Surviving the Lecture

"No day in which you learn something is a complete loss."
-David Eddings, King of the Murgos

There are three components to getting the most out of lectures. First, you must prepare before the lecture. Second, you must hone your listening skills. And finally, you need a good method of note taking.

Do not expect, if you have had difficulty in the past, to master these skills immediately. It takes persistence, and a willingness to try a variety of techniques. I do not swear by a single method, but instead find my notebooks are very individual. And often, I have made mistakes. That's okay. The wonderful thing about mistakes is they eliminate what won't work, narrowing down what will.


Let's begin our lecture survival adventure with some before class preparation.

I cannot say enough about the importance of the preparation step. It is analogous to laying the foundation of a house. You can't lay the foundation after you've built the second floor, and the house would soon collapse without a foundation. To utilize another analogy, going to class without first preparing is like flying blind. Don't do it!

Open your science textbook to any chapter. Go ahead, get your book and open it. Don't read on unless your text is in front of you. Turn through each page of the chapter, reading the titles and subheadings. Glance at pictures and diagrams. Go to the summary at the end of the chapter. Read it. Do not just skim it, but READ it. See how the summary hits on each subheading you just skimmed over? Take notice of the bold words, or keywords. You may not understand all of what you just read in the summary, after all, you haven't attended the lecture or read the chapter yet, but you have now exposed yourself to the main ideas. You will now recognize them when you do go to class.

After you have carefully read the summary, skim through the chapter once more, and read the captions under the pictures and diagrams. This is important. There is much valuable information contained in that caption. The pictures are not there simply to decorate the page. They have meaning and purpose.

How long did the preceding activity take? If it took longer than twenty minutes, that's too long. What you just did was pre-reading. The purpose of pre-reading is to put some unfamiliar words and ideas in your brain, where they will begin the journey to becoming familiar. In other words, you are committing them to memory, where they need to be if you wish to pass the test! Practice pre-reading often, and pick up speed. A typical textbook summary is only one page long, and this is the only page you are truly reading for full content. When you can pre-read in less than twenty minutes and remember the broad scope of what you read, you have mastered this step.


Now it's time for lecture. Time to listen.

Listening is not the passive activity we have mistakenly assumed it to be. Listening is more than just hearing, which is the reception of sound waves. Listening is hearing, processing, interpreting, and reacting. It is an active process that engages many different parts of the brain and the body.

Listening requires an intense amount of discipline. If you are really serious about listening, then do as I advise.

Get a seat near the front and center of the room. The back of the room is full of distractions which hinder listening. Besides, there are published studies that track the progress of students in large lecture classes. The highest percentage of A's and B's come from the students in the first two rows.

Make sure you are comfortable. Again, you want to minimize distractions. At first, it may take a few days to figure out what the normal climate of the room is. Dress appropriately. If the conditions are too extreme, speak up. Often you are not the only one experiencing discomfort.

Just before class, put yourself in the mindset to listen. Leave all personal or professional baggage outside the classroom door. The room is really too crowded for it anyway. Stay in the moment.

If you know your ability to listen well is lacking, try to identify your listening behaviors. They are:

  • You may hear what is said but be unable to understand it.
  • You may understand what is said, but you may assign it a meaning different from that intended by the originator.
  • You may hear and understand the message but behave inappropriately because you did not evaluate it properly.
  • You may interpret the message accurately but forget it.
  • You may fully understand what was said but respond inappropriately.

What follows is a four-step model to improve listening.

  1. ATTENDING (hearing, a physical process)
    1. Adopt a positive attitude
    2. What are the listening goals, for this and each situation?
    3. Get ready to listen
    4. Hear a person before you react
    5. Make the shift from speaker to listener a complete one
    6. Analyze, and if possible, eliminate physical impediments to attending
  2. UNDERSTANDING (assigning meaning to messages)
    1. Expand your vocabulary
    2. Be an active listener by asking anticipatory questions, paraphrasing, identify central and key points along with support details
  3. INTERPRETING (discovering feelings and deeper meaning of messages by focusing on nonverbal cues and empathizing)
    1. Try to determine and relate to the emotional state of the speaker
    2. Separate fact from inference
  4. REMEMBERING (recalling information)
    1. Use review and repetition
    2. Use rhymes, songs, patterns and other mnemonic devices
    3. Take notes and review as soon as possible after a listening session

sources: Verdeber, Communicate; and Ellis, Becoming a Master Student compiled by Ondis Bible, VSCC Math Department


Taking good notes requires practice. Fortunately, with two or three lectures a week, you'll have plenty of practice opportunities. I'd like to discuss my general thoughts on taking notes first, then introduce to you a technique called the Cornell Method.

As your listening skills develop, you will naturally take better notes, because the two skills are actively dependent on one another. To encourage this development, try to avoid some common pitfalls. These include doodling, although I do admit to having some interesting scribbles sprinkled throughout my notebooks. If you have created an entire work of art on a page, however, you are distracted and not listening. If you find yourself falling asleep, and thus your handwriting becomes unreadable as the pen slides across the page, change your position, eat a mint (peppermint is a natural stimulant), do something to wake up and force your attention on what is more important.

Besides distractions, or lack of focus, a common problem is trying to take down the lecture as if it were dictation. Again, this hinders your ability to listen, because you become so intent on hearing every word, and then writing it all down, that you forget to process and interpret, and react (ask thoughtful questions). The idea in improving your note-taking is to invent a general organizational scheme, develop a good abbreviation system, and write legibly the first time around, thus avoiding redundant exercises such as recopying your notes. I have heard students say that rewriting their notes helps them to study and remember it, but there are more efficient and effective uses of study time.

Everything said in the lecture has value and worth. But some of the information given is available in the textbook, or in supplemental resources. If you have prepared for lecture, you can narrow down what you write; concentrate on keywords. Anything written on the board or overhead should be copied down. If the teacher goes to the trouble to write it down, so should you. Anything that is repeated should be starred or highlighted or underlined. Set it off in some way so it screams to you at review time, "THIS WILL BE ON THE TEST!" Be aware of statements like, "I expect you to explain…" Make a note when you discover possible essay question material. If reference is made to a section in the text, write down the page number in the margin, to strengthen the association. In other words, be an active note-taker, just as you are an active listener.

As questions come to mind, park them. What I mean by this is, don't let the question forming in your mind distract you until you have the opportunity to ask it. Jot it down, then ask it at an appropriate time, and put the answer with the question. Then star it, so you can review that point later. I encourage you to ask a lot of questions. One caveat: Ask thoughtful questions. Although there are no stupid questions (except the ones you don't ask), do not waste class time with queries that can be answered by a review of your notes or a reading of the chapter. Use the lecture as an opportunity to clear up confusion about a process or a concept.

After class, it is helpful to review your notes within an hour or two. It should take no more than ten minutes. If there seem to be gaps, try to fill them in by talking to a classmate, then jot down questions to ask at the beginning of the next class.

If you feel that your notes are really horrendous and you need help fast, I recommend you try the Cornell Method and follow it strictly for two weeks. Then, you can begin tinkering with it to suit your individual strengths. But first you must be disciplined!

Just a few more suggestions: Date the top of every page. It helps keep the pages organized, and lets you know exactly when a subject was discussed. It also helps to give you and idea of how many pages of notes you are taking every day. Eventually you'll be able to gauge whether it's too many or too few. Also, although it is a difficult habit to change, if your handwriting is unreadable, practice to make it more legible. There is nothing worse than not being able to read your own handwriting. Moreover, if you can't read your notes, the professor probably can't read your test.