skills and values of the human being in helping professions. Implications for active listening are discussed especially in relation to practitioners developing and delivering effective trauma-informed care services. Suggestions are provided for creating an active learning environment that embraces active listening skills in college classes for future human service practitioners and their professional career development in trauma-informed care.

Are You Listening? The Dilemma of Multi-Tasking Students who want to Become Effective Trauma-Informed Care Human Service Professionals

Active listening is an essential skill for helping professionals.  Effective listening includes giving undivided attention to clients’ words (i.e. intonations, inflections, intensity), body language (i.e. shifting, teary eyes, shaking, clinching of hands, eye movements, etc.), and being holistically present for clients (Bodie, St. Cyr, Pence, Rold & Honeycutt, 2012) . Active listening related to trauma-informed care requires that helping professionals have the skill of reflecting content, feelings, meanings, and the ability to paraphrase their understanding of client’s problem in order to develop hypothesis based on the information received (Cournoyer, 2011). Furthermore, trauma impacted clients specifically reported the importance of relationships (Anderson et. al., 2004; Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010) supporting the need for effective listening.

Many educators have observed students texting during lectures, guest speakers, or student presentations. When students are asked, “Are you listening?” it is common to hear a reply, “Yes, but I can multi-task.” In higher education this is increasingly becoming a challenge (Burak, 2012). Historically, listening skills have been the apex of education for students in helping professions and are critical to their understanding of human service intervention (Bodie et al. 2012) especially in relation to trauma-informed care. In the 21st century, listening skills appear to have been compromised in classrooms by the visual emergence of electronic device distractions. Thus, educators must find creative ways to use electronic devices while teaching students the necessary listening skills to work with clients. This is especially true when working with trauma-impacted individuals (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclair and Lehr, 2004).

This article examines: 1) device use in the classroom, 2) the importance of acquiring active listening skills in the human service profession, and 3) implications for trauma-informed care.

Technology advantages in higher education

College and university educators are attempting to upgrade their technology skills (van Leusen, Ottenbreit-Lefwich, & Brush, 2016) to meet the new demands of the emerging student needs. Some faculty are seeking a frame of reference for understanding student identity, learning needs, interests, and styles (Prensky, 2001; Chen & Peng, 2008). Educators have also given consideration for listening skill development (Barbara, 2010; van Leusen, Ottenbreit-Lefwich, & Brush, 2016) to enhance student learning.

In recent years, there has been an increase in literature reporting the advantages of incorporating electronic devices in classrooms (Hitchcock, 2016; Colvin, & Bullock, 2014; Young, 2014; Rossing, Miller, Cecil, & Stamper, 2012; Smith, Shon, & Santiago, 2011; Burns & Lohenry, 2010; Cain, Black, & Rohr, 2009). Many of these studies have also documented how electronic devices are improving students’ motivation, attention, and feedback for use in field practice.

Given the magnitude of student use of electronic devices in the classroom, consideration of distractions and sporadic listening is needed. Research surveys of college students and professors (Tindell & Bohlander, 2012) report that students highly favor keeping their cell phones in class on vibrate and should be allowed to use them, if they are not disturbing anyone. Olmstead & Terry (2014) found students’ emotional connection to cell phones “may prompt intrusive or worrisome thoughts about wanting to access one’s phone even if such access would pose an interruption in a primary task such as listening to a lecture, taking notes, studying for an exam, or driving a car” (p. 188). One specific concern becomes students’ need to learn effective listening skills. Creating clear guidelines helps provide standards for acceptable behavior and interactions for both educators and students (Hitchcock, 2016). Administrators and faculty in higher educational settings must find ways to make education relevant for students to learn timing of appropriate device use. Rossing, Miller, Cecil, & Stamper (2012) reported that although students may frequently use a device for personal interactions, they are not equipped to use the device for educational purposes in the classroom, and need to be taught that skill.

Technology overuse concerns in the classroom

Some research finds the use of electronic devices in classrooms may increase students’ intrusive thoughts, increase interest in avoiding others, prevent boredom, and have negative effects on learning (Smith, 2015; Olmsted, & Terry, 2014; Suissa, 2014; Elder, 2013; Ellis, Daniels, & Jauregui, 2010). The dependencies on smartphones have become a priority for browsing the internet, texting, or checking messages. Some have suggested compulsive device use can be indicative of an addiction, a cyber addiction where individuals feel the need to be connected with technology and their personal devices and they can forget their own personal, basic needs (Chen & Peng, 2008; Suissa, 2014). Research indicates although students are energized by their devices and they feel “productive’ and ‘happy’, it can also lead to distraction and frustration (Smith, 2015). Students may hear the discussion in class without actually listening to the speaker or presenter.  However, hearing is not listening and may cause challenges for effective listening which is critical in the helping profession.

