free digital textbook serves as a companion to EDUC 1300/1200/1100 Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for College Success at Austin Community College. This book is an accessible and relevant way to explore the research and theory in the psychology of learning, cognition, and motivation as well as factors that impact learning, and the presentation of specific learning strategies. This Open Educational Resource was remixed from a previous version found at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/austincc-learningframeworks/ by Heather Syrett and Laura Lucas.
Senior Contributing Author and Editor
Heather Syrett, Associate Professor and Assistant Department Chair
Student Development and General Studies
Austin Community College
Edgar Granillo, Professor and Assistant Department Chair
Student Development and General Studies
Austin Community College
Laura Lucas, Adjunct Professor
Student Development and General Studies
Austin Community College
Tobin Quereau, Adjunct Professor
Student Development and General Studies
Austin Community College
It is maintained by Bethany Emory, Dean of teaching and Learning Support at Southwestern Community College. This free digital textbook serves as a companion to ACA-111 in the NCCCS.
Developing Your Study Environment
The Impact Of Your Study Environment
If a researcher walked up to you right now and asked you to identify your favorite place to study, what would your immediate response be? Would it be your home—perhaps your sunny kitchen? Maybe your dorm room or bedroom—a relaxed space you can call your own? Maybe it would be a busy café in the heart of town or a remote log cabin if you have access to one. What are your preferences for your physical surroundings when you study? What are the attributes of your most conducive study environment?
Choosing and Organizing A Space
Space is important for many reasons—some obvious, some less so. People’s moods, attitudes, and levels of work productivity change in different spaces. Learning to use space to your own advantage helps get you off to a good start in your studies. Here are a few of the ways space matters:
- Everyone needs their own space. This may seem simple, but everyone needs some physical area, regardless of size, that is really his or her own, even if it’s only a small part of a shared space. Within your own space, you generally feel more secure and in control.
- Physical space reinforces habits. For example, using your bed primarily for sleeping makes it easier to fall asleep there than elsewhere and also makes it not a good place to try to stay awake and alert for studying.
- Different places create different moods. While this may seem obvious, students don’t always use places to their best advantage. One place may be bright and full of energy, with happy students passing through and enjoying themselves, a place that puts you in a good mood. But that may actually make it more difficult to concentrate on your studying. Yet the opposite, a totally quiet, austere place devoid of color and sound and pleasant decorations, can be just as unproductive if it makes you associate studying with something unpleasant. Everyone needs to discover what space works best for himself or herself, and then let that space reinforce good study habits.
Begin by analyzing your needs, preferences, and past problems with places for studying. Where do you usually study? What are the best things about that place for studying? What distractions are most likely to occur there?
The goal is to find, or create, the best place for studying, and then to use it regularly so that studying there becomes a good habit.
- Choose a place you can associate with studying. Make sure it’s not a place already associated with other activities (eating, watching television, sleeping, etc.).
- Your study area should be available whenever you need it. If you want to use your home, apartment, or dorm room but you never know if another person may be there and possibly distract you, then it’s probably better to look for another place, such as a study lounge or an area in the library. Look for locations open at the hours when you may be studying. You may also need two study spaces—one in or near where you live, another on campus. Maybe you study best at home but have an hour free between two classes, and the library is too far away to use for only an hour? Look for a convenient empty classroom. Choose a pleasant, quiet place for studying, such as the college library.
- Your study space should meet your study needs. An open desk or table surface usually works best for writing, and you’ll tire quickly if you try to write notes sitting in an easy chair (which might also make you sleepy). You need good light for reading, to avoid tiring from eyestrain. If you use a laptop for writing notes or reading and researching, you need a power outlet so you don’t have to stop when your battery runs out.
- You may need the support of others to maintain your study space. Students living at home, whether with a spouse and children or with their parents, often need the support of family members to maintain an effective study space. The kitchen table probably isn’t best if others pass by frequently. Be creative, if necessary, and set up a card table in a quiet corner of your bedroom or elsewhere to avoid interruptions. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door.
- Keep your space organized and free of distractions. You want to prevent sudden impulses to neaten up the area (when you should be studying), do laundry, wash dishes, and so on. Unplug a nearby telephone, turn off your cell phone, and use your computer only as needed for studying. If your e-mail or message program pops up a notice every time an e-mail or message arrives, turn off your Wi-Fi or detach the network cable to prevent those intrusions.
- Plan for breaks. Everyone needs to take a break occasionally when studying. Think about the space you’re in and how to use it when you need a break. If in your home, stop and do a few exercises to get your blood flowing. If in the library, take a walk up a couple flights of stairs and around the stacks before returning to your study area.
- Prepare for human interruptions. Even if you hide in the library to study, there’s a chance a friend may happen by. At home with family members or in a dorm room or common space, the odds increase greatly. Have a plan ready in case someone pops in and asks you to join them in some fun activity. Know when you plan to finish your studying so that you can make a plan for later—or for tomorrow at a set time.
