Seminar style classes in grad school

I am a first year graduate student at a major research university. My program has a majority of international students and faculty. I have a difficult time understanding their speech in the classroom for various reasons (accents, rhythm and cadence, word choice, volume, etc.), particularly in seminar classes.

The faculty all have very diverse and engaging research interests. However, I’ve been to many departmental lectures to “test-run” several of the professors to see how well I can understand and I often leave feeling very frustrated and confused. I’m usually exhausted and worn down by the end of the 3+ hour long seminar classes, focusing my attention on understanding what is being said rather than the material itself. I often don’t realize the content of the class until I review my notes a few days later. I rarely participate because I don’t always know that I’m following the discussion correctly and many of the students are already self-conscious about talking in class. As such, most of my learning takes place on my own outside of class or during office hours, which is fine.

I’m doing fine academically, but I have aligned my coursework with the professors who I can understand the best. Obviously, this isn’t an ideal situation and it has resulted in me taking on their academic interests as a specialization. The chair of my department recently suggested that I branch out to experience more subject areas. I’d love to take some of the classes that are being offered, but I just don’t know that it’s possible.

Additionally, connecting socially with the other student in my cohort makes both of us feel self-conscious as I have to ask her to repeat herself constantly. I made an appointment with disability services, but they could only offer me an FM system, which doesn’t really work in seminar classes (nor is it compatible with my hearing aids), and/or a note-taker.

Sorry for the length. I’ve worn hearing aids for years and this is the first time I’ve felt truly challenged by my hearing loss. Aside from upgrading my hearing aids to newer technology (which I’m in the process of doing), does anyone have suggestions for how to navigate this situation?

Have you checked with the university? They are usually pretty advanced at serving disabilities. They may have FM or Telecoil support for seminar rooms. It would be nice to know what they have before you replace your current aids.

There is the Roger Pen that can be placed on the lectern to broadcast directly to your aids. Also MFI aids (Costco, Resound, & Starkey) can use the iPhone as a microphone to direct that to your aids.


for lectures, the obvious solution would be a microphone for the lecturer. The best known solution in this area is, as far as I know, the roger pen.

However, as I understand you, this would not be the solution for you, as you want to understand the discussion, not only the lecturer.

I know your situation, as I´m a teacher myself, so I need to understand the students, I can´t give everyone a microphone. When buying a new aid, insist on the following:

  • real ear measurements to veryfy that your amplification is on target (for instance, NAL-NL2 target). Most “first fits” are below target to be “comfortable”
  • ask how your aids handle soft sounds. The settings for soft sounds are often hidden. For my aids (Bernafon Juna 9), there is a setting “soft noise management”, which defaults to “1”. In this settings, very soft sounds are simply cut off, because some people don´t want to hear soft sounds. But if those sounds are not amplified, you won´t be able to understand a discussion in a big room. Ask for your aid where those settings are hidden
  • ask for a special program for your lectures. Even if your amplification hits a target like nal-nl2, it doesn´t bring you up to normal hearing, as this would be too loud for all day hearing. But for those situations, you might want more amplification.

I´ll make an example: My loss is 40 dB at 2k. My amplification is “only” 17 dB for soft inputs at 2k. This is quite far from 40 dB gain, which would take me to “no loss”.

I guess that this is more a question of a good programming and not so much of “special features”. My aids have, for instance, a reverb reduction. I tried this, and it does in deed reduce the reverb, but this doesn´t increase speech intelligibly.

I do hope for you that those discussions take place in a quiet environment. If there is additional noise present, this would make things even harder to solvel.

One additional feature of the roger pen is that it can be used as a directional microphones with varying degrees of success depending on distance from source of sound. An additional accommodation you may wish to request is for your peers to speak into a microphone that is passed along in the class. Even a directional microphone can be used more effectively in a conference table setting for example if the seminars are of a smaller group size. I too went to graduate school and had to be creative in order to complete my degrees. Good luck.

I forgot to mention a service called Real Time Transcription or Computer Assist Notes for you to read in real time what is being spoken in the class onto your laptop or even your smart phone. If the university can help contact your local vocational rehabilitation office to see if they can help you to purchase some of the technologies not picked up by the university.

Also look into your local Regional Resources Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Thank you for your comments, everybody.

Unfortunately, my (very basic) hearing aids are not equipped with FM, Bluetooth, or Telecoil, nor do they support multiple programs… I’ve been wearing them since 2008, so it’s probably time for an upgrade. This is all very helpful information as I now know what to look for. The Roger Pen looks like an especially promising option.

I didn’t see this thread until now. I’m in the same situation, and it’s not an easy one.

The university offered me one option: a notetaker. This isn’t useful at all in settings like the ones the OP describes. Requests for support in getting better hearing aids, or better professional support, were rejected (even though this option would have cost far less than hiring notetakers for the 6 years I’ve been struggling with this problem).

I have on a few occasions asked for classes to be moved. This has actually worked pretty well, when it’s been possible. There have also been classes, like one I’m taking right now, where I come in early and move the furniture around. I’m also strategic in where I sit, and sometimes ask people to change seats.

A few years ago, when I had first come back to university, I actually brought my programming gear into a couple of classes for live fine-tuning. I had checked this out with the profs ahead of time. What I learned, unfortunately, is that there are some hard limits: in most cases, architects don’t seem to care in the slightest about the acoustics of classrooms.

I’ve got a Phonak Zoomlink/Mylink combo that I picked up on eBay, but I haven’t tried it out. My strong suspicion is that using it through a 4-hour seminar class would be utterly exhausting. But if you do go for this sort of option, it works through the telecoil, so you can use any brand of hearing aid (that has a t-coil option).

Good luck! I’m curious to know how things have worked out for you.

Have you tried the Roger mic? Pricey but highly reviewed.

Maybe when they trickle down to the eBay/Craigslist stratum :wink: That’s good to know, however!

Thanks again for the suggestions. I received a table mic setup from our disability services and it works alright. My last audiogram showed that I have a rather poor WRS (around 50%) in one ear so that may have more to do with the difficulties I’m having than anything else. Bummer.

I wouldn’t feel too bad. I read a lot written by Neil Bauman. He was born and lived his whole life with a severe hearing loss in both ears. He managed to obtain many advanced degrees including a phd in astronomy. So you just have to work harder than the others.