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5.2: Active Learning from Lectures

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  • The learning of information and skills presented in class lectures or discussions should be viewed as a process: preparation to take in the new information, the act of taking in the new information, and then reviewing the information so that it is later accessible (recalled from memory) to use for a project, paper, or test.


    The activities suggested for “Before Class” in Table 5-2 help students develop a mental framework into which this new information can be “filed” or organized which aids information recall (Bower, Clark, Lesgold, & Winzenz, 1969). It also makes note taking easier because you are familiar with the material and feel less panicked about getting everything noted in full detail.

    Attending class and taking the notes is important primarily because the professor may be presenting information that is not presented in the text. It should also be seen as a structured opportunity to engage with the material that will further aid recall when needed. Oftentimes, students can also get clues as to what a professor perceives as important material from attending class that will aid in test preparation.

    Table 5-2: Effective Techniques for Learning from Class

    Before Class During Class After Class
    Complete assigned readings to prepare for class. Take notes or mark your text for easy reference. Take notes. Active engagement with the material (like writing down what you are hearing) helps improve memory and concentration and material to later review. Have a positive mindset about taking notes you are writing down answers to questions on the test.” Review your notes and handouts within 24 hours of taking them. Fill in details that you remember but did not have time to write down. Write questions for the notes that you can use for self-testing later. Write a summary of the day’s notes.
    Prepare questions that you may have about the reading. Put a date on your note paper. It helps to also include the text chapter or general topic that might be related to these notes as well. Compare your notes with a reliable classmate who may help give you ideas on what you missed that might be important or how to better organize the information. Discuss the notes to add another-layer of processing.
    Review notes from the previous class period to get a sense of where you may have left off. Use active listening techniques. Refer to the informational box called “Ten Tips for Active Listening” for more information. Follow up on questions that you have written down with your professor, the teaching assistant, or another reliable classmate.
    Be sure you have your materials ready for class: text, three-ring notebook with paper, writing utensils, highlighters, charged laptop, etc. Have your textbook accessible in case your faculty member refers to specific information. Write down that reference in your notes as it is probably important information. Integrate your class notes with your text notes or markings. If you highlighted in your book, add some of that information to your notes for the “whole” picture.
    Get a good night’s sleep. It is easier to concentrate on the lecture when you are alert. Write down the main points a speaker is making along with any supple-mental details like examples or experiments. Do not expect to be able to write down every word the speaker says. Develop tools that swill serve to help you review the material now, as well as later. Create visual diagrams* of concepts, develop ram cards* of concepts, reorganize your notes, etc. *Refer to informational boxes on “Visualize Your Information” and “Cram Cards for Long-Term Review.”
    Make it a habit to attend every class. Put your classes on your schedule and treat them as a limited opportunity to engage with your professor and this material. Use abbreviations for commonly used words to increase your speed in note taking. Create some abbreviations of your own. Self-test your comprehension of the information on an ongoing basis. Do not just “look over” or read what you have written. Use the questions you have created. Cover up the “answer” and see if you can explain what is in the notes. Use the cram cards or visual diagrams to test yourself.
    If you cannot attend class due to illness or an-other extraordinary reason, contact a classmate to arrange for notes. It is always a good idea to send an e-mail or call your professor as well. Develop a system of organization for your notes that works for you. Common methods include the Cornell, Outlining, Mapping, Text-Class, and Sentence Methods. Refer to informational box called “Note Taking Methods: What Is Right for You?”
    Leave space between main points so that you can add in new information that you may have missed or from the text.
    If the professor writes it down or puts it on a PowerPoint slide, it is probably important, so write it down.
    If the professor repeats it, it is important, so write it down.
    Listen for cues like “very important,” “in summary,” or sequence words like “first,” “second,” etc. This information provides cues for what is important and possible note organization.
    Ask questions you may have. If you are not comfortable talking in class, write them down and talk with your professor later.

    Adapted from Dembo Sell (2008) and Downing (2008).

    Ten Tips for Active Listening

    Effective note taking in class requires the use of active listening techniques for optimal results.

    1. Accept responsibility as a listener.
    2. Adopt a positive attitude toward listening. Listening is a choice.
    3. Sit somewhere in the classroom that will minimize distractions and allow you to focus on the professor.
    4. Maintain eye contact with your professor.
    5. Focus on the content being presented rather than the delivery.
    6. Ask questions in class.
    7. Ask mental questions and search for the answer in the lecture or discussion.
    8. Avoid emotional involvement that may impair your ability to concentrate or filter important information.
    9. Clue in on non-verbal communication, such as exaggerated movements, excitement, etc., as it may serve as a cue to important information.
    10. Monitor your concentration throughout the class period and continually refocus.

    Adapted from Kline (2002) and Treuer (2006).