But what do students say? Below are comments from several students about their favorite “go-to” study spots:
Jared: I like to take my laptop into the Café and use the wifi while I write papers and work on homework. It’s in a nice spot and there’s always people around. I need my caffeine and some noise around me so I don’t fall asleep. Recently I’ve been using the library. It’s quieter, but I meet other students there and we use the group study rooms. We work on group projects. I like being around other people when I study.
Butch: I like to study on a picnic table in the garden outside my apartment. Sometimes I just park myself on the grass. But I tend to get distracted outside, so my second favorite place to study is the library. I used to hate libraries because I didn’t like how quiet they were, but then I realized I can actually get work done there.
LeeAnne: The library is my go-to. If I need sources for a paper, the staff help me find articles with their online services. There is a wide selection of books, too, but if I can’t find something the staff will order it through a different school or library. Sometimes the space gets crowded, like during exam week, and it can be hard to find an open computer. But it’s comforting to see I’m not the only student doing a paper last-minute.
Organizing Your Notes And Class Materials
The class is over, and you have a beautiful set of notes in your spiral notebook or saved on your laptop. You have written the summary of the class in your own words. Now what?
Start by organizing your notes. We recommend you use a three-ring binder for each of your subjects. Print your notes if you used a computer. If you used note cards, insert them in plastic photo holders for binders. Group all notes from a class or unit together in a section; this includes class notes, reading notes, and instructor handouts. You might also want to copy the instructor’s syllabus for the unit on the first page of the section.
Next, spend some time linking the information across the various notes. Use the recall column in your notes to link to related information in other notes (e.g., “See class notes date/page”).
If you have had a quiz or test on the unit, add it to your binder, too, but be sure to write out the correct answer for any item you missed. Link those corrections to your notes, too.
Use this opportunity to write “notes on your notes.” Review your summary to see if it still is valid in light of your notes on the reading and any handouts you may have added to your notes package.
You don’t need to become a pack rat with your notes. It is fairly safe to toss them after the end of a course except in the following cases:
- If the course you took is a prerequisite for another course, or when the course is part of a standard progression of courses that build upon each other (this is very common in math and science courses), you should keep them as a reference and review for the follow-up course.
- If the course may pertain to your future major, keep your notes. You may not realize it now that they may have future value when you study similar topics or even the same topics in more depth.
- If you are very interested in the course subject and would like to get into the material through a more advanced course, independent study, or even research, keep your notes as a prep tool for further work.
Watch this video from College Info Geek on how to organize your notes and school files.
- A well-planned study environment supports an effective study session.
- Choose a study space that is easily available and that you associate with studying and learning.
- Keep your study space and your materials organized.
Strategies For Reading Effectively
College Reading Expectations
Think back to how you read for a high school history or literature class. You would be assigned a chapter, or a few pages in a chapter, with the expectation that you would be discussing the reading assignment in class. In class, the teacher guided you and your classmates through a review of your reading and asked questions to keep the discussion moving. If you have been away from school for some time, it’s likely that your reading has been fairly casual. While time spent with a magazine or newspaper can be important, it’ may not represent the sort of concentrated reading you will do in college.
In college, reading is much different. You may be expected to read much more. For each hour you spend in the classroom, you will be expected to spend two or more additional hours studying between classes, and much of that will be reading. Assignments may be longer and more difficult. College textbook authors write using many technical terms and include complex ideas. You may be asked to read research (which can feel like a language of its own), and some textbooks are written in a style you may find very dry.
Building Your Vocabulary
Instructors may not spend much time reviewing the reading assignment in class. They will expect that you have read before coming to class and understand the material (or are ready with questions to ask). The class lecture or discussion is often based on that expectation. Tests, too, are based on that expectation. This is why active reading is so important—it’s up to you to do the reading and comprehend what you read.
Gaining confidence with the unique terminology used in different disciplines can help you be more successful in your courses and in college generally. A good vocabulary is essential for success in any role that involves communication, and just about every role in life requires good communication skills. We include this section on vocabulary in this chapter on reading because of the connections between vocabulary building and reading. Building your vocabulary will make your reading easier, and reading is the best way to build your vocabulary.
Learning new words can be fun and does not need to involve tedious rote memorization of word lists. The first step, as with any other aspect of the learning cycle, is to prepare yourself to learn. Consciously decide that you want to improve your vocabulary; decide you want to be a student of words. Work to become more aware of the words around you: the words you hear, the words you read, the words you say, and those you write.
The following are additional vocabulary-building techniques for you to try:
- Read everything and read often. Reading frequently both in and out of the classroom will help strengthen your vocabulary. Whenever you read a book, magazine, newspaper, blog, or any other resource, keep a running list of words you don’t know. Look up the words as you encounter them and try to incorporate them into your own speaking and writing.
