Part of being successful in college is utilizing class time to maximize your learning. Regardless of whether it’s a lecture, recitation, or discussion group, the class time shouldn’t be the first time you see the material. Here are some tips for getting ready for class.

Review Your Lecture Notes

Most students don’t look at their notes until they have to study for an exam. That’s unfortunate. You should take 30 minutes or so to go over what was taught in your last class. Doing so will enable you to connect new material to concepts you’ve already learned. This increases your ability to remember and understand (see the left side of the figure below). Without reviewing old material, every lecture or class becomes its own mental island, making it more difficult to connect the dots and understand how everything being taught fits in context (see the right side). You remember more when concepts are connected, like a story.

Get into the habit of reviewing your notes. While reviewing, make notes in the margins so you’re actively engaging with the material and involving more of your brain in the process. Note questions you’ll ask the professor or TA before (during his or her board prep) or during class, or both. The more of your brain you involve when you’re learning (reading, writing, talking about it, etc.), the more you’ll remember.

Do The Reading

Second, do the reading assigned for the upcoming class. Yes, I said do the reading. Many students have lost the art of reading before class, particularly if the class is taught in a lecture format and there’s no risk of being called upon. (You typically don’t have that “lazy luxury” in classes when you’re expected to participate, say for a course in modern literature or modern language.) If you’re in a lecture-based course, there’s a tendency to avoid doing the reading or at best, reading the assigned material only when you have to do a problem set or study for a test. Waiting that long increases the likelihood that you’ll have to cram knowledge and therefore reduce your ability to master the subject matter. You cram at your peril!

Don’t Be a Robot: Without reading ahead of time, you’re relegated to sitting passively in lecture like a robot. And if you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, your note-taking will be suspect. So not only are you seeing the material for the first time, you may not be able to take accurate notes to review what you should have learned.

Reading Is Fundamental: When I was growing up, there used to be series of Public Service Announcements designed to promote literacy among kids. The tag line was “Reading Is Fundamental.” Well, reading is fundamental not just for young children but in college as well! Doing the reading before class is essential for accelerating your learning. You may not fully understand what you’re reading when seeing the material for the first time. However, by reading it first, you’re “priming” the new material in your brain. Then, when you sit in class, you awaken these memories and begin to make connections with what you’ve already browsed. As a result, sitting in class will be like having a déjà vu experience when you think you've been somewhere or done something before. That’s what previewing the material does, and it makes for a more engaged learning experience in class. You’re no longer sitting there passively taking notes. Rather, you’re having repeated “a ha” moments in class.

Write While Reading: As I noted earlier, get into the habit of taking active notes while skimming the assigned reading. Connect new material to things you’ve learned. Write down your questions in the margins that you’ll ask during lecture or the professor’s board time (when he/she is preparing the chalk or white board). You’ll more likely remember new material long term if you take steps to synthesize it—moving it to long term memory. That’s why I encourage you to write as you read by taking notes in and after each section or page. As I stated earlier, the more parts of your brain you involve when learning new material – regions involved with sight (reading), movement (writing), and reasoning (synthesizing new material), the more likely you’ll have “a ha” moments later.

Over time, your previewing skills will improve.

Part of being successful in college is utilizing class time to maximize your learning. Regardless of whether it’s a lecture, recitation, or discussion group, the class time shouldn’t be the first time you see the material. Here are some tips for getting ready for class.