Through a combination of exercises and checklists, skills training, video-taping, and skills drilling, Goh (2012) reported that “mind wandering,” “multi-tasking while listening,” and “thinking ahead,” were problematic in classrooms. Goh’s conclusion was that students must learn how to become aware of their shifting thoughts and develop enhanced listening abilities to become active listeners. This is particularly essential for human service students who need to learn effective listening skills for their profession and critical for providing trauma-informed care.

Interpersonal communication listening and social functioning

Active listening is non-negotiable for human service practitioners (Barbara 2010). Yet, distractions in formal settings have become observable and problematic in increasing numbers (Olmstead & Terry, 2014; Parrot & Madoc-Jones, 2008). The logic of student excuses may be genuine; however, the learning experiences in classes are compromised (Burak, 2012; Chen & Peng, 2008). Research has found that non-texting students scored significantly higher on quizzes and have a higher Grade Point Average (GPA) (Ellis, Daniels & Jauregui, 2010, 2012).

Many of the duties of human service professionals require functioning as clinician, facilitator, case manager, coordinator, or administrator.  These roles absolutely require that human service professionals have extraordinary skills in listening, reflecting, and relationship building to proactively respond to clients. Barbara (2010) argues “The ear that listens with humility, and the eagerness that welcomes the participation of others – are the most essential motivators of human beings” (p. 63). Active listening helps promote change for clients (Smith, 2017).

Trauma-informed workforce needs

Researchers offer various approaches to trauma-informed care including systematic organizational macro level (Bloom & Sreedhar, 2008), policy implications (Larkin, Felitti,  Anda, 2014), a universal identification system (Fallot & Harris, 2001), neurobiological assessment (van der Kolk, 2014), and individual treatment (Ludy-Dobson & Perry 2010).  Furthermore, the prevalence of trauma-impacted individuals is high, as sixty-seven percent of children have had an adverse childhood experience (ACE) (Filletti et al., 1998). The frequency and implications (substance abuse, mental health) of these adverse experiences (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) means human service professionals will work with trauma-impacted individuals. Researchers assert that addressing trauma-impacted individuals is essential (van der Kolk, 2014). The dialogue is changing with trauma-impacted individuals including approaching the treatment of trauma as an injury “what’s happened to you?”, not a disorder “what’s wrong with you?” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). “What’s happened to you?” requires the application of active listening skills; taking time to listen to the individual’s entire background, without interruption, listening for tone, observing body language for complete understanding. Unfortunately, many youths lack a safe and caring adult to mediate traumatic stress on their behalf (Christenson, Sinclair, & Lehir, 2004; Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010) and human services professionals are frequently required to assist trauma-impacted individuals.

Active listening skills for trauma-informed care

van Leusen, Ottenbreit-Lefwich, and Brush (2016) used “active listening, paraphrasing, summarizing, open questioning, closed questioning, explaining concepts, explain procedures, and informed conversations” (p. 253) to build a trust-based relationship with faculty in a higher education institution. These are the same skills required by helping professionals to build trusting relationships with clients, successfully create an atmosphere open to change, address trauma, and heal. van Leusen, Ottenbreit-Lefwich, and Brush’s (2016) research is ideal for demonstrating the professional skills that are key in engaging clients. Students must acquire these necessary skills to both listen to other perspectives on life as well as listen to their inner voice that distracts them from being emotionally connected to clients’ narratives. This requires not only the ability to be empathically attuned to clients, but also to be aware of the intra-personal distractive thoughts (van der Kolk, 2014). Controlled-attention requires sustained focus on gathering data to understand the essence of a client’s problem and is especially crucial when working with a trauma-impacted individual. Neuroscience is preparing us to understand how over-stimulation is affecting the learning curve and what must be developed to enhance controlled attention (Matto, Strolin-Goltzman & Bailan, 2014). Furthermore, neuroscience has informed us that the brain can be “rewired” to enhance the ability to actively listen and learn in the classroom (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) as well as to help people in emotional distress (van der kolk, 2014). Active listening requires observing the non-verbal cues and/or body language (i.e. eye contact, body position/movement, emotions, etc.) of clients. Effective listening contributes to the successful helper.

Effective technology engagement and active listening implications

It has been demonstrated that the use of electronic devices in the classroom has increased participation from all students (Cain, Black, & Rohr, 2009; Samson, 2010). Through the integration of devices, all students are able to participate; whether in an anonymous electronic poll using an application (for the quiet student) or a small group creation of a mind map that encourages participation in a larger classroom. Through the integration of technology, all students can participate and they have reported that learning is more fun and engaging when interactive, experiential activities are incorporated (Cain, Black, & Rohr, 2009; Samson, 2010).