- Be on the lookout for new words. Most will come to you as you read, but they may also appear in an instructor’s lecture, a class discussion, or a casual conversation with a friend. They may pop up in random places like billboards, menus, or even online ads!
- Write down the new words you encounter, along with the sentences in which they were used. Do this in your notes with new words from a class or reading assignment. If a new word does not come from a class, you can write it on just about anything, but make sure you write it. Many word lovers carry a small notepad or a stack of index cards specifically for this purpose.
- Infer the meaning of the word. The context in which the word is used may give you a good clue about its meaning. Do you recognize a common word root in the word? What do you think it means?
- Look up the word in a dictionary. Do this as soon as possible (but only after inferring the meaning).
- Write the word in a sentence, ideally one that is relevant to you. If the word has more than one definition, write a sentence for each.
- Say the word out loud and then say the definition and the sentence you wrote.
- Use the word. Find an occasion to use the word in speech or writing over the next two days.
- Schedule a weekly review with yourself to go over your new words and their meaning.
Types of College Reading Materials
Different academic disciplines (and the instructors who teach them) can vary greatly in terms of the materials that students are assigned to read. Not all college reading is the same. So, what types can you expect to encounter?
Probably the most familiar reading material in college is the textbook. These are academic books, usually focused on one discipline, and their primary purpose is to educate readers on a particular subject— "Principles of Algebra," for example, or "Introduction to Business." It’s not uncommon for instructors to use one textbook as the primary text for an entire course. Instructors typically assign chapters as readings and may include any word problems or questions in the textbook, too.
Strategies for Reading College Textbooks
- Pace yourself. Figure out how much time you have to complete the assignment. Divide the assignment into smaller blocks rather than trying to read the entire assignment in one sitting. If you have a week to do the assignment, for example, divide the work into five daily blocks, not seven; that way you won’t be behind if something comes up to prevent you from doing your work on a given day. If everything works out on schedule, you’ll end up with an extra day for review.
- Schedule your reading. Set aside blocks of time, preferably at the time of the day when you are most alert, to do your reading assignments.
- Avoid distractions. Every time you lose focus, you cut your effectiveness and increase the amount of time you need to complete the assignment.
- Avoid reading fatigue. Work for about fifty minutes, and then give yourself a break for five to ten minutes. Put down the book, walk around, get a snack, stretch, or do some deep knee bends. Short physical activity will do wonders to help you feel refreshed.
- Read your most difficult assignments early in your reading time, when you are freshest.
- Highlight your reading material. Most readers tend to highlight too much, hiding key ideas in a sea of yellow lines, making it difficult to pick out the main points when it is time to review. When it comes to highlighting, less is more. Think critically before you highlight. Your choices will have a big impact on what you study and learn for the course. Make it your objective to highlight no more than 15-25% of what you read. Use highlighting after you have read a section to note the most important points, key terms, and concepts. You can’t know what the most important thing is unless you’ve read the whole section, so don’t highlight as you read.
Reading online texts presents unique challenges for some students. For one thing, you can’t readily circle or underline key terms or passages on the screen with a pencil. For another, there can be many tempting distractions while reading online – just a quick visit to social media sites or to check your email. While there’s no substitute for old-fashioned self-discipline, you can take advantage of the following tips to make online reading more efficient and effective:
- Get a browser extension that allows you to highlight and annotate your online text.
- Get an app or browser extension that disables your social media sites for specified periods of time.
- Adjust your screen to avoid glare and eye strain, and change the text font to be less distracting.
Instructors may also assign academic articles or news articles. Academic articles are written by people who specialize in a particular field or subject, while news articles may be from recent newspapers and magazines. For example, in a science class, you may be asked to read an academic article on the benefits of rainforest preservation, whereas in a government class, you may be asked to read an article summarizing a recent presidential debate. Instructors may have you read the articles online or they may distribute copies in class or electronically.
The chief difference between news and academic articles is the intended audience of the publication. News articles are mass media: They are written for a broad audience, and they are published in magazines and newspapers that are generally available for purchase at grocery stores or bookstores. They may also be available online. Academic articles, on the other hand, are usually published in scholarly journals with fairly small circulations. While you won’t be able to purchase individual journal issues from Barnes and Noble, public and school libraries do make these journal issues and individual articles available. It’s common to access academic articles through online databases hosted by libraries.
Because college students spend more time working (and learning) independently and less time in the classroom with the instructor and peers. Also, much of one’s coursework consists of reading and writing assignments. How can these learning activities be active? The following are very effective strategies to help you be more engaged with, and get more out of, the learning you do outside the classroom:
- Annotate a text: Annotations typically mean writing a brief summary of a text and recording the works-cited information (title, author, publisher, etc.). This is a great way to “digest” and evaluate the sources you’re collecting for a research paper, but it’s also invaluable for shorter assignments and texts since it requires you to actively think and write about what you read.
