Listening and observing can be passive activities—in one ear and out the other, as our mothers used to say. Or they can be rich, active, intense experiences that lead to serious learning. The difference lies in our intention: the purpose and awareness with which we approach the occasion. Here’s how to make sure your intentions are good.

Research on how we learn a second language demonstrates that effective listening involves more than simply hearing the words that float past our ears. Rather, it’s an active process of interpreting information and making meaning. Studies of skilled language learners have identified specific listening strategies that lead to superior comprehension. What’s more, research has shown that learners who deliberately adopt these strategies become better listeners.

So what are these listening strategies?

• Skilled learners go into a class session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the teacher will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant.

• Once they begin listening, these learners maintain their focus; if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken. They don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details. Instead, they take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the teacher, and so on. They’re “listening for gist,” and not getting caught up in fine-grained analysis.

• All the while, skilled learners are evaluating what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it. They’re checking their inferences to see if they’re correct, and identifying the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later.