Mastering Pre-Lecture Prep

If you think about the ultimate point of reading, there are really three things that you’re trying to do when applying strategies to read more effectively: a) increasing the quantity of information you take in, b) increasing the value of information you take in, and c) decreasing the time you have to take to do it. Doing these three things in combination will maximize the effectiveness of your reading, something that pure “speed reading” techniques tend to miss.

Generally, effective reading means taking an active approach before, during and after the actual reading session; while every person is different, there are consistent steps to take in all three of those phases that will help just about anyone get more out of the text. 

But there are many who are required to go to lectures, or who struggle with reading and prefer to watch. They’re still after the same goal as effective readers are: maximizing the amount of valuable information in the shorts amount of time. But they don’t have the benefit of being able to actually apply effective reading techniques to the learning. Luckily, there are ways to accomplish the same goal with a different medium, the traditional college lecture, and it uses many of the same principles as effective reading.

You can rephrase my previous definition of effective reading like this: in order to read more effectively, you must:

  • Increase the quantity of information you can take in

  • Increase the value of information you can take in

  • Decrease the time you have to take to do it

Unless you’re learning from a video or audio lecture, where you have control over playback speed, you can’t really do much about the third principle when learning from a lecture. However, you absolutely have control over the first two, and now we’ll go over ways to do so.

First, remember that you can break down the process of learning from a book or article into three steps: pre-reading, reading, and post-reading. Pre-reading is the phase in which you look ahead to what you were going to read, then prepare your mind and the material in ways that make it easier to absorb information when you move onto the second phase. Likewise, any good student or teacher can tell you that there are important steps you can take before coming to a lecture to improve your experience.

First, if nothing else, come to the lecture with an understanding of what it’s about. Look ahead on the schedule (another skill we look at in Foundations) and find what the topic of the lecture is. Assuming you have nothing else to work with, try to connect the topic of that lecture with what you’ve already learned so far in the course. This accomplishes two tasks:

  • It forces you to reflect on what you’ve already gone over before–remember that reflecting and reviewing on what you’ve learned before is a form of recall learning, which is one of the most effective ways of learning known to science.

  • It lets you start building chunks of knowledge between the different lectures. A chunk is a self-contained concept or principle built out of individual facts; similar to how letters have a meaning by themselves but can have an even greater meaning when combined to make words, a chunk is composed of facts connected to each other in ways that make the sum greater than the whole of its parts. Trying to build a chunk and see how your next lecture fits in, even if you know nothing about the lecture other than the topic, will help you make sense of that new information as you take it in.

If you have a textbook or other learning material that follows along with the teacher’s lectures, you can use those to prepare yourself for a lecture as well. Good pre-reading mostly means looking for three major factors:

  • Vocabulary, particularly unfamiliar vocabulary.

  • Confusion after reading and reflecting on a passage.

  • Chunks, even if you don’t fully understand them yet. See if you can generally figure out what the book says are the “big ideas.”

Make note of these three as you prepare for the lecture. Unfamiliar vocabulary is important for readers to understand because research shows [1] that unfamiliarity with vocab is one of the main factors hindering low-level readers; it’s even more important for listeners because you have less control over the pace of information–while you’re sitting there in confusion, they will probably be continuing on to information that a) you’re not taking in because you’re thinking about the unknown word, and b) you probably wouldn’t understand anyway, because you don’t know the words used to describe it.

Paying attention to confusing passages is also important because getting extra explanation from your teacher will be crucial to relieving that confusion. Make a list of questions to ask the lecturer when you get to class.

Finally, understanding the chunks that make up your lecture will help you understand the connections between ideas, which is one of the main ways to take good lecture notes. Frequently, note-takers will either a) copy information word-for-word and miss the larger points, or b) simply write down the overarching points while having no understanding of why they’re true (because they missed the details). Learning about those chunks beforehand will help you be prepared to take better notes during the lecture.

That’s where we’ll leave off this time, with an overview of ways to prepare before going into a lecture or other type of classroom session. Next lesson will go over how to actively listen and take good notes while you’re there. The last lesson will tie it all together with ways to take advantage of what you learn from your lectures, even long after they’re over.

[1] Braze, D., Tabor, W., Shankweiler, D. P., & Mencl, W. E. (2007). Speaking Up for Vocabulary. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(3), 226-243. doi:10.1177/00222194070400030401

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