- Work when you are fully awake and give yourself enough time to read a text more than once.
- Read with a pen or highlighter in hand, and underline or highlight significant ideas as you read.
- Interact with the ideas in the margins (summarize ideas; ask questions; paraphrase difficult sentences; make personal connections; answer questions asked earlier; challenge the author; etc.).
- As you read, keep the following in mind:
- What is the CONTEXT in which this text was written? (This writing contributes to what topic, discussion, or controversy? Context is bigger than this one written text.)
- Who is the intended AUDIENCE? (There’s often more than one intended audience.)
- What is the author’s PURPOSE? To entertain? To explain? To persuade?
- How is this writing ORGANIZED? Compare and contrast? Classification? Chronological? Cause and effect? (There’s often more than one organizational form.)
- What TOOLS does the author use to accomplish her/his purpose? Facts and figures? Direct quotations? Fallacies in logic? Personal experience? Repetition? Sarcasm? Humor? Brevity?
- Foster an attitude of intellectual curiosity. You might not love all of the writing you’re asked to read and analyze, but you should have something interesting to say about it, even if that “something” is critical.
SQ3R is a reading comprehension method named for its five steps: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. The method was introduced by Francis Pleasant Robinson, an American education philosopher in his 1946 book Effective Study.
The method offers an efficient and active approach to reading textbook material. It was created for college students but is extremely useful in a variety of situations. Classrooms all over the world have begun using this method to better understand what they’re reading.
- Survey / Scan –You can gain insight from an academic text before you even begin the reading assignment. For example, if you are assigned a nonfiction book, read the title, the back of the book, and table of contents. Scanning this information can give you an initial idea of what you’ll be reading and some useful context for thinking about it. You can also start to make connections between the new reading and knowledge you already have, which is another strategy for retaining information. Survey the document by scanning its contents, gathering the necessary information to focus on topics and help set study goals.
- Read the title, introduction, summary or a chapter’s first paragraph(s). This helps to orient yourself to how this chapter is organized and to understand the topic’s key points.
- Go through each boldface heading and subheading. This will help you to create a mental structure for the topic.
- Check all graphics and captions closely. They’re there to emphasize certain points and provide rich additional information.
- Check reading aids and any footnotes. Emphasized text (italics, bold font, etc.) is typically introduced to catch the reader’s attention or to provide clarification.
- Question – During this stage, you should note any questions on the subjects contained in the document. It is helpful to survey the textbook again, this time writing down the questions that you create while scanning each section. You can easily find what questions need to be answered by looking at the Learning Objectives at the beginning of a chapter, the headings, and sub-headings within the chapter and the Chapter Summary or Key Points at the end of a chapter. These questions become study goals and they will become information you’ll actively search later on while going through each section in detail.
- Write your questions down so you can fill in the answers as you read.
- Make sure to answer the questions in your own words, rather than copying directly from the text.
- Read – Read each section thoroughly, keeping your questions in mind. Try to find the answers and identify if you need additional ones. Mind Mapping can probably help to make sense of and correlate all the information.
- Recall/Recite – In the recall (or recite) stage, you should go through what you read and try to answer the questions you noted before. Check in after every section, chapter or topic to make sure you understand the material and can explain it, in your own words. It’s worth taking the time to write a short summary, even if your instructor doesn’t require it. The exercise of jotting down a few sentences or a short paragraph capturing the main ideas of the reading is enormously beneficial: it not only helps you understand and absorb what you read but gives you ready study and review materials for exams and other writing assignments. Pretend you are responsible for teaching this section to someone else. Can you do it? It’s at this stage that you consolidate knowledge, so refrain from moving on until you can recall the core information.
- Review – Reviewing all the collected information is the final step of the process. In this stage, you can review the collected information, go through any particular chapter, expand your own notes, or discuss the topics with colleagues and other experts. An excellent way to consolidate information is to present or teach it to someone else. It always helps to revisit what you’ve read for a quick refresher. Before class discussions or tests, it’s a good idea to review your questions, summaries and any other notes you have taken.
The following video is an overview of the steps of the SQ3R System.
- College reading can be different from high school reading.
- You must take personal responsibility for understanding what you read.
- Look for new words everywhere, not just in class readings.
- Look up new words in the dictionary, write your own sentence using the new word. Say the word and definition out loud. Use the new word as soon as possible.
- Expect to spend about two or more hours on homework, most of it reading, for every hour you spend in class.
- Plan your reading by scanning the reading assignment first, then create questions based on the section titles. Use the SQ3R system to help you focus and prioritize your reading.
