One of the professors who taught me in my first year in university used to say that to be able to fully understand a paper you have to read it three times: once to know what it’s about, twice to actualy get understand it, and a third time to highlight the contents and take notes. I admit I never read a paper more than twice in arrow, but she made me understand the importance of fully understanding a document. Over the years, I developed a strategy to prepare for class as best as I could. Here are some of the key points.
1. Read all the material and take notes
When a professor gives you reading material, it is essential that you devote time to reading it, understanding it and taking notes. You might be asked to contribute to a discussion in class and use the information you read about in an exam. More importantly, and it is crucial that you understand this, this information is what you will use for the rest of your studies and career (with the exception of optional classes): make sure you know your stuff.
2. Prepare a few points you want to bring to the discussion
Using the notes you have taken while reading, write a short document summarising the main ideas brought up by the authors, any interrogations you want to share with your professor and classmates as well as additional ideas that can help you contribute in class. This process might seem time-consuming, but it will help you test your understanding of the documents you read.
3. Reference additional material
If the documents you are reading remind you of a paper you read in a previous class, dig it up and use it to contribute to the discussion in class. It’s always best to keep all the documents you have read and you own work in a software or database. That way you can always find documents you previously read (and your notes) very quickly. You will blow everyone’s mind if you can quote a paper you read a year back that everyone else forgot about because as students, we all have data-overdose. I will give more information in my next post about EndNote and Mendeley Desktop, but you can check them out now.
4. Take all the time you need
Don’t try to read 100 pages a few hours before class: finish reading and taking notes at the latest the day before your class, then review your notes a few hours before.
Once in class
5. Take notes
Whether it is on paper, on a tablet or a computer, take notes. Being active in class keeps your mind sharp and focused, and you can’t exactly dance around. I prefer taking notes on a computer or tablet so they can be rapidly integrated in my database and frequently updated. But if notebooks and pencils work best for you then go for it. Just make sure you keep your notes well-ordered.
Did you buy yourself an expensive iPhone? Make sure it is on silent mode then record your class! Many phones, computers and tablets allow you to record audio. Professors can talk a fast pace and you almost always lose some info even if you take notes. When the time comes to study or write a paper, it’ll help to be able to listen to the class again, especially if your writing is bad. Even if you never need the audio, it didn’t cost you anything to record it.
Ask questions if there is anything you don’t fully understand. You will be doing yourself and your fellow students a favor. Having prepared for the class, contribute to the discussion. You won’t risk getting lost in your thoughts and you will remember the class but better. Many professors give points for participation, too.
Quickly review your notes after class and organise them in your database. If there are still some things you don’t fully understand or want to investigate, write it down as well.
Although I’m not perfect and I still mess up sometimes, you shouldn’t make a habit of showing up to class unprepared. If you are simply going to cram for exams and forget everything the next day, you might as well not study, in some cases. You don’t want to graduate and feel like you didn’t retain any of the information that your were exposed to during the last 3 to 4 years, right? Never ignore something you don’t fully understand, either. It will catch up with you.
In any case, you should find the system that works best you and do your very best. I can guaranty that if you invest time in fully understanding your reading material, your enjoyment of class and your personal confidence will increase. I hope my advice was useful to you!