1.2 Establishing Context

Before you dive into a novel or movie, chances are good you begin by establishing some context for the story. You do not want any spoilers, but you at least want to read the publisher’s description on the book jacket or view the movie trailer to figure out if the story is a comedy, thriller, or romance and to get a general idea of how the narrative is going to be situated. We do this intuitively when we sit down to watch or read something for entertainment, but when it comes to scholarly information, we often neglect this important first step.

When we do not understand the context of what we are studying, a few things can happen that get in the way of learning. We may feel disoriented by the wealth of information and have trouble connecting concepts, which makes it harder to remember information or determine why it is relevant. We may also feel as though everything we read or hear is important, and that can lead to information overload, where it becomes difficult to know where we should be spending the bulk of our mental energy, and we risk putting a lot of effort into remembering the wrong things.

The following describes ways to establish context for yourself at the beginning of your course and during each lecture.

The Course Syllabus

It may seem like a no-brainer, but it is important to carefully read through the course syllabus. Your course syllabus is often the only way in which your instructors will communicate their expectations for classroom attendance and behaviour; the learning objectives, purpose, and layout of the course; their office hours and preferred modes of communication; exam dates; and the formatting, due dates, and submission requirements for assignments. As you go through the syllabus and take note of important dates and which textbooks to buy, also make sure you explore the following:

Course Learning Objectives

Pay attention to the language your professor uses to present these objectives. Words like recall, identify, explain, or demonstrate often suggest that you will spend significant amounts of time remembering and learning to apply key terms, concepts, and theories. Words like interpret, consider, evaluate, critique, analyze, or construct often suggest that you will be expected to engage with your course material on a deeper level, by thinking critically about key concepts and offering up your own ideas and analyses that you are able to support with good evidence and rationale. (Most social sciences courses at the university level will involve more critical thinking than memorization and identification, particularly in upper level courses.)

The Number, Type, and Weighting of Assignments

Are your assignments spread out over the term? Do they consist of many short assignments that are each worth a relatively small amount, or are there one or two large assignments that are worth a substantial amount? Often, when grades are distributed across many smaller assignments, such as quizzes or short answer assignments, it means that each of these assignments will focus on specific parts of the course content and that each one will involve some memorization, identification, and application of concepts. When the bulk of the grade is centred around a couple of larger projects, such as one or two major papers, it usually signals that students will be expected to think critically, do additional research, and synthesize information from many sources and lecture topics.

The Type of Midterm and Final Exam

Often, the syllabus will say whether any exams will be short answer, multiple-choice, long answer, or a combination of these, which will affect how you will want to study and prepare for these exams. The syllabus may also tell you if your exams are cumulative or not. Cumulative exams will test your knowledge on all content covered over the semester, whereas non-cumulative exams will test your knowledge of the content covered since the previous exam. See Chapter 2 for additional insights into how to prepare for exams.

Units or Topics Covered in Each Week, Module, or Lecture

Your course syllabus will tell you what readings you need to complete for each class, and it will usually tell you what unit, theme, or module these readings correspond to. It is a good idea to look at these themes and start to think about how the topics are going to work together to paint a bigger picture. It is especially helpful to start by asking yourself what you already know about the subject and then to start to guess what kinds of information will be presented each week or module. Which topics look like they might cover material that is already familiar to you? Which ones look like they might be especially interesting? Which ones look daunting or seem like topics you have never encountered? Getting a sense of what you already know, what you do not yet know, what you are excited to learn, and what you feel less enthusiastic about can help you start to plan ahead for weeks in which the content is likely to be a little easier for you to work through and those in which you can anticipate needing more time and mental effort.

Missing or Unclear Information

If you are not sure of something that is discussed in the syllabus, or if you have questions that are not answered by the syllabus, be sure to ask your professor for clarification.

Before and During Each Lecture

Look ahead at your class schedule and see what has been planned for each lecture. Think about the topic being presented and how it fits in with the larger themes of the course. Also try to anticipate what the lecture will be about given what you know from the previous lectures and from the readings. This will help you connect the information to the bigger picture so that it is easier to remember and think about critically.

During a lecture, you want to frequently check in with yourself to determine the purpose of the information or activity. A common mistake that students make is that they do not pay enough attention to why they are learning something, especially when it comes to special activities or presentations that their professors include in the course from time to time. Professors use these opportunities to test students’ ability to reflect, think critically, and apply knowledge to new scenarios.

For example, suppose your introductory sociology professor asks students to answer a series of questions: What do you typically put on a piece of toast? What kind of pet is best? Your instructor is not actually trying to get the lowdown on what you had for breakfast or whether you prefer cats or dogs. Instead, your professor is likely trying to demonstrate a concept like shared culture by showing how the class produces a limited number of similar responses that reflect the norms of Western culture. This might then lead to a discussion of ethnocentrism, or our tendency to judge other cultures from within our own limited perspective.

Thus, as you are taking lecture notes, think about not just what your instructor is saying or having the students do but also why and how it connects to the rest of the course. Later in this chapter, you can learn more about note-taking and how to format your notes so that they are easy to study from while capturing meaningful content.


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences Copyright © 2019 by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.