- Don’t try to highlight your text as you read the first time through. At that point, it is hard to tell what is really important. Aim to highlight 15-25% of the text.
Strategies for Actively Attending, Listening and Participating in Class
Why Go To Class?
Students don’t always want to go to class. They may have required classes that they find difficult or don’t enjoy, or they may feel overwhelmed by other commitments or feel tired if they have early morning classes. However, even if instructors allow a certain number of unexcused absences, you should aim to attend every class session. Class attendance enhances class performance in the following ways:
- Class participation: If you don’t attend class, you can’t participate in-class activities.
- Class interaction: If you rely on learning on your own, you’ll miss out on class discussions with fellow students.
- Interaction with the instructor: There is a reason why classes are taught by instructors. Instructors specialize in the subjects they teach, and they can provide extra insight and perspective on the material you’re studying.
Let’s compare students with different attitudes toward their classes:
Carla wants to get through college, and she knows she needs the degree to get a decent job, but she’s just not that into it. She’s never thought of herself as a good student, and that hasn’t changed much in college. She has trouble paying attention in classes, which mostly seem pretty boring. She’s pretty sure she can pass all her courses, as long as she takes the time to study before tests. It doesn’t bother her to skip classes when she’s studying for a test in a different class or finishing a reading assignment she didn’t get around to earlier. She does make it through her first year with a passing grade in every class, even those she didn’t go to very often. Then she fails the midterm exam in one of her more advanced classes. Depressed, she skips the next couple classes, then feels guilty and goes to the next. It’s even harder to stay awake because now she has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s too late to drop the course, and even a hard night of studying before the final isn’t enough to pass the course. She is starting to think that maybe she’ll drop out for now.
Alicia enjoys her classes, even when she has to get up early after working or studying late the night before. She sometimes gets so excited by something she learns in class that she rushes up to the instructor after class to ask a question. In class discussions, she’s not usually the first to speak out, but by the time another student has given an opinion, she’s had time to organize her thoughts and enjoys arguing her ideas. She talks things over with one of her favorite instructors (who is also her advisor), who gives her some insights into careers in that field and helps her explore her interests. She’s later comfortable going to ask for a job reference. When she does, she’s surprised and thrilled when they urge her to apply for a high-level paid internship with a company in the field.
Think about the differences in the attitudes of these three students and how they approach their classes. One’s attitude toward learning, toward going to class, and toward the whole college experience is a huge factor in how successful a student will be. Make it your goal to attend every class; don’t even think about not going. Going to class is the first step in engaging in your education by interacting with the instructor and other students. Here are some reasons why it’s important to attend every class:
- Miss a class and you’ll miss something, even if you never know it. What you miss might affect your grade or your enthusiasm for the course.
- Your final grade often reflects how you think about course concepts, and you will think more often and more clearly when engaged in class discussions and hearing the comments of other students. You can’t get this by borrowing class notes from a friend.
- Research shows there is a correlation between absences from class and lower grades. It may be that missing classes causes lower grades or that students with lower grades miss more classes. Either way, missing classes and lower grades can be intertwined in a downward spiral of achievement.
- Your instructor will note your absences, even in a large class. In addition to making a poor impression, you reduce your opportunities for future interactions.
- You might be tempted to skip a class because the instructor is “boring,” but it’s more likely that you found the class boring because you weren’t very attentive or didn’t appreciate how the instructor was teaching.
- You paid a lot of money for your tuition. Get your money’s worth!
If You Must Miss a Class…
- Plan in advance: Although nobody can plan to be sick, students should give their instructors advanced notice if they know they will need to miss class for something like a doctor’s appointment. If you anticipate that class will be canceled on account of bad weather, etc., make sure you have all the materials, notes, etc. that you need to work at home. In college, “snow days” are rarely “free days”—i.e., expect that you will be responsible for all the work due on those days when school reopens.
- Talk to fellow students: Ask to borrow class notes from one or two classmates who are reliable note takers. Also ask them about any announcements or assignments the instructor made during the class.
- Talk to your instructor: Even if you have already emailed or called your instructor, check in with him or her before or after the next class period to collect any missed handouts and ask if anything was assigned. While you can’t expect the instructor to repeat the lecture, you can ask what you should do to stay caught up.
- Do the reading assignment(s) and any other homework. Take notes on any readings to be discussed in the class you missed. If you have questions on the reading or homework, seek help from your classmates. Completing the homework and coming prepared for the next session will demonstrate to your instructor that you are still dedicated to the class.
Listening is a skill of critical significance in all aspects of our lives, from maintaining our personal relationships, to getting our jobs done, to taking notes in class, to figuring out which bus to take to the airport. Regardless of how we’re engaged with listening, it’s important to understand that listening involves more than just hearing the words that are directed at us. Listening is an active process by which we make sense of, assess, and respond to what we hear.
