Head of the Class—Listening and Note-Taking
A big part of being a great learner is being a great listener. Of course, listening means much more than just hearing, which requires little to no effort at all. To hear something is to merely know that your ears are working properly. Listening refers to actively taking in a combination of auditory and visual information on a given topic and interpreting that data against what you already know about it. If you’re a good listener, there is literally no limit to what you can learn.
In interpersonal training environments such as classrooms and coaching, listening is usually complemented by note-taking. The vast amount of information transfer over an extended period of time necessitates recording the data in writing for reference later on. The notes reinforce learning by allowing them to “re-listen” to a course in their minds long after it has taken place.
Needless to say, there’s a lot more to being a good listener and note-taker than simply knowing they’re important. Here are some steps you can take to improve your proficiency in these learning practices:
- Don’t Worry (Too Much) About Appearances: Obviously, you want to write legibly, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about the occasional misspelling or the aesthetic qualities of handwriting. This is an especially important point for older learners, who were taught at a very young age that their writing should be painstakingly neat. Just get the information down on the page during class. If it makes you feel better, recopy the notes afterwards when you have some time. In fact, this actually can help you retain the facts and concepts better.
- Mind the Gap: Luckily for learners, their brains move faster than their instructor’s mouth can—about four times as fast, actually. They should exploit this gap by thinking (however briefly) about what’s been said prior to actually taking notes on it. This brings us to the next point…
- Capture the Big Ideas: Although the brain might move faster than the mouth, the hand does not. You’re not going to be able to write down everything that the lecturer says, so don’t even attempt it. Instead, try to record the most salient points. You can usually figure out what the most important information is by observing cues in the instructor’s speech and body language. Some teachers will be very explicit about what the key ideas are. Back in college, I had a couple of professors who would actually say in their lectures, “Be sure to write this down.” Some found this approach grating, but hey, it meant less effort for me!
- Write in Shorthand: Here’s an old trick that we journalists use. We’ve got to be able to write things down really quick, so we use shorthand whenever possible. Under this system, “level” becomes “lvl” and “association” becomes “ass.” (Please feel free to “crack” a booty joke here.) Fortunately, many younger learners who are serious instant- and text-messenger users are way ahead of the curve on this one. You don’t have to adopt the shorthand systems of grizzled old reporters or bratty, catty teenagers, though. Just use whatever works for you.
- Ask Questions: I’ll make this point by way of an anecdote. Back in the late 1940s, a couple of years after the successful use of A-bombs against Japan, a U.S. Navy admiral was assigned to the U.S. government’s atomic energy facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Scientists at this compound began to get irritated by the fact that he would ask the most elementary questions about nuclear power, and would make these inquiries over and over again. The people who had to explain these points repeatedly to him probably thought he was a little slow, but Hyman Rickover would later go on to become the father of the nuclear-powered navy, and owed much of his success to the fact that he wasn’t afraid to ask questions. You might not need to go as far as Rickover did in your quest for knowledge, but you should be sure to question something perplexing or unclear in order to understand it better. After all, asking questions enables you to frame your interlocutor’s explanation of something in your terms, and that makes listening that much easier.