Listening to Learn: Strategies for Understanding

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

As a student, listening to learn can be challenging in the classroom. However, don't let is scare you! With the right tools for note taking, paraphrasing, and summarizing you can learn how to listen and grasp the material.

Listening to Learn

As a student, I understand that taking notes is probably not your favorite activity in class. Now, pretend for a moment that you have to take notes from what your teacher, or a class speaker, is saying. Did your head just explode? Oh good, you're still here! So, while you might be tempted to just hang out in the back, and doodle while the teacher is talking, just so you look busy, that won't help you learn.

Notetaking While Listening

Talking notes to help you learn from a person who is talking sounds hard, but it's pretty easy if you have a plan.

First, take your page and divide it into three columns. The column on the left is for your notes from what the teacher is saying; the other two columns are for you to use later, so let's just ignore them for a moment. While the teacher is speaking, there are two things you have to remember. First, you cannot possibly write down everything they say - so don't even try. Second, you are going to come back to the notes later - so messiness is okay!

So let's say your teacher is lecturing on the parts of the cell. As they talk, focus on just writing down the keywords, phrases, or ideas that come up. Don't try to write every definition word for word, just write down the key terms and a short 3-4 word description. Neatness doesn't count, so just focus on getting those key phrases down. Even if they have a presentation on the board while they are talking, try to avoid focusing on writing it down word for word. If you do that, you won't hear any important explanations or questions that come up as your teacher talks.

The Art of Paraphrasing

Okay, now let's go back to that second column.

Read over your notes, and in the second column rewrite them - but in more detail. So let's go back to our example of notes on the parts of the cell. If you go back, it is very tempting to just look at a textbook or a website and start copying verbatim. However, that presents two problems to you as a student.

First, copying anything word for word can be considered cheating. Second, copying information word for word doesn't help you learn anything. So as you go back through your notes, you want to paraphrase information. A paraphrase is a way of retelling the information with more detail than a short summary.

As you go back through and rewrite your notes, you want to focus on paraphrasing the information in your own words. It is extremely important that you put everything you write, whether it's in notes, or an actual assignment, in your own words when you paraphrase, using synonyms and writing unique sentences. Otherwise, it can be construed as plagiarism. To avoid the more serious consequences of doing it on an assignment, get into the habit of paraphrasing well in your notes so that you don't have to worry later on.

Note Taking Process

So, let's go back to those cell notes. As you rewrite your notes, odds are you won't quite remember everything the teacher said. So you may want to go back to their presentation (if they used one) or even the textbook. Again, use synonyms unless you are using content-specific vocabulary in your paraphrase. To paraphrase, try taking the definition of each term and putting it into a four, or five- word phrase. Condensing it will help you focus on putting it in your own words.

However, you want to make sure it's organized. For example, if you were doing notes on cells, you might group the sections of your notes that are related. Group the parts of the cell that have to do with energy together such as mitochondria, chloroplast, and lysosomes. Come up with ways to group the rest of the notes.

In the third column, you can write down any questions you think of while you paraphrase, so you can go back to class and ask your teacher. However, you don't want to ask just any questions.

Odds are, if after the teacher lectures and you ask them something like 'What is a cell?' They will probably wonder if you were awake at all. So you want to make your questions are specific to what you're confused about. For example, asking ''How can I tell if it is a mitochondria or a chloroplast?'' is a much better question, and it will help you understand the material a lot better. If you need to ask a yes/no type of question, then try to come up with a second more specific question to ask next.

Asking Questions

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