Learning is not a spectator sport. To truly learn, you must listen critically, talk about what you are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and make what you learn part of yourself. Participation is the heart of active learning. When we say something in class, we are more likely to remember it than we will when someone else says something. When a teacher tosses a question your way or you have a question to ask, remembering the day’s lesson actually becomes easier.
Listening in class is different from listening to a TV show, listening to a friend, or even listening during a meeting because you might not be required to remember or use the information you hear. Knowing how to listen in class can help you get more out of what you hear, understand better what you have heard, and save time. Here are some suggestions:
Be ready for the message. Prepare yourself to hear, listen, and receive the message. If you have done the assigned reading, you will already know details from the text, so you can focus your notes on key concepts during the lecture. You will also notice information that the text does not cover and will be prepared to pay closer attention when the instructor presents unfamiliar material.
Listen to the main concepts and central ideas, not just to fragmented facts and figures. Although facts are important, they will be easier to remember and will make more sense when you can place them in a context of concepts, themes, and ideas.
Listen for new ideas. Even if you are an expert on a topic, you can still learn something new. Do not assume that college instructors will present the same information you learned in a similar course in high school. Even if you’re listening to the lecture again (perhaps because you recorded your lectures), you will pick out and learn new information. As a critical thinker, make a note of questions that arise in your mind as you listen, but save the judgments for later.
Repeat mentally. Words can go in one ear and out the other unless you make an effort to retain them. Think about what you hear and restate it silently in your own words. If you cannot translate the information into your own words, ask the instructor for further clarification.
Decide whether what you have heard is not important, somewhat important, or very important. Although most of what your instructors say and do in class is important, they may occasionally make comments or tell stories that are only loosely related to the class material or may not be related at all. If an instructor’s comment is really unrelated to the focus of the class, you don’t need to write it down. If it’s very important, make it a major point in your notes by highlighting or underscoring it, or use it as a major topic in your outline if that’s the method you use for taking notes. If it’s somewhat important, try to relate it to a very important topic by writing it down as a subset of that topic.
Keep an open mind. Every class holds the promise of letting you discover new ideas and uncover different perspectives. Some instructors might intentionally present information that challenges your value system. College is supposed to teach you to think in new and different ways and train you to provide support for your own beliefs. Instructors want you to think for yourself; they don’t necessarily expect you to agree with everything they or your classmates say. If you want people to respect your values and ideas, however, you must show respect for theirs as well by listening to what they have to say with an open mind.
Ask questions. Early in the term, determine whether the instructor is open to responding to questions during the lecture. Some teachers prefer to save questions for the end of class or want students to ask questions during separate discussion sections or office hours. To some extent, it might depend on the nature and size of the class, such as a large lecture versus a small seminar. If your teacher answers questions as they arise, speak up if you did not hear or understand what was said. Get clarification immediately, if possible, and remember that other students are likely to have the same questions. If you can’t hear another student’s question or response, ask that it be repeated.
Sort, organize, and categorize. When you listen, try to match what you are hearing with what you already know. Take an active role in deciding how best to recall what you are learning.
Naturally, you will be more likely to participate in a class in which the instructor emphasizes interactive discussion, calls on students by name, shows signs of approval and interest, and avoids criticizing students for an incorrect answer. Often, answers that you and others offer that are not quite correct can lead to new perspectives on a topic.
In large classes instructors often use the lecture method, and large classes can be intimidating. You might feel very nervous asking a question in a class of a hundred students or more, fearing that you will make a fool of yourself and convinced that everyone else already knows the answer. What is highly likely is that when you ask a question in class, others also had the same question, were too timid to ask, and are silently thanking you! Many instructors devote time to answering questions in class. To take full advantage of these opportunities, try using the following techniques:
Take a seat as close to the front as possible. Visit your instructor during office hours and request to be moved up front if seating arrangements have you in the back of the room.
Keep your eyes trained on the instructor. Sitting up front will make it easier to do than sitting in the back.
Focus on the lecture. Avoid distractions. Sit away from friends who can distract you and turn off all electronic devices that you are not using solely for class.
Raise your hand when you don’t understand something. The instructor might answer you immediately, ask you to wait until later in the class, or throw your question out to the rest of the class. In each case, you benefit in several ways. The instructor will get to know you, other students will get to know you, and you will learn from both the instructor and your classmates. Don’t overdo it, however, or you’ll risk disrupting class. Office hours provide the perfect opportunity for following up.
Speak up in class. Ask a question or volunteer to answer a question or make a comment. It becomes easier every time you do it.
Never think that you’re asking a stupid question. If you don’t understand something, you have a right to ask for an explanation.
When the instructor calls on you to answer a question, don’t bluff. If you know the answer, give it. If you’re not certain, begin with, “I think . . . , but I’m not sure if I have it all correct.” If you don’t know, just say so.
If you have recently read a book or article that is relevant to the class topic, bring it in. Use it either to ask questions about the topic or to provide information that was not covered in class.
active learning Learning by participation, such as listening critically, discussing what you are learning, and writing about it.