The time you spend in your classes, learning together with fellow students, is at the core of the college experience. This is your opportunity to learn from professors who are experts in their fields of study, and you are paying for every minute of this time with your tuition dollars.

Your professors will strive to organize and present course material as effectively as they can, but ultimately how much you learn in each class is up to you, not the professor. Choosing to sit in class with your ear buds in, surfing social media on your phone, wastes both your time and your tuition money.

Make the most of your time by developing the habits of an active learner.

Become an Active Learner!

Active learners take responsibility for their own education by being fully present and engaged during class time. Think about what you can do to ensure that you are focused and paying attention during class. This may mean turning off your phone and setting it aside for the class period. It may mean choosing a seat that is close enough for you to see the blackboard or projection screen clearly. It may mean NOT sitting next to a friend who you know will distract you. Or in an online class, it may mean committing yourself to focusing on the class itself, not multi-tasking or working on other activities while only half-listening to what is happening in class.

Active learners participate in activities during their classes. If your professor asks you to spend 10 minutes writing about a particular topic—do it! Writing about what you’re learning is an opportunity to consolidate existing knowledge and build new ideas. If you are asked to work on a group project with fellow students—contribute! Passive learners let other students do the work and are not actively engaged. Collaborating on a project allows you to learn about the subject at hand and to develop teamwork skills that will be vital in the workplace.

Active learners speak up during class discussions, responding to questions posed by the professor and asking their own questions when they’re uncertain about something or want to learn more. Many students are nervous about speaking in class at first. If this is the case for you, try setting a goal that you will say one thing in class each day. Over time, it will get easier, and speaking up will start to feel more natural. We promise that you will learn more and find your classes more interesting if you take part in the conversation.

Finally, active learners listen, both to their professors and to their classmates (fellow students might have something valuable to say!) and take notes. Use the information in the next section for advice on how to take notes effectively.

Taking Notes

The note-taking process has three stages: taking notes, reviewing notes, and applying your notes to complete assignments and prepare for tests. The first stage, which takes place during class, is addressed below. The other two stages occur later, after the class is over.

While listening to a lecture, participating in class discussions, or reading course materials, you are already starting to synthesize information. Note-taking is not only about recalling information after the class; it is also a process that will help you learn the material. Choosing what is important requires you to think about the material as it is being presented, and the physical act of writing your notes can help keep you engaged and paying attention.

Some students believe that taking a picture of the board or screen at the end of class is the equivalent of taking notes. It’s not! Taking a snapshot is a passive learning approach that won’t help you learn the material.

Some studies have shown that taking notes by hand, with pen or pencil, is the most effective practice because it connects what is heard with a physical activity that becomes a visual record. Stay organized by having a dedicated notebook or section of a multi-subject notebook for each course you’re taking.

If you can bring a laptop or tablet to class, you may consider typing your notes. Again, make sure to keep your notes organized by choosing where you’ll record them (Google Docs? Microsoft OneDrive? A note-taking app?) and designating a specific folder for each course.

How do you identify what is important and record it in a way that makes sense to you?

  • If you take too many notes, note-taking loses its purpose.
  • If you take too few notes, you won’t have enough information to help you study.
  • If you take notes on just what interests you, surely you will miss some information that the instructor considers important. Remember, you are keeping notes to help you understand and recall the key points that were presented in class.

Here are some tips to help you select what is important while taking notes in the classroom:

  • How did the professor introduce the subject? What were the professor’s verbal cues? This could mean noting what your instructor writes on the board or screen and adding what you think are key points.
  • Does the professor mention that something is going to be on an upcoming test? This is trigger information! Note vocabulary, dates, and names that connect to the topic at hand.
  • Don’t write only what is on the board or screen because this may only be the instructor’s outline. Add additional points that the professor emphasizes, or that are raised in class discussions.
  • Do trust and hone your ability to listen and absorb what is being presented to you.
  • If the course has a textbook, note which headings or sub-headings are emphasized in the text. Use these to organize your notes.
  • Does something you hear spark an idea that you would like to learn more about or pursue in an upcoming assignment? Write it down, along with your questions and ideas.
  • Leave space to add to your notes: What questions do you have? What is contradictory? What doesn’t make sense? These are all opportunities for you to connect what you already know with new knowledge.

Classroom Use of Smartphones and Electronics

Many students believe they can “multi-task,” in other words, send texts or watch videos on smartphones while being equally productive in class. They also think their instructors won’t notice. Unfortunately, classroom cell phone use of any kind (texting, emailing, updating your status, etc.) distracts you, distracts other students, and sends a clear message to your instructor that you are not paying attention to the subject material being presented.

If you use a tablet or laptop during class to take notes, make sure you are keeping eye contact with your instructor;  do not go online for another activity or share some funny meme you are viewing with another student. Your professor has every right to ask you to close your electronic device and/or not bring it to future class sessions if you appear not to be using these devices for classroom work or notetaking. In short, whatever device you bring to the classroom, consider the message you send to your peers and professors if you are doing something that is not classroom-related. Your instructor will usually notice, even if they choose not to mention the matter in the moment.



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The Companion for the First Year at City Tech Copyright © by Office of First Year Programs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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