There is something about hearing words spoken aloud which adds layers of dimension and power to the words. Listening involves more than just hearing; it requires interpretation and evaluation, and often feedback, as well. It is not just the words; it is the tone, the context, and the inflection which cause a variety of interpretations and reactions to even the simplest words.
I am always telling my students how important it is to listen. Unfortunately, this is a skill many people need to be taught. What needs to be focused upon is that there is a distinct difference between hearing and listening. Many times we ask if someone listenedand they say "yes." Many times, they were not listening, they simply heard. People need to understand the difference between listening and hearing.
Listening skills are very important in all environments- especially school.
Practice, practice, practice!
As other posts have pointed out, it would help to know the setting or type of information you are listening to as you're trying to comprehend - it does make a difference. You need to be actively involved in responding (silently) while you are listening in order to help the comprehension take place. I tried to organize my class presentations in a manner that would lend itself to the creation of outlines. Can you identify main points and supporting information as you are listening? If you can write this information down as you are hearing it, that is showing comprehension! If you can't pick out those important pieces, that might be a skill to try to develop. Ask your instructor for suggestions about how to interpret the material you are hearing so you can isolate the parts you really need to know.
Not sure what the main post is nor how it is related to literature, but let's take a shot and say that listening is the first step to communication, after observing non-verbal cues, and it is the only way to, eventually, produce language. In the field of second language acquisition, we always emphasize that students are meant to produce language at the END of the acquisition process. Listening has to be the first step and the most important one. Therefore, for a language teacher to instill in students a passion for learning, the listening part of a lesson must entice the senses and make sense to them.
I always found listening tests when I was studying French to be much harder than reading and writing. What helped me greatly was learning about the close relationship between speaking and listening, and trying to pick out key words and listening to the way that my French teacher pronounced them and also identifying commonly used phrases and expressions that would help me gain a hold of the conversation if I caught them.
Listening comprehension is a regular strand in state language arts standards today. Many states give specific skills they expect students to acquire. These are very similar to reading comprehension skills. Some might be listening for a main idea, listening to establish a sequence, listening for specific details, listening to be able to ask questions.
Are you talking about learning to understand a foreign language when it is spoken? My best strategy for this is to get copies of movies that you really like that have been dubbed into that foreign language. Then you can listen to the movies over and over and start to understand the language better through listening to the way the language is used in "real life."
I agree that this takes practice, but I think that there are some strategies that help. The concept of "active listening" is important. When you listen, plan ahead to write a summary of what you have listened to, or perhaps take notes while you are listening. I am not sure in what context you need to polish these skills, but certainly, in the classroom, taking notes should often be part of listening.
In addition to the context making a difference, the material you are trying to understand and remember will matter. Do you need to listen to novels? Do you need to listen to a news broadcast? What do you want to retain from your listening? What do you hope to accomplish? Do you want to be a better listener for friends and family? You might try practicing in all these areas, since one can only reinforce the others.