My friend, Aliya, listening intently

Don’t you hate it when you’re talking to someone on the phone and you can tell they aren’t really listening? The pauses between your and their answers get longer and . . . longer. They ask questions that you’ve already answered. You know they aren’t paying attention.

Failing to pay close attention in makes for missed details, frustrated , and poor notes. Missed details? What if one of those details is on your next test? You’ll be getting a lower grade. You might even fail–fates forfend! Frustrated professors and teachers–in smaller classes–often notice your lack of attention, just as you notice when your friend-on-the-phone is otherwise occupied. That frustration can make your prof angry and resentful; not the attitude you want them to have when they are looking over your latest paper with red pen in hand. Even in very large classes, professors notice when most people aren’t listening. Often that makes them give it less than their best effort … again … lower grades and possible failures ensue. And if you are taking poor notes? No surprises here. Poor notes mean poor grades, or at least a lot of extra time outside of trying to make your notes usable.

Poor listening often starts before you even sit down in the lecture hall. You sit in the back or next to distracting friends. You bring other things to do (books, puzzles, electronic games, jenga, supplies for a weenie roast). Poor listening may also stem from not getting enough sleep. It’s tough to pay attention to a boring lecture when you are trying to prop up your eyelids.

So what’s a student to do? Here are five quick and dirty techniques to help you listen more effectively.

1. Get plenty of sleep. Psychology studies on the effects of sleep on learning, memory, and creativity, are pretty conclusive. Sleep deprivation makes you stoopid! How much sleep do you need? It’s different for everyone and different for you depending on your age and activity level. Here’s a quick way to tell; are you sleepy enough to take a nap during the day? If so, then you probably aren’t getting enough sleep at night. CAUTION: Sleepiness, as we all know, can also come from eating a ten-inch tall stack of flapjacks smothered in syrup. The key is to avoid eating too many complex carbohydrates in one sitting–sweets, breads, potatoes, corn, etc. So skip the Glutton Corral’s all-you-can-eat buffet right before your one o’clock on The History of Plaid. Avoid late nights when you have the next day, and ex-pecially when you have an exam!

2. Sit in the front and center of the classroom. This one simple action will solve most of your basic reasons for not paying attention. Friends are less talkative when you’re sitting within eraser-chunking distance of the professor, and it also makes it much harder to hide the fact that you are reading the latest issue of Vogue. Front and center also makes it much easier to hear what’s being said and to read that tiny 8-point type the prof is so fond of using in his PowerPoints.

3. Eliminate distractions before you get distracted. Are you tempted to text your friends during class? Turn off your cell phone as you enter the room. Does your buddy like to crack jokes during the lecture? Don’t sit next to him any more. Is that girl or guy in front of you distractingly handsome? Again, find some place else to sit. You can also use strips of cardboard and an old pair of glasses to construct blinders. This can also be effective and has the added bonus of keeping your life free from romantic distractions.

4. Decide, at the start of each class, that you will pay rapt attention. The simple act of making a firm decision to listen attentively is very powerful. BONUS: Decide on a “magic word,” such as “research.” Whenever the professor says that word, award yourself a point. See how many points you can rack up by the end of class. With some of my profs I had a whole raft of words and phrases with different point values for each. Get a buddy to play along from the other side of the room. If your counts match at the end of class, celebrate with a grande mocha latte or a rousing round of curling. But don’t let this game get away from you. The whole purpose is to help you play closer attention, so use with caution.

5. When the prof strays into irrelevant paths, spend the time reviewing and elaborating on your notes. The best way to commit those notes to memory is not by reading them again and again, it’s by elaboration. Elaborating on your notes might include; adding colors, doodling little images to illustrate key points, writing in your own as you think of them, connecting related points with arrow, highlighting important points, etc. You can do all of these things in every time your professor loses her way and–once again–regales the class with tales of her derring-do at the latest accounting convention. When you elaborate in this way, you are actually getting your studying done in class. That means less study time later on. Go you!

What if the prof reads straight out of the book? What if she rarely says anything important? Wouldn’t it be better to just skip and go study in the library? Come on . . . who are you kidding? Besides, what if the professor just happens to mention that the big exam has been moved to the day before Spring Break instead of the day after. (This actually happened to me in Dr. Kvanvig’s logic class. It was the only test I failed all semester.) To avoid these embarrassing and GPA-punishing scenarios, go to class anyway; look at it as scheduled study time for that course. Follow along with them in the book and work on transferring that information into your notes.

By following these five easy guidelines for great listening, you’ll maximize your in- effectiveness. Make sure to share this post on FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. I really do appreciate it when you do!

Updated from February 2009 post

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

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