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Taking notes vs active listening

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Published: 21 March 2022

University of Sunderland in London student listening in class

Do I need to take so many notes in class? At some point, every university student asks themselves that question. 

You’re sitting in your 9am lesson, waking up and trying to engage the lecturer.  

Your focus is on what they’re saying, so performing the multi-task of writing everything down at the same time as understanding and even answering questions can sometimes feel a bit much. 

So, what is better? Should you spend your mental energy listening or trying to write it all down? 

And will those notes even be useful? How often, for example, do you go back through your old papers?  

The answer, of course, is somewhere in between. Yes, listening to the lecturer is important. By engaging with what’s going on you will be able to keep up. 

But by taking notes you’re giving yourself the chance to take your time with tricky concepts and doing background reading to make sure you understand them. 

It’s the difference between short- and long-term memory. By listening in class, you’re learning something immediately. But that can be forgotten, which is why writing things down is so important. 

There are even studies to suggest the act of taking notes itself helps you remember the information in the future. That means it’s not just a tool for later reading. 

We’ve spoken before about how to write down what happens in class, which is worth reviewing. 

The question then is, how do you actively hear? It sounds obvious, who doesn’t know how to listen. But listening in class is an active rather than passive skill. 

Pay attention 

Again, you might think this is easy to do, but you’ll be surprised how much you have to consider when you start.  

Think about the words coming out of your lecturer's mouth and try visualising what they are saying as images - like watching on a tv screen. 

Notice your posture too. When they’re actively listening, people tend to have a straight back, maybe leaning forward slightly and their eyes are always focused on the speaker.  

A good first step when you are trying to pay more attention is to imitate this. You’ll soon find that acting leads to genuinely listening.  

Focus 

It’s natural for your mind to drift during class. It’s no reflection on how interesting the lesson is though. 

Rather, it’s something that seems to be built into being human. Some studies have suggested the average adult attention span is only 20 minutes long. 

When you notice your mind drifting, you can get back on course by repeating your lecturer's words in your head.  

This forces your mind to pay attention and gives it an activity to do meaning it overrides your desire to think about something else.  

Ask question 

A final tip is to speak. Yes, that sounds contradictory, but it’s a clever little tool to make sure you have to retain information even over the short term. 

By telling yourself you need to ask at least two questions in class that day you’ll have to pay attention to know what to say.  

It means you spend the lecture listening to make sure that a) you have a question and b) it’s not already been answered or asked by someone else.  

Throughout all of this, you should also be taking notes.  

Whilst this can sound difficult if you treat it the same as preparing to ask a question, you’ll find that you both understand the lecture better and have written information to look through if you can’t remember the specifics.  

This takes time and practice, but by persevering, working on your active listening and note-taking in each class, you’ll soon find it becomes second nature.  

Do you have any top tips for learning in class? What about taking notes?  

Share them with your University of Sunderland in London community on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #WeAreSunLon.

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