Have you ever noticed how easy it is to learn the words of a song? We remember songs more easily than other kinds of information because songs follow a tune and have a beat and because they often have a personal meaning for us: We often relate songs to something in our everyday lives. We remember prose less easily unless we make an effort to relate it to what we already know. In your first-year classes you’ll be listening to and reading material that might seem hard to understand. Beginning on the first day of class, you will be more likely to remember what you hear and read if you try to link it to something you have already learned or experienced.
Even if lectures don’t allow for active participation, you can do a number of things to become more engaged and to make your listening and note taking more efficient. You will then learn and remember more, understand what the instructor considers important, and ultimately earn better grades.
A very important first step toward success is to prepare before class. You would not want to be unprepared to give a speech, interview for a job, plead a case in court, or compete in a sport. For each of these situations, you would prepare in some way. For the same reasons, you should begin listening, learning, and remembering before the lecture. Here are some strategies:
Do the assigned reading. Doing so allows for the lecture to have context so that it will mean a lot more to you and you will understand the terms the instructor uses. Some instructors refer to assigned readings for each class session; others might distribute a syllabus (course outline) and assume that you are keeping up with the assigned readings. Completing assigned reading on time will help you listen better and pick out the most important information when taking notes in class. As you read, take good notes (there’s more on good note-taking below). In books that you own, annotate (add critical or explanatory margin notes), highlight, or underline the text. In books that you do not own, such as library books, make a photocopy of the pages and then annotate or highlight the copy.
Pay careful attention to your course syllabus. Syllabi are formal statements of course expectations, requirements, and procedures. Instructors assume that students will understand and follow course requirements with few or no reminders once they have received a syllabus. You might find that this practice is a key difference between college and high school.
Make use of additional materials provided by the instructors. Many instructors post lecture outlines or notes online before class. Download and print these materials for easy reference during class. They often provide hints about the topics that the instructor considers most important; they also can create an organizational structure for taking notes.
Warm up for class by reviewing chapter introductions and summaries, referring to related sections in your text, and scanning your notes from the previous class period. This prepares you to pay attention, understand, and remember.
Get organized. Decide what type of notebook will work best for you. Many study-skills experts suggest using three-ring binders because you can punch holes in syllabi and other course handouts and keep them with class notes. You might want to buy notebook paper with a larger left-hand than right-hand margin (sometimes called “legal-ruled”), which will help you annotate your lecture notes easily. If you take notes on a laptop or tablet, keep your files organized in separate folders for each of your classes and make sure that the file name of each document reflects the date and topic of the class.
syllabus A formal statement of course requirements and procedures or a course outline provided by instructors to all students on the first day of class.
annotate To add critical or explanatory margin notes on a page as you read.