Too many students try to get the grade just by going to class, maybe a little note taking, and then cramming through the text right before an exam they feel unprepared for. Sound familiar? This approach may have worked for you in high school where tests and quizzes were more frequent and teachers prepared study guides for you, but colleges require you to take responsibility for your learning and to be better prepared.
Learning can be broken down into a cycle of four steps:
When you get in the habit of paying attention to this cycle, it becomes relatively easy to study well. But you must use all four steps.
The Learning Cycle
Are you a good listener? Most of us like to think we are, but when we really think about it, we recognize that we are often only half listening. We’re distracted, thinking about other things, or formulating what we are going to say in reaction to what we are hearing before the speaker has even finished. Effective listening is one of the most important learning tools you can have in college. And it is a skill that will benefit you on the job and help your relationships with others. Listening is nothing more than purposefully focusing on what a speaker is saying with the objective of understanding.
Principles of Active Listening
- Focus on what is being said. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Clear your mind of anything else.
- Don’t prejudge or assume you already know the material. You want to understand what the person is saying; you don’t need to agree with it.
- Repeat what you just heard. Confirm with the speaker that what you heard is what they said.
- Ask the speaker to expand or clarify. If you are unsure you understand, ask questions; don’t assume.
- Listen for verbal cues and watch for nonverbal cues.
- Verbal cues are things your instructor says that communicates the importance. Examples are, “this is an important point” or “I want to make sure everyone understands this concept.”
- Nonverbal cues come from facial expressions, body positioning, arm gestures, and tone of voice. Examples include when the instructor repeats herself, gets louder, or starts using more hand gestures.
Listening in a classroom can be challenging because you are limited by how, and how much, you can interact with an instructor during the class. The following strategies help make listening more effective and learning more fun.
- Get your mind in the right space. Prepare yourself mentally to receive the information the speaker is presenting by doing your assignments (instructors build upon work presented earlier).
- Get yourself in the right space. Sit toward the front of the room where you can make eye contact with the instructor easily. Most instructors read the body language of the students in the front rows to gauge how they are doing and if they are losing the class.
- Eliminate distractions. There are two types of distractions: internal and external distractions.
- Internal distractions are things like being hungry, tired, or distracted by other thoughts.
- External distractions are things like a ringing cell phone or people talking in the hallway. To manage these distractions, turn your cell phone off and pack it away in your backpack. If you are using your laptop for notes, close all applications except the one that you use to take notes.
- Listen for what is not being said. If an instructor doesn’t cover a subject or covers it only minimally, this signals that that material is not as important as other ideas covered in greater length.
- Take notes. We cover taking notes in much greater detail later in the next section, but for now, think about how taking notes can help recall what your instructor said and how notes can help you organize your thoughts for asking questions.
- Ask questions. Asking questions is one of the most important things you can do in class. Questions often help instructors expand upon their ideas and make the material more relevant to students. Thinking through the material critically in order to prepare your questions helps you organize your new knowledge and sort it into mental categories that will help you remember it.
Now That’s a Good Question…
Do your best not to be shy about asking questions? Remember, there are no silly questions, and often you are not the only one in the room wondering the same thing. Consider these steps, as tools to develop effective questions and let your instructors know you value the course.
- Don’t wait. Rasie your hand and ask your questions as soon as the instructor has finished a thought. Being one of the first students to ask a question also will ensure that your question is given the time it deserves and won’t be cut short by the end of class.
- Or...Write your questions down. Make sure you jot your questions down as they occur to you. Some may be answered in the course of the lecture, but if the instructor asks you to hold your questions until the end of class, you’ll be glad you have a list of ideas for the instructor to clarify or expand on.
- Ask specific questions. “I don’t understand” is a statement, not a question. Give the instructor guidance about what you are having trouble with. “Can you clarify the use of the formula for determining velocity?”
- Regular classroom attendance and participation is an essential part of the learning process.
- Learning is a cycle of four steps: preparing, absorbing, capturing and reviewing.
- Active Listening requires more than just class attendance. There are strategies to help you become an active listener.
- Participating in class, including answering and asking questions, is a vital part of the classroom experience.
- If you must miss a class, be proactive by making plans to get the missed materials and information.
Strategies for Successful Note Taking
Note Taking Strategies
Everybody takes notes, or at least everybody claims to. But if you take a close look, many who are claiming to take notes on their laptops are actually surfing the Web, and paper notebooks are filled with doodles interrupted by a couple of random words with an asterisk next to them reminding you that “This is important!” In college, these approaches will not work. In college, your instructors expect you to make connections between class lectures and reading assignments; they expect you to create an opinion about the material presented; they expect you to make connections between the material and life beyond college. Your notes are your roadmaps for these thoughts. Do you take good notes? After learning to listen, note taking is the most important skill to ensure your success in a class.
Effective note taking is important because it:
- Supports your listening efforts.
