Listening and Taking Notes
There are lots of good resources available online and in bookstores that can assist with the development of active listening skills, but many of them focus on how to listen actively in a conversational setting, typically by having you do things like verbally paraphrase things back to the other person. Lectures do not usually work that way, so while students are often encouraged to engage in discussion, they are also expected to spend long periods of time just watching and listening, which can make some of those strategies hard to apply. So, to help yourself listen and take better class notes, try the following tips:
Stick to a Routine
Routines help signal to our brains and bodies when it is time to focus and when it is time to relax, so by establishing a routine that works for you, you will leverage a whole lot of subconscious cues that will help you focus when you need to with less conscious effort on your part. As well, strive to get a good night’s sleep every night, and make sure you are eating regularly, with nutritious meals. Do not underestimate the distracting powers of tiredness and hunger!
Sit Where You Can Pay Attention Best
For most people, this will be closer to the front and centre of the room where they can easily hear the professor and see the presentation notes and slides. Some people may have reasons for needing to sit elsewhere, like if they cannot focus with people behind them, or they have a disability that makes it necessary to sit on the outside edge, which is why we are not fans of prescriptive seating advice, but you want to think carefully about whether you are sitting in a place that best allows you to follow the lecture.
Get Your Required Readings Done Before Class
A lot of students figure they will go to class and then catch up on those readings later, but that can be a big mistake if it becomes a habit. Reading before class gives you a chance to digest the material and understand it in your own way before hearing how your professor elaborates on it, and it gives you a better understanding of the lecture topic, making it easier for you to follow along. It also cuts down on note taking during the lecture because some of the information will be familiar to you, and it will be easier to listen for what is new and important.
Review Lecture Slides
Anticipate what you will learn in the lecture by reviewing the lecture slides or creating your own outline of the readings before class. Many professors make their lecture slides available online, so if yours is one of them, make sure you review those before class and try to anticipate what your professor is going to say based on those slides and what you know from the readings. If you do not have slides to work from, then make a general outline of your course readings, leaving lots of space for you to fill in with lecture notes. This will help you remember what you have already covered in your readings so that you can listen better for the additional information your instructor gives you to augment those readings. It will also allow you to quickly and easily see how your lecture and readings fit together.
Pay Attention to Examples
Pay attention to the parts of the material your professor spends more time on, and especially pay attention to any stories, case studies or other examples your professor presents. Students often make the error of tuning out during these parts of the lecture, thinking that the professor is just going off on a tangent when in fact, these stories are there to help deepen your understanding by connecting the content to real-world scenarios. These are the sorts of lecture components that are also often used to create exam questions.
Leave Lots of Space to Fill in Notes After Class
As you are writing (or typing) and listening, there will be times when you cannot quite finish a thought before moving on. When that happens, just leave some space and come back to it later.
Review Notes as Quickly After Class as Possible
A lot of those blank spaces you have left when you could not finish writing will make less and less sense as more time passes, so review your notes right away, if possible, or at least within a couple of hours to ensure that you can remember what you meant to fill in. This is also a really good way of summarizing what you had just learned during the lecture so that you can see how everything covered fits together.
Leave Lots of Space in the Margins
In the same way that you want to use the margins of your textbooks to help yourself review material, you will also want to leave space in the margins of your notes to do the same. As you review your notes, you can again write cues and questions to yourself that you can use to test your recall later.
Try Integrating Symbols into Your Notes
Reading, writing or typing notes can easily become a passive activity, where we start writing what we are hearing without really processing it. Integrating symbols into your notes can bring your mind back to a more active processing state because there is a degree of interpretation that needs to take place to assign symbols to different notes. Try using the following, which are easy to integrate as you take notes, or come up with your own:
* Very important/potential exam question
? Need more info; follow up with instructor or textbook
!Potential essay or project topic
#_________Connects to or exemplifies a topic or concept
@________Connects to or exemplifies an author’s or theorist’s work
A Note About Using Technology in the Classroom
It seems like there is very little consensus out there about whether students should be using laptops and tablets or pen and paper for note taking in the classroom. On the one hand, many students find it convenient to store everything in one place on a laptop, there are lots of apps out there that are attractive to students, and some students require these technologies to help them in school. On the other hand, technologies can be distracting to students and to those around them, and there is some debate as to whether we learn as well when we use computers in the lecture hall.
So, what’s our take on this? You guessed it—it depends!
For most students, pen and paper offers simplicity, versatility, and flexibility. You can easily go back and fill in gaps, draw arrows, underline, circle, and quickly sketch out concepts visually as charts or graphs. Computers may be able to do a lot of that stuff, but some people have to spend a lot of time learning how to use various programs or features to do it well, and it may be faster to just do it all freehand.
That said, if you do like to use pen and paper, you still need to put some thought into what will work best for you. Some people like a notebook for each subject. If the pages are not easily movable, though, you might have to use other strategies to insert additional information or notes later, like sticky notes. When we were students, our preference was to carry a basic clipboard or binder stocked with loose leaf paper. At the end of the day, we could sort the notes into the appropriate binder sections, and move pages around as needed.
If you prefer to use a laptop or tablet, that is fine. Just make sure you are using it appropriately by turning off your notifications to your social media and email accounts when in class. The course syllabus typically includes a section on classroom expectations in this regard.
Also, if you are using your laptop because you think it will cut down on your study time, think again. Active learning takes work no matter what programs, devices, and mediums you use to do it, so be prepared to still go back and review your digital notes regularly, add to them, move content around, and simplify concepts into manageable study guides!
Asking Questions and Engaging in Class Discussion
Generally, it is expected in the social sciences that students will be active in class discussions, and students are encouraged to speak up and ask questions or add to the discussion. That is because in the social sciences, we rarely encounter situations with clear “right” or “wrong” answers. Instead, we start by learning the foundational concepts of a discipline, and then as we move on to more complex questions and issues, the answers become more subject to interpretation, and it is the quality of our critical thinking that we seek to refine. For example, in an introductory sociology course, your professor might tell you that a specific situation is an example of a certain concept. In a higher-level sociology course, however, the questions will become yours to explore: Based on your research and critical reasoning, what do you think is going on in a certain scenario, event, or practice? Or, how can you demonstrate your understanding of this concept using a real-life example?
We often develop these critical reasoning skills best by expressing and exploring ideas with others, which is why class discussion is so important. Class discussion allows us to get feedback from others about the soundness of our own ideas, and it allows us to see complex issues from many different perspectives, thereby enriching our understanding and capacity to explore the topic further for a research paper or other assignment.
Put your fears aside and do your best to get in there and join in the conversation! If you feel anxious about doing so, consider visiting your professor during office hours to start talking one-on-one and developing some confidence in your understanding of the material. Or, try finding just one or two people in the class you are comfortable forming a study group with, and start discussing the material with them. You will still get the benefit of learning by participating, and odds are good that you will soon start to feel more comfortable voicing your thoughts in the larger group.