Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Sure You Understand?

When your child leaves home for college, you worry about losing contact.  They will be living at college, and perhaps not returning home for several weeks or months, so you worry.  However, with some effort on your part, your communication with your student may become even more meaningful than when they were home.

This article is the third in a series of five that may give you food for thought about how you communicate with your college student.   Some of our suggestions may be common sense reminders, and some may be new ideas for you.  Obviously, communication skills are interrelated, so please consider all of these suggestions together.  Our first article concerned how you listen to your student, our second looked at nonverbal communication.  In this article we discuss how to check perceptions to make sure you understand what your student is really saying.  In our final two articles we’ll look at how to ask helpful questions, and how to frame some of your messages so your student may be willing to listen.  We hope that thinking about how you listen and talk to your student may help you to keep all of your communication doors wide open.

You listen carefully to your student and you consider the nonverbal signals so that you can read between the lines.  You know you’re getting the message.  Maybe.  No matter how much care you take to try to get the message correctly, you may be wrong.  One technique that can help to improve your communication with your college student is called perception checking.  It is simply making sure that what you think you heard is accurate.  Don’t assume that your understanding is correct.

The goal of perception checking is that both you and your student have a shared understanding, that both you and your student know that you are working together to understand each other.  This cooperative approach helps you to clarify what you’ve heard, but not put your student on the spot.  It shows your respect for your student because you don’t assume that you can read their mind, and it shows that you recognize that your perspective may be different from your student’s.

Generally, using good perception checking skills allows you to describe what you think you’ve heard, offer an interpretation, and ask for clarification.  It’s a rather obvious, but often ignored technique.  So, rather than saying, ”Why are you so mad?” you might say, ”You left the room awfully quickly (description), you seemed upset, (interpretation), were you offended at something I said (clarification)?”  Good perception checking requires us to hold some of our emotions in check, to think clearly, and to be descriptive rather than judgmental.  It takes practice.

Asking questions

The example above uses a question to determine whether your perception is accurate.  It is a very straightforward perception checking technique.  It communicates to your student that you do not assume that your understanding is correct; it shares your interpretation so that your student understands your perspective, and it demonstrates that you truly want to understand what your student is feeling.  Asking a question is a good way to clarify information, asking the right, carefully worded and nonjudgmental question, is a great way to both get information and convey respect and caring.  Although ”Why are you so mad?” is a question, it is a question that may elicit defensiveness from your student because it is such a strong question, assumes you can read your student’s mind, and feels judgmental.  Remember, description interpretation — clarification.  Always from your perspective — what you think you see, understand, and need to know.  ”You’re talking about your new major a lot this weekend, you seem to be more excited than I’ve heard in a while, have you found something you really love?”


A second method of perception checking is using those nonverbal skills we discussed in our last ”Communicating with Your Student“ article.  Listen to the words, but listen beyond the words and between the lines.  What do your student’s facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, or timing tell you?  Use the cues.  Then follow up with your questions.  Nonverbal cues not only convey the greater portion of the message (some say as much as 93% of the message), but the nonverbal cues may often be more accurate than the words.  Use all of the information available to you to check your understanding.  ”You’re telling me that you want to go on this trip, but you don’t sound very excited, are you concerned about something?”


In addition to asking questions, the technique of paraphrasing may be helpful as you try to understand what your student is really telling you.  Paraphrasing may need to be used sparingly, but can be a good way to summarize and restate what you’ve heard.  It provides an opportunity to clear up misperceptions, but it may also be helpful for your student to hear back what they have said.  At the very least, it lets your student know that you’ve heard what they have to say.  As with all perception checking, it is important that you make it clear that it is your perception of what you have heard, not necessarily what they actually said.  Don’t try to read your student’s mind.  ”I think I hear you saying that you’re really worried about your calculus class.  Is that true?”  ”It sounds to me as though you’re very anxious to get started in your new role as ski club president.”  Both of these statements allow you to share your perspective and allow your student to confirm or clarify your understanding.  Communication doors continue to open — in both directions.

Perception checking — observing, asking questions, and paraphrasing — can help you to understand your student’s messages more clearly.  Perception checking can also demonstrate to your student that you care about their thoughts and feelings, that you respect their independence, and that you recognize your own assumptions and biases.  When perception checking is combined with good listening skills, awareness of nonverbal cues, asking good questions, and creating a respectful communication climate, the foundation of understanding is strong.  All of your communication issues won’t go away, but you, and your student, will be armed for any rough spots ahead.

Related Posts:

Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Listening?

Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Reading Between the Lines?

Need to Talk To Your College Student?  Choose Your Time and Place Carefully

Keeping the Dialogue Open With Your College Student

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6 thoughts on “Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Sure You Understand?”

  1. I certainly understand the frustration, Lisa. I get a lot of one word answers in my household as well. It’s not easy, but I’m getting better at how I phrase my questions. Try to ask questions that can’t be answered in one word. When I ask, “How are classes going?” I get the answer “Fine.” So I try to ask, “Which class was most interesting this week?” followed by “Why?” Or “Whatever happened to that friend that was so unhappy?” It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I hit it right. Definitely don’t give up. Keep working at it.

  2. Thanks for this article. I’m going to try it with my college daughter, however, she is an introvert and still give one word answers which makes it almost impossible to have a real two way conversation. It is so frustrating. Sometimes I just want to give up.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Linda. I hope that some of the suggestions are helpful. Good communication isn’t easy – especially if your student is having difficulties. Establishing good lines of communication takes work – and it takes time – but is definitely worth it. Good luck to you and your daughter.

  4. The articles on communicating will be put to use this weekend. I was grappling with how to open the lines of communication with my college daughter in a productive way while helping her cope with her troubles.


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