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How to Learn in Class

In four years of college you will spend almost two thousand hours in classrooms listening to lectures and participating in class discussions. If you master the skill of learning in class, not only will you be more successful academically, but your college experience will be much less stressful because studying out of class will be more effective.

It is easy to spot students who do not know how to learn in class. Pretend you are from another century or planet and watch a typical American college freshman class. How many students dash in moments before the professor? wander in ten or fifteen minutes late? head toward the back of the room, the farther from the professor the better? forget their notebooks or have to borrow a pen? sink gratefully into a desk and are immediately asleep? have hangovers so obvious that they could be wearing a sign? read textbooks for other courses? talk with the person sitting next to them? are masters at daydreaming? or create elaborate doodles instead of notes?

Make no mistake. The purpose of a college class is to advance your learning in that course. The ideas that are presented, explained, and developed are often not duplicated in the text. When you learn what you should in class, your study time can then focus on the outside readings and exercises instead of on the material you should have already mastered in class.

You may want to examine the following sets of behaviors, which characterize successful students. You will notice that many of these behaviors occur outside of class (before and after) in order that your learning in class be powerful.

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Be Prepared

The first set of behaviors can be represented by the Boy Scout motto Be Prepared. Preparation begins the day before class. Are any assignments due? If so, do them. Read or at least skim the assigned reading; this strategy is crucial for it will prepare you to take competent class notes. More about this later. Become familiar with the main topics and new vocabulary and at least look at charts and graphs. Be sure to quickly skim chapter summaries.

Organize your life and your schedule to arrive at class five to ten minutes early in a relatively good physical state (enough sleep, breakfast, no speeding tickets, no hangovers). You may have to do serious surgery on your social life to accomplish such a goal, but the rewards are equally serious. If you are hungry, sleepy, or hungover, your chances of learning in class are nil. Your body is there; your mind is elsewhere. Make believe that class is a job; you have to show up ready and able to work.

Whether you use a spiral or a looseleaf binder, your notebook should contain a pocket for handouts and returned tests, a place to insert the syllabus, and enough paper to write on only one side of the page. You may use one notebook for each class or group, Monday--Wednesday--Friday classes in one and Tuesday--Thursday classes in another. You may also want to put enough bluebooks and Scantrons in a notebook pocket for the entire semester. Take several pens (pencil marks fade by semester's end). Some professors lecture from the text; if yours does, take your book to class and make notes directly in it.

The last step in preparedness comes in the five minutes preceding class. Look back over the notes from the last meeting. What were the major ideas? How do they connect to the reading for today? This intellectual warm-up is analogous to the stretching an athlete does before he or she performs. In psychological terms, this rapid review brings to your conscious mind the ideas and facts you learned in the last class and stored in your memory.

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Be Active

Be Active is the motto of the second set of behaviors; it offers a guideline for your approach in the classroom. Class learning is more than simply transcribing the professor's notes into your study book. It is more than remembering the stories and jokes the professor uses as illustrations and forgetting the main ideas. Your learning strategies should vary in lecture, discussion, and problem-solving classes.

In lecture classes, you create study notes that, when combined with your outside readings, should constitute your learning resources. Those notes should not replicate the book, but instead they should comprise a record of the main points of the lecture (there are usually five or six), relevant facts to support those points, and explanations of difficult ideas. Listen for concepts and facts you did not find in the readings.

When you begin to take lecture notes, think about what you are trying to accomplish. What do you want to learn? How will you be tested? How much do you already know about the subject? How easy is it for you to learn in this subject? Search for the main ideas of the lecture by carefully watching your professor. Your professor may write an outline on the board, or make introductory comments during the first moments of class, or repeat an idea several times, or raise her/his voice, or gesture, or use words like the main point, most importantly, in summary. Any of these cues can signal a main point.

Usually you will capture a main point in a sentence or phrase. Writing the concepts in your own words helps you understand them. If you simply copy the professor's words without understanding them, they will be useless to you later. Putting the key ideas in your own words increases the likelihood that you understand them. When you understand the material, you will better remember it.