- Allows you to test your understanding of the material.
- Helps you remember the material better when you write key ideas down.
- Gives you a sense of what the instructor thinks is important.
- Creates your “ultimate study guide.”
Effective note taking helps students retain what they learned in class so that they can use the material to study and build their knowledge and tackle more complex concepts later on. In fact, research indicates that there’s a 34 percent chance that students will remember key information if it’s present in their notes but only a 5 percent chance if it’s not. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to write brief summaries or make visual guides and diagrams in your notes. The important thing is to find a note-taking strategy that works for you.
There are various forms of taking notes, and which one you choose depends on both your personal style and the instructor’s approach to the material. Each can be used in a notebook, index cards, or in a digital form on your laptop. No specific type is good for all students and all situations, so we recommend that you develop your own style, but you should also be ready to modify it to fit the needs of a specific class or instructor. To be effective, all of these methods require you to listen actively and to think; merely jotting down words the instructor is saying will be of little use to you.
The following are a few recommendations to try out:
- Stay organized: Keep your notes and handouts separate for each class. For example, you might have a different notebook and folder for each class or a large notebook with a different tab for each class. This will save you the time of trying to organize and locate your notes when studying for an exam.
- Use your paper: Many students try to fit all of a day’s class notes onto one page and are often left with many extra blank pages in their notebooks. Instead, every time your instructor changes topics, flip to a new page. This allows you to find the material easily and makes your notes much cleaner.
- Use visual cues: Try highlighting, underlining, or drawing arrows or exclamation points next to any main or difficult concepts. This will call attention to these sections and remind you to spend more time reviewing them.
- Group together similar concepts: Grouping or “chunking” material is a good way to make studying and memorization easier. You can try drawing the main concept and connecting it to smaller, related concepts or making an outline of the information. Either one can serve as an effective study guide.
- Make notes legible: Some people have messy handwriting. However, writing as clearly as possible when you take notes will make it easier to review them later. It’s also helpful if you’re asked to share your notes with another student who missed class. If laptop use is permitted during class, you can also type your notes.
The following video addresses other specific strategies for note-taking:
The following is a chart with a brief explanation of the main note-taking system. They are described in more depth later in the chapter.
|Method||Description||When to Use|
|Lists||A sequential listing of ideas as they are presented. Lists may be short phrases or complete paragraphs describing ideas in more detail.||This method is what most students use as a fallback if they haven’t learned other methods. This method typically requires a lot of writing, and you may find that you are not keeping up with the professor. It is not easy for students to prioritize ideas in this method.|
|Outlines||The outline method places the most important ideas along the left margin, which are numbered with Roman numerals. Supporting ideas to these main concepts are indented and are noted with capital letters. Under each of these ideas, further detail can be added, designated with an Arabic number, a lowercase letter, and so forth.||A good method to use when material presented by the instructor is well organized. Easy to use when taking notes on your computer.|
|Concept Maps||When designing a concept map, place a central idea in the center of the page and then add lines and new circles on the page for new ideas. Use arrows and lines to connect the various ideas.||A great method to show relationships among ideas. Also good if the instructor tends to hop from one idea to another and back.|
|Cornell Method||The Cornell method uses a two-column approach. The left column takes up no more than a third of the page and is often referred to as the “cue” or “recall” column. The right column (about two-thirds of the page) is used for taking notes using any of the methods described above or a combination of them. After class or completing the reading, review your notes and write the key ideas and concepts or questions in the left column. You may also include a summary box at the bottom of the page, in which to write a summary of the class or reading in your own words.||The Cornell method can include any of the methods above and provides a useful format for calling out key concepts, prioritizing ideas, and organizing review work. Most colleges recommend using some form of the Cornell method.|
The List Method
The list method is usually not the best choice because it is focused exclusively on capturing as much of what the instructor says as possible, not on processing the information. Most students who have not learned effective study skills use this method because it’s easy to think that this is what note taking is all about. Even if you are skilled in some form of shorthand, you should probably also learn one of the other methods described here, because they are all better at helping you process and remember the material. You may want to take notes in class using the list method, but transcribe your notes to an outline or concept map method after class as a part of your review process. It is always important to review your notes as soon as possible after class and write a summary of the class in your own words.
The Outline Method
The advantage of the outline method is that it allows you to prioritize the material. Key ideas are written to the left of the page, subordinate ideas are then indented, and details of the subordinate ideas can be indented further. To further organize your ideas, you can use the typical outlining numbering scheme (starting with Roman numerals for key ideas, moving to capital letters on the first subordinate level, Arabic numbers for the next level, and lowercase letters following.) At first, you may have trouble identifying when the instructor moves from one idea to another. This takes practice and experience with each instructor, so don’t give up! In the early stages, you should use your syllabus to determine what key ideas the instructor plans to present. Your reading assignments before class can also give you guidance in identifying the key ideas.
