Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Best Classroom Advice

I'm passing along the best classroom advice I've ever been given.

One of my undergraduate professors shared the following story from his life.  It was a "side-story" not directly relevant to the topic - but it stuck with me and has worked for me!

He said:

I was in my Master's Program.  Class session after class session I would sit in class and take notes.
Every class session, I noticed another student who was writing the entire class session.

I finally went up to him after class and asked him, 'What are you writing in class?'" 

He answered, 'I take notes on what the professor says.'
But, you're writing all the time!  Are you literally writing down everything he says?
'Yes.  I write down every single thing the professor says - in the exact phrases he uses with the exact words that he uses.  Then, on the exam, I re-write for him, the same words and phrases he uses for the concepts and ideas.  I always earn A's.'

The best advice I can give is a variant of this story.

When I've been a student in Graduate Programs - and in my professional work in most formal meetings - I write down nearly everything that is being said.  [Note - not just the lecture, but the class response & conversation, the way the textbook is being used.  I transcribe, as much as possible, the content of the class session.]  (In casual meetings, I don't write down everything - though I do take notes.)  I can't tell you how many times this has been helpful to me.

I do not have a perfect memory - but with printed record, I can remember or review just about anything and can archive it!  And, with the full-text-transcripts I maintain, in many cases, I can track the energy and dynamic of a conversation - with repeated words, particular exclamations, and detailed statements.  I can review the page numbers we engaged from the textbook - I can create quick hyperlink to the terms or concepts I need to know more about.  I can tell you what was said on any given day - from any of the classes I've taken - over the past decades.

A few years ago, a very bright student wrote essay exams in my lower division general education class.  When I read her essays, I literally felt like I was reading a transcript of course lecture & discussion.  [In fact, it was so suspicious to me I looked up the learner - to see if she wasn't cheating.  Turns out her test scores were off the charts!  She scored perfect "reading" and "english" scores on her three separate tries on the ACT exam!  She was smart.]  When I read her exam essays from my course, which read like transcriptionist records of my the class-sessions, how could I do anything but give her an "A"!?  Her answers demonstrated her clear interaction with he broad scope of issues, data, opinions, review of the textbook content and scholars that had been presented in class lecture.  Unlike many learners, she did not just write about a single statements from a phrase on the chalk-board or single-bullet point of a powerpoint!

I'm not proclaiming the fact that the best answer is to parrot back to someone what they have said!  Further, if a professor only offers their opinions, I'm not qualifying that as a lecture of content!  That is a lofty speech, perhaps, but not an informed & informative presentation about the history of ideas and opinons and perspectives.  Some answers require new, complex ideas and creative new imagination!  And, certainly, graduate school programs and research based programs do not want "the same simple answers" repeated back! 

In many programs of study - and certainly for papers and exams in many subject areas of most classes, if a learner will at least begin to reproduce for the  professor - what she explicitly said - in the exact words and phrases she uses - that learner will enter into the world and words and framework of the concepts to be able to learn!  [Note again - I am assuming the professor has presented concepts, ideas, data, opinions, bias, majority and minority opinion, and evidence.]

The sad thing is that as I watch learners in too many of my classes & they don't take notes at all.

Recently,  at the end of the semester - in our class session, I helped the learners - by writing on the board and by asking questions - how a broad-array of ideas from our textbook, previous lectures and from the Bible - had synonymous and threaded themes.  Together, these ideas created a tapestry of content - weaving a compelling theological framework from across the history of ideas emerging from the Bible - drawing on weeks of content in class work.  In this class session, I watched as numerous students wrote down no single thing the entire class session.  As I was sharing vital information about our topic - their body language demonstrated lethargy and sleep!  [This is especially too bad in our technological age - because a few engaged learners could work together in cloud-based program like google-docs - collaborating in shared way to transcribe lectures - distributing the workload among several persons - while getting everything verbatim!  This would allow them to archive the major content - review it and ace their papers and exams!!]

If you're not doing well in your courses - begin, at least, to write down what your professors say - not just the single bullet statements in a powerpoint! 

This is not about simply giving professors what they want to hear because they said it!  [Though, it includes that.]  By being able to conceptually process and discern the data - by integrating the textbook conversations from class - by keeping track of the class conversation & discussion, you'll begin to see the connections and coherence and logic of the ideas or professors and textbooks - as you develop your own nuanced perspectives!  If you take really good notes on what your professors are saying, you'll build the solid foundation for shaping the new perspectives you might go on to develop in your mature understanding of the history of ideas!

Additionally, if you do not "get something" - conceptually - if you need to ask the professor after class - by showing your engaged notes and asking specific questions, she'll know you were paying attention and you just need clarity.  A professor will be much more likely to graciously help you, if they knew you were paying attention in class!

And - as you're taking notes - feel free to track the fact of your dissent with ideas.  Track your own statements about where you agree or disagree - or how you might raise a question or present a new idea!  But track your ideas alongside the ideas given in the lecture/presentation/class-content!  [I should add here - that my transcription like notes has matured over the years.  Where I started by keeping transcript like notes, I now find that my notes include the specific concepts and words and phrases of the presentation - while they also include numerous "asides" and supplementary "comments" that I make that come from a kind of "private discussion" I'm having with the professor - but all in my notes.  Some of the questions I may actually raise in conversation - some I won't - and others I'll develop further and come back for review in separate class sessions.]

And finally, if you take great notes in class toward conceptual understanding - you'll not only score better on the exams - you'll also demonstrate yourself as being engaged in the class - and teachers notice this!  As a result of this, it's highly probable you'll  be able to develop better relationships and mentored opportunities with good professors - because good professors want to talk about ideas with informed and engaged people! 

In short - the simple practice of writing down - transcribing - the class conversation & lecture - may work to shift your entire life!   But . . . you'll have to get off Facebook to do this.

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