Record definitions, facts, opinions that seem relevant. Do not write down everything the professor says; instead carefully select what you write. Here is where reading or skimming the text in the preparation stage helps. Do not spend all your time rewriting material that is in the text but do write down new material.

Leave space between items. Number or organize whenever you can. Put a question mark when you get lost or confused and leave blank space (you can ask the professor for help after class or during office hours). Mark with an asterisk (*) items that you believe will be on the test. Remember that you are creating a study book; recopying takes too long, so create a readable page.

The key to creating a useful set of lecture notes is thinking. Think about what is important in this material; think about what you need to learn; think about whether you are writing down the main points. Leave space for your own thoughts later.

Discussion classes are often great fun, but students frequently leave class without any notes. That behavior is dangerous since we rarely remember concepts unless we write them down and go over them, even if we have been interested in the discussion. In this type of class, the professor usually summarizes a main point when the discussion ends. Listen for those summaries and record them. Discussion notes tend to be shorter, and they usually do not follow any particular structure. Ideas are important here, not details.

The purpose of problem-solving classes is simple: class time is used to solve problems and to discuss the process of doing so. The strategy for taking good notes in such a class is to write down not only the problem but also the verbalization of the steps. The sequence of steps is crucial. Math, accounting, economics, finance, computer programming are all examples of problem-solving classes.

Class is not over when the professor stops talking. The motto Be Thorough represents the behaviors that occur after class. As soon after class as is practical, edit your notes by filling in the blank spaces, numbering or labeling series of items, and marking important ideas. Meet with a friend to compare notes and skim the text quickly for connections to the lecture material. Determine that your notes are complete. If you have any questions, write them down and see the professor. This edit-and-review stage is crucial for powerful and permanent learning because we need several exposures to ideas and facts to learn them.

Remember the two thousand hours. If you spend that time learning effectively, your outside study time can be much more productive.

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Exercise: A Checklist for Listening and Notetaking

Before Class:
_____  _____  
  • Buy notebooks that will help you organize your work. (Recommendation: separate looseleaf or spiral notebooks for each course.)
  • _____  _____  
  • Quiz yourself over the previous lecture.
  • _____  _____  
  • Review reading assignments to bring to mind key ideas.
  • _____  _____  
  • Take action to improve physical and mental alertness.
  • _____  _____  
  • Quiet your mind to prepare to listen.

  • During Class:
    _____  _____  
  • Be attentive to the beginning of the lecture for possible review.
  • _____  _____  
  • Listen for the outline or agenda for the day's session.
  • _____  _____  
  • Avoid distractions.
  • _____  _____  
  • Write enough for notes to be meaningful to you later.
  • _____  _____  
  • Try to use a consistent form.
  • _____  _____  
  • Listen for verbal cues (for example, "The point I have been making . . . , " "There are three arguments for this view, " "The first objection I want to consider . . . ").
  • _____  _____  
  • Listen to class discussion.
  • _____  _____  
  • Include in notes the instructor's summary of important points in the discussion.

  • After Class:
    _____  _____  
  • Clear up points of confusion by talking with lecturer or classmates.
  • _____  _____  
  • Use text to fill in missing points or to clarify doubts.
  • _____  _____  
  • Edit notes as soon as possible.
  • _____  _____  
  • Jot down in margins the notes of your own reflections and ideas.
  • _____  _____  
  • Do foreign language and math assignments while the material is still fresh.

  • Periodically:
    _____  _____  
  • Review your notes.
  • _____  _____  
  • Jot down brief cues for recall,then use them to quiz yourself.
  • _____  _____  
  • Be alert to developing themes.
  • _____  _____  
  • Create likely test questions and answer them.

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    *From De Sellers, "How to Learn in Class," in Jeffrey Gordon, The University in Your Life (McGraw-Hill, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.