If you’re using your laptop computer for taking notes, a basic word processing application (like Microsoft Word or Works) is very effective. Format your document by selecting the outline format from the format bullets menu. Use the increase or decrease indent buttons to navigate the level of importance you want to give each item. The software will take care of the numbering for you!
After class, be sure to review your notes and then summarize the class in one or two short paragraphs using your own words. This summary will significantly affect your recall and will help you prepare for the next class.
The Concept Map Method
This is a very graphic method of note-taking that is especially good at capturing the relationships among ideas. Concept maps harness your visual sense to understand complex material “at a glance.” They also give you the flexibility to move from one idea to another and back easily (so they are helpful if your instructor moves freely through the material).
To develop a concept map, start by using your syllabus to rank the ideas you will listen to by level of detail (from high-level or abstract ideas to detailed facts). Select an overriding idea (high level or abstract) from the instructor’s lecture and place it in a circle in the middle of the page. Then create branches off that circle to record the more detailed information, creating additional limbs as you need them. Arrange the branches with others that interrelate closely. When a new high-level idea is presented, create a new circle with its own branches. Link together circles or concepts that are related. Use arrows and symbols to capture the relationship between the ideas. For example, an arrow may be used to illustrate cause or effect, a double-pointed arrow to illustrate dependence, or a dotted arrow to illustrate impact or effect.
As with all note-taking methods, you should summarize the chart in one or two paragraphs of your own words after class.
The Cornell Method
The Cornell method was developed in the 1950s by Professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University. It is recommended by most colleges because of its usefulness and flexibility. This method is simple to use for capturing notes, is helpful for defining priorities, and is a very helpful study tool.
The Cornell method follows a very specific format that consists of four boxes: a header, two columns, and a footer.
The header is a small box across the top of the page. In it, you write identification information like the course name and the date of the class. Underneath the header are two columns: a narrow one on the left (no more than one-third of the page) and a wide one on the right. The wide column, called the “notes” column, takes up most of the page and is used to capture your notes using any of the methods outlined earlier. The left column, known as the “cue” or “recall” column, is used to jot down main ideas, keywords, questions, clarifications, and other notes. It should be used both during the class and when reviewing your notes after class. Finally, use the box in the footer to write a summary of the class in your own words. This will help you make sense of your notes in the future and is a valuable tool to aid with recall and studying.
Using Index Cards with the Cornell Method
Some students like to use index cards to take notes. They actually lend themselves quite well to the Cornell method. Use the “back” or lined side of the card to write your notes in class. Use one card per key concept. The “front” unlined side of the card replaces the left hand “cue” column. Use it after class to write keywords, comments, or questions. When you study, the cards become flash cards with questions on one side and answers on the other. Write a summary of the class on a separate card and place it on the top of the deck as an introduction to what was covered in the class.
You will have noticed that all methods end with the same step: reviewing your notes as soon as possible after class. Any review of your notes is helpful (reading them, copying them into your computer, or even recasting them using another note-taking method). But THINK! Make your review of notes a thoughtful activity, not a mindless process. When you review your notes, think about questions you still have and determine how you will get the answers. (From the next class? Studying with a friend? Looking up material in your text or on the net?) Examine how the material applies to the course; make connections with notes from other class sessions, with the material in your text, and with concepts covered in class discussions. Finally, it’s fun to think about how the material in your notes applies to real life. Consider this both at the very strategic level (as in “What does this material mean to me in relation to what I want to do with my life?”) as well as at a very mundane level (as in “Is there anything cool here I can work into a conversation with my friends?”).
- After effective listening, good note taking is the most important skill for academic success.
- Choose among effective note-taking styles for what works best for you and modify it to meet the needs of a specific class or instructor.
- Outlines work well for taking notes on a laptop when the instructor is well organized.
- Concept map notes are good for showing the relationships among ideas.
- The Cornell method is effective for calling out key concepts and organizing notes for review.
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- Getting and Staying Organized. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. License: CC BY-NC-SA-4.0
- Active Reading Strategies. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. License: CC BY-NC-SA-4.0
- Active Listening in the Classroom. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. License: CC BY-NC-SA-4.0
- Note-Taking Strategies. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. License: CC BY-NC-SA-4.0
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- College Info Geek - How to Create an Organized, Productive Study Space. Authored by: Thomas Frank. Located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB6wJkWO2SY. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
- College Info Geek - How I Organize My Notes, Homework, and School Files. Authored by: Thomas Frank. Located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoheFZaYvLU. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
- College Info Geek - How To Take Notes in Class. Authored by: Thomas Frank. Located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AffuwyJZTQQ. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
- College Info Geek - How I Organize My Notes. Authored by: Thomas Frank. Located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoheFZaYvLU. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
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