My Strongest Technique for Increasing Retention from Lectures

My strongest technique for increasing retention from lecture. Maybe it’s obvious; when I decided to make the mindset shift, it wasn’t so obvious, but the results are outsize.

Buzzwords like ‘active listening’ and ‘active learning’ get tossed around, but what do they really mean?

Active learning, for me, is really, viscerally focusing on the material you see on the chalkboard.

It’s easy to get into the mindset, but hard to keep it going; it’s almost like meditation. In the same way, it’s hard to describe abstractly, and examples are far more concrete.

It’s when you’re watching the prof talk through an example problem, and you’re thinking about it. Asking yourself, why did this constant disappear here, why did he use this equation, what did he see that led to his next steps? I try to guess exactly what the next step or the next number will be, guessing where the professor will go next, and asking why was I wrong if I am.

The way we learn, especially in technical subjects, is by finding out where we went wrong.

That’s why the example problems make sense in lecture, but the problem sets seem really hard when you look at them and try to recreate the process. That’s why watching somebody dance or ski looks easy but your body just won’t move exactly the way you imagine it.

We build our own process, test it, and refine it when it goes wrong. By starting that process of learning in lecture, we build a quick skeleton of a framework to build on, rather than having to do it from scratch by reviewing illegible notes or wasting time re-reading a section the teacher’s already lectured on.

In circuits 2, today, for example, my professor went over a quick example of a Laplace transform equation. Sounds like gibberish, but we won’t get into technical jargon, just a high-level overview.

He started with the example problem, and I immediately, consciously and mentally asked myself, what’s the first step in doing this problem? Set up the integral.

Turns out, it wasn’t setting up the math problem. It was looking up the answer in a table. What?

So I then immediately asked a new question, why was it looking it up in the table? Maybe because it looks similar to another one we had, but how? Then, as if on cue, the professor said to change this variable to that, and now it’s the exact same type of equation as the last time, and the answer is the same with the one variable changed.

It sounds easy in practice, but it’s hard almost like meditation in that you have to consciously do this for a while; I’m sure that’s what those test-destroying kids are doing when you see them not taking any notes, but seemingly completely at ease with the material. It becomes habit like any other.

All it is, is just ‘active learning.’ You’re actively asking yourself questions. It takes effort, not just mindlessly writing down the bullet points.

That’s actually the reason behind my new strategy of taking less notes. That, though, is next post’s topic. Hope this helps.

Note: After re-reading this post, I realize that it’s not hard to explain abstractly and the whole concept can be summed up as follows: a conscious effort to make your own mental model of a concept match the professor’s; you’re trying to consciously make your brain see the same patterns that the professor is seeing, and then pattern-match-and-complete in the same way.

2 Replies to “My Strongest Technique for Increasing Retention from Lectures”

  1. Hi, Huan.

    Just stumbled upon your blog and the title of your article attracted me.

    I resonate with what you discovered on the importance of being active in lectures. I think the issue here is students should assess whether lectures help them to learn. Unlike in high school, where the scheduled classes are the primary mode of learning, in university, we do need to recognise that there are many ways to learn what is needed.

    This is a problem I see in my course. Ideally, we want our lectures to give us the background knowledge needed when we are working. Unfortunately, the lectures are inadequate at teaching us what we need to learn thus the ability to learn from other resources are needed. Even if the lectures are good, unless you are willing to learn how to be active at learning from lectures, might as well do your learning elsewhere eg books, videos, friends, etc. Sometimes, we have this tendency to sit in the lecture just to fill our “learning” hours of the day, like the clock-in clock-out system of office workers, and believing that it by virtue of having words flowing through our auditory canals, we are learning what those words mean.

    Anyhow, I find that the following prompts can be helpful in trying to be more active when learning.

    “For factual knowledge, which most of what we deal with in …, you can use the following templates for self-explanation, adapted from Chi et al. 16 and Hausmann et al. 17
    1. What new information have you seen?

    2. How does this information relate to what you already know?

    3. Does this new information give you insight into your understanding of this subject?

    4. Does this information raise a question in your mind?

    When you’re learning from a ‘worked problem’, a different set of prompts are appropriate (Adapted from Hausmann et al. and Conati et al. 17,18 )

    1. What principle is being applied in this step?

    2. This choice is correct because…

    3. What is the justification for this step? Why is it correct?

    4. What law, definition or rule allows one to draw that conclusion?”

    Although, personally, I feel that asking questions too much during learning is disruptive to my flow of learning. Maybe, I’m still not used to being active.

    Thanks for the read.

    1. Hey Wan,

      Thanks for the comment – love discussion about learning more effectively.

      1) re: actively choosing how to learn – I totally agree. Many students don’t realize the lectures are a one-size-fits-all method of learning, and are meant to be one way for students to engage in material, not the only way. The hidden yet crucial part is, as you say, finding what works for you and putting in the effort into that.

      2) About factual knowledge: it seems to me that question #2 is the most important of the four, followed by 1, and then 3/4 distantly. I understand that we learn best and retain the most when we can link new information to old information – updating or adding to our mental models, if you will. Google Scott H Young if you don’t know about him already and are interested in hearing more about this.

      3) Worked problems: (ha technical majors’ bread-and-butter) seems like 2 and 3 are pretty similar; maybe you could combine them into 1 question? Yes though, I’ve found that if I can understand why a professor did what he did, and how he knew to do that, I can easily follow the train of thought and recreate the steps later.

      You sound like a STEM major – we usually have lots of worked problems to learn from. I had no idea that study about learning from worked problems existed though, and it sounds spot-on to me.

      Cheers Wan!

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