Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Ever feel like you've taken pages of notes in chemistry class, but when you sit down to study, it's like reading a completely different language - one that you don't speak? Ever sit in class and ask yourself if anyone is as lost as you? Then, one of your classmates asks the professor a question. They proceed to have a minute-long interaction, while you're still trying to figure out the definition of the third word on the slide. You are lost!
Within the last few days, I've been reflecting on how I learned in college versus how I learned during my post-bac years and beyond. What brought this on? Two aspiring doctors from my Facebook group met with me by phone for their free strategy sessions. Both were concerned because they felt like they were studying very hard, yet, they were not getting the grades that they wanted in their science classes.
They had tried tutoring, the Pomodoro study technique, studying the notes they took in class, etc... None of these things were working! They were frustrated and, mostly, they were afraid about how their less than optimal grades might affect their ability to get into medical school.
One student is a non-trad pre-med taking post-bac courses. The other is in college and is considering doing a Masters program after she graduates. After each one described her study habits, I asked a simple question, "Why don't you think you're doing as well as you would like?" Neither could pinpoint what the issue was, so I told them each about my experience.
Clueless in the Classroom
In college, I could take pages and pages of notes in any of my science classes. Five minutes after class, ask me what I learned... NOTHING! Not a thing! I was so busy taking notes, making sure that I wrote down everything on the slide or board, that I tuned out my professor's explanation of the information. "That's me!" each one of the ladies said when I shared this with them.
But, I had my notes which would tell me everything I needed to know, right? Wrong! When I sat down to study my notes, I was less confused than I was in class, but less confused is still confused. When I read my books, I was discouraged before I could even get the chapter open. Why? Well... psychologically, I had convinced myself that the material was hard because I was confused after having been exposed to it on at least two occasions - in class and while reading my notes. Of course, my grades reflected this.
They both related to my story. They never considered that what they were doing in class actually affected how they approached the content or even how they performed on exams. The problem was not how they studied, but how they first encountered the information. Note-taking is not a substitute for active learning and class participation. A 2013 study found that note-taking can actually be a distraction and interfere with memory of the information being recorded.
Note-taking might not be harmful to everyone, but it might be something to consider if you consistently find that you are not doing as well as you'd like despite putting a lot of effort into studying. This begs the question... If you're not taking notes, then what should you do?
Strategies for better classroom learning
Listen! It's that simple. Listen and follow the lecture. Professors are actually providing important points and explanations for what appears on their slides.
Actively engage by asking a question. If you ask a question about the material being presented, then you likely have a good grasp on what's going on in class. Now wouldn't that be an improvement?
Video or audio record the lecture. You can do this yourself, but some schools are now recording lectures to be made available for student viewing at a later time. You can take notes then. As we all know, repetition is key to learning. Recordings can also be helpful for viewing the first time because, let's face it, you might not be fully functioning for that 8am physics class!
If you think note-taking is interfering with your learning, it might be worth it to try these strategies. Master your optimal way of learning now so that you can be successful when you do get into medical school.
Schedule a free strategy session with me to talk through your pre-med status!