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So, what do you do while you are in class during a lecture? Yes,
yes, of course, listen and take notes. But now, what do you really
do? Let's be honest--take a couple of minutes to make a list. As a
start, you might check to see whether your notebook has the name
or initials of one (or more!) "significant other" repeatedly written
in it, as do many of my students' (and as did mine). Were you really
listening? Compare your list with the one below compiled from past
exercises with my students. The most striking (and perhaps
apocryphal) study supposedly reported that 60 percent of the time
students are in class, they are thinking about sex! (As I tell my
students, I know of no comparable study of what professors are
thinking about in class....) But informal surveys of students' notes
indicate that whatever they are doing in class, much of the time it
is not listening.
What Students Report Doing During Lecture
1. Listen and try to remember material
2. Listen and take notes
3. Read lecture topic material in text
4. Read letters/newspapers, magazines, etc.
5. Write letters
6. Study for another course
8. Plan activities for rest of the day
9. Talk to friends
12. Draw pictures
13. Write names or initials
Who should be surprised? Listening is difficult, particularly
listening to lecture material, and is reinforced only after a
long delay on an exam. You may be expected to listen to difficult
lecture material for far longer than you would read comparable
material without a break. You are in a double bind--many behaviors
that compete with listening are not only easier but immediately
reinforced. Further, unlike reading, we have little control over
the speed of a speaker's delivery--the concept of a speed listening
course would be great if it were not so absurd.
Further complicating the problem is that the lecture content is
cognitive, dealing mainly with factual information of some kind,
whereas much everyday communication is connotative, suggesting
meaning apart from what is explicitly being said. "Listen to what I
mean, not what I say" conveys the concept of connotative
information. The emotional content of these conversations is much
higher, as is the role of nonverbal cues such as voice intonation and
body language. Further, the content is frequently of much greater
intrinsic interest. Listening in everyday conversations may be easier
not only because of mutual interest and involvement, but because of
greater overall arousal evoked by emotional content. Although
difficult, lecture listening may be crucial to success in your course.
So let's look at some ways to do the job. As you will see, many
involve ways to increase attention and reduce distractions.
Steps to Successful Lecture Listening
1. Be rested. Yes, it's obvious, but just as obviously one of the main
behaviors competing with listening is sleep. Recent research reveals
that most Americans, including students, are sleep deprived. Students
tend frequently to get relatively little sleep on week nights and then
try to catch up on weekends. This pattern wreaks havoc with normal
--and adaptive--sleep cycles.
2. Be prepared to listen. In many sports, the concept of "set" is basic
to success, as in "On your mark, get set...." Set is also important in at
least two ways for lecture listening. First, be physically ready to
listen --on time for class, desk cleared of irrelevant materials,
notebook open, and pen ready. Second, be psychologically ready to
listen--motivated to get as much out of the class as possible (What
are your self thoughts as you enter the classroom?) and receptive to
the speaker's message. At one level, after all, the lecturer's goal is to
help you succeed in the course by giving you important new
information, explaining concepts, and providing clarifying examples.
3. Sit near the front of the classroom. You can reduce the chances of
inattention by putting some control in someone else's hands. Doing
anything but listening is more difficult if you are right in front of the
4. Do not sit near friends. I know, students sometimes take the same
class to be with friends. But togetherness may be self-defeating for
all. Responses that compete with listening are much more likely if you
are in a group that has an already well-established social pattern.
Why set yourself and your friends up for problems? Get together
before or after class, but make class the business of the class.
5. Take notes. Active note taking virtually ensures attention to the
lecture and reduces the likelihood of competing responses. This is
one of the best and most adaptive ways to ensure listening. How to
take notes will be presented in a separate section.
6. Don't confuse the message with the messenger. When Marshall
McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," he wasn't talking about
lectures. Not all instructors are blessed with an exciting or
stimulating style of delivery. And even the best instructors have off
days. A heavy dose of cognitive material itself makes the listener's
job difficult. Further, some material is simply more complex and less
intrinsically interesting than other. But turning the lecturer off,
however immediately reinforcing, is hardly constructive in the long
run--the material is still important and shows up on exams. I've seen
students who have decided to "get back at the instructor" by doing
something else in class, intentionally tuning him or her out. But who
7. Restrain emotion. Students may well have a variety of negative
emotional reactions during lecture. The lecturer's style alone may
evoke frustration or anger. If the lecturer states a finding or
position that is inconsistent with a student's belief, then the
student may become angry or even hostile. This happens occasionally
when the instructor presents findings that contradict what some
students have experienced in their families or learned in a previous
course. Their initial reaction is to denounce, sometimes heatedly, the
instructor's position. But the instructor may well be correct--new
knowledge frequently replaces old--or at least worth considering.
Emotional reactions simply get in the way of listening and may
make everyone uncomfortable. An irreplaceable element of a college
education is being forced to confront the question, "How do I know
what I know?"
8. Monitor your behavior. Learn to keep track of your own listening
behavior by regularly asking yourself questions, such as Where am I?
or What was just said? as a way to avoid daydreaming. One effective
technique is to be ready to answer an instructor's question, even if
the instructor never asks questions.
9. Listen from beginning to end. In opera, it's not over until the fat
lady sings, in baseball (Yogi Berra?) it's not over until it's over, and
in lecture, it's not over until the class ends. Beware of the tendency
to close your notebook (and your ears) a few minutes early,
anticipating the end of class. Those last minutes may sometimes be
the most important--your instructor may summarize important points
from the lecture, give an assignment, or even announce an exam or
quiz. You won't go wrong if you tune in from the beginning of class
to the end. Not only in races does the finish count.
Studying Psychology: A Manual for Success
by Robert T. Brown. Copyright 1991 by Allyn and Bacon.