In some ways, students are becoming more informed on a wider range of subjects with their electronic devices; however, there is much to learn about the dependency on technology and its’ influence in creating stimulus-driven tendencies. Therein lays the potential for a disconnection and less active listening. Trauma-informed care requires attentive listening ; therefore, students need to learn to manage the distractions to be able to actively listen to their clients’ narratives (van Leusen, Ottenbreit-Lefwich, and Brush, 2016).

Change is required to meet the new demands and needs presented by different students and the learning goals for students who want to work with trauma-impacted, impoverished, destitute, emotionally distraught individuals, and families. The growth of information and its accessibility has influenced human interactions and the delivery of education. As educators integrate technology within the classroom, it is still important to provide guidelines for appropriate use of educational devise use (Hitchcock, 2016) and ensure educational use (Rossing, Miller, Cecil, & Stamper, 2012). Parrott and Madoc-Jones (2008) asserted that helping professionals need to embrace current technology if they are to remain relevant. Helping professional educators have an equal responsibility to teach students how to actively listen in the classroom so these skills will transfer to their development as human service professionals.

The sustainment of listening skills remains paramount in human services education and training. New methods for ensuring that students are listening verses hearing need priority in our policies and embedded in our curriculum. This article begins to question what is lost in terms of human sensitivity and the ability for active listening. Several considerations may be helpful balancing human service skills (especially listening) and technology:

1) Develop a device use policy in the course syllabi. This policy should include guidelines for both the faculty member and student participants and take into consideration in-class device behavior as well as use of social media outside the classroom. Privacy, confidentiality, integrity, and permissions should all be explicitly defined for expected behaviors and technology use.

2) Various “Applications (Apps)” are available to enhance students learning in the classroom setting. The application to replace the clicker (or Audience Response System) has proven to be effective to enhance student instruction (Smith, Shon & Santiago, 2011), especially in large classes. Additional Applications have been effective strategies for students to use with their clients including guided relaxation techniques and mindfulness breathing to specifically assist individuals who have experienced various traumas (Brown, Ong, Mathers & Decker, 2017; Goh, 2012; Cunningham, 2004).

3) In the classroom, clear links to tasks and use of technology are needed to positively enhance controlled attention. This supports the professional development of knowledge and listening skills to successfully engage clients, assess needs, develop and implement a plan, and evaluate.

4) Research is needed for helping professionals to become proficient in neuroscience as a predominant theory in the 21st century.  The theory that the brain can be rewired may be helpful in understanding the impact/effect of technology enhanced brain function and developed social interaction, long term memory, and enhanced, focused attention to clients’ narratives. This same theoretical perspective assists when working with clients who have experienced trauma and can learn new paths for brain development in coping with traumatic events. New brain paths are necessary for resilience (Karatsoreos & McEwen, 2013).

5) Emphasis on effective active listening needs to be reiterated with helping profession students, including specific challenges that interfere in this area (device overuse). Technology is beneficial to education, especially in environments where face-to-face interactions are not always possible (Shorkey and Uebel, 2014). Colvin and Bullock (2014) acknowledge that the time has come to embrace an accepting mind-set regarding technology infused field education and rethink the use of technology to be more proactive and effective in developing individualized comprehensive services (to include active listening).


Professors and students are caught in a dilemma between digital access to the world and sustaining a concerted focus on developing listening skills as human service professionals. One thing is certain, technology is here to stay and it is being integrated into all aspects of life including the higher education classroom and helping professional environments. The explosion of technology has afforded students the opportunity to not only access a magnitude of information (including the course content) but also gain access to information quickly. This is exciting, challenging, and rewarding for educators because it helps to create a positive and engaging digital learning environment for students. The growth of technology has created new perspectives on educating students; however, Prensky (2001), the creator of the term ‘digital native’ recognizes that technology cannot replace an individual’s intuition, good judgment or problem-solving abilities.

To best prepare students for the technology driven society as professionals, educators also need to embrace life-long learning and demonstrate this approach with the integration of new technology within the course and skill preparation. As students become increasingly more astute at multitasking, the listen to learn challenge is greater, especially in helping professions which “…require uniquely human characteristics such as empathy, creativity, judgment, or critical thinking” (Smith, 2014, p. 5).

Technology can ameliorate the educational experience for students and prepare them to be competitive in a technologically advanced society. It is important to keep human services students’ current by providing contemporary education inclusive of a balance between human interpersonal communication and ongoing digital upgrades. Many aspects in human services (such as active listening) require human engagement critical for trauma-informed care.

These essential skills for human services allow professionals to develop effective helping relationships with individuals who have experienced trauma. These are the necessary skills of today, tomorrow, and all future professionals in human services.



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