Active Listening Skills

Listen. Really listen and you’ll learn a lot in your classes! Try not to daydream too much.

It’s not only important to know how you take and organize your notes, but also the kinds of information you should include. Of course, the kinds of information you should put in your notes vary from class to class. Listen for the following cues that your professor may give as a way of figuring out what is important to note:

-Lists. Lists of things begin with cues such as “There were three major reasons why President Johnson committed more troops to Vietnam.” “Short-term memory has five characteristics.” Anytime you hear a number followed by several factors, stages, characteristics, etc., make sure you write the number of things along with the explanation.

-Cause and effect. When you hear your professor discuss causes an effects, be sure to write it down. Cause/effect cues are common in history and political science. For example, there might be an event that caused a president to make a certain decision and this decision, in turn, had numerous effects on other events and decisions. In science, cause/effect can deal with concepts such as diseases or the good chain.

-Definitions. Perhaps one of the most frequent types if information your professor will give in a lecture is definitions. Your professor might cue you by saying something as basic as “covalent bond can be defined as….” It’s a good idea to get definitions written down in your notes precisely. If you only get down a portion of a definition or aren’t sure that you have it exactly right, check your text or with your professor as soon after class as possible.

-Examples. Definitions are quite frequently followed by examples. Yet often, students will see “example time” as an occasion to tune out. But examples discussed in class make for prime test questions. If you have to choose, we believe it’s actually more important to get examples in your notes than it is definitions (you can get the definitions from your textbook).

-Extended comments. When the professor spends a lot of time explaining something, you can be sure that it is important information. Try to stay connected with the lecturer during extended comments and take down as much of the information as possible. Essay, short answer, and higher-level multiple-choice items often come from these extended comments.

-Superlatives. Anytime a professor uses words such as “most important,” or “best explanation,” “least influential,” be sure to write it down. For example, there may be many explanations for how memory works, but your psychology professor might believe that one explanation is the “best.” There are the kinds of things professors love to ask about on exams.

-Voice or volume change. When professors think something is important or they want to stress it, they generally speak louder and slower. A change in the voice can be a clear indication that something important is being said.

-Process notes. Process notes consist of information the professor gives about tests, how to study, when study or review sessions are held, how to think about the information, or how he wants an essay structured. They can also include clues about what information might be on the exam. Process notes often come right at the beginning of class, before some students are ready to take notes, or at the end of class, when some students are packed up and ready to leave.

Becoming an active listener takes time, especially for classes in which you have little interest. It’s not too difficult to stay connected with the lecturer in classes that you like or in classes where you have a professor who is dynamic. It’s much more difficult in those courses that are, in some way, less appealing. But try to think about the bigger picture. If you are an active listener and take organized notes for the entire class period, studying and learning the course material will be a much easier task.

Excerpt from College Success Strategies by Sherrie L. Nist and Jodi Patrick Holschuh.

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