Effective Listening and Note-Taking
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge


Second only to effectively managing one's time, being able to follow lectures is the most important critical study skill that a student can have. When you look at the profiles of successful students, there is a common thread tying them together -- these are students who have the ability to take comprehensive notes in virtually all classes regardless of who the instructor might be or what the subject matter is. These are students who are not sidetracked by the fact that an instructor may be softspoken, or speak with an accent, or seem somewhat distant from the students in the classroom. They understand that far more than the written material, what the instructor chooses to emphasize -- and not emphasize -- while in the classroom has a direct bearing on the objectives and requirements of the course along with teacher expectations. The reality is that no two teachers, and no two lecturers, are ever the same even though the course readings and requirements may be identical. With that in mind, it is the purpose of this particular presentation to present a format for taking effective lecture notes or, better still, being effective in following and understanding what the lecturer is trying to get across, knowing how to determine what is important as opposed to what is not important or is of lesser importance.

In a word, this presentation focuses upon listening skills -- skills that determine who is going to make it in an academic environment fairly easily and who is going to have a difficult time. One must begin with an understanding of just what a lecture represents -- "a dialogue between you and the speaker." (Sotiriou, pg. 161). As with any dialogue, or flow of communication, there are several exchanges that have to take place if the communication is to be effective. First, you must be present to hear what is being said. For students, this basically translates as being present for your classes. You can be the world's greatest listener and you may be the fastest note-taker on the planet, but none of this will do you any good if your attendance is spotty and you are not present in class to know what is being said or what is going on. Right along with that, you want to be close to the speaker. In the classroom, this means getting a seat near the front of the classroom. Not only will you be able to hear better what is being said, but you will be able to see what is going on -- and seeing, here, means more than following what is put on the blackboard. It also means being able to follow what is being said, as much as possible, with your eyes. You must understand that the oral communication dynamic is far different from sitting at home or in a library to read a book or article.

The average reading speed is 250 words per minute, and you have time to stop and reread passages that are difficult at your own leisure. The average lecturer speaks at 125 words per minute, and this presents an entirely new world for the listener. There are lecturers who speak faster, and there are those who speak slower. There are those who are loud and emphatic in contrast to those who are so softspoken that people sitting the back of the classroom have difficulty hearing what is being said. You have lecturers whose voices rise and fall, adding tone and color to what is being said. By the same token, there are lecturers who speak in a monotone, so that if you are not careful it is entirely likely that your mind will drift away from what is being said, you will find yourself daydreaming, the next thing you know the lecture is concluded and you have not taken a single note of what may have been the most important lecture of the entire semester for that particular course! There are 13 specific points that I want to make in regards to taking effective classroom notes:

Discussion Questions

  1. The author refers to listening skills as representing "a dialogue between you and the speaker." Exactly what does that mean, and how does the author describe this? Do you agree with the assessment? Why?
  2. The author writes of a "rule of thumb" when note-taking. What is that rule of thumb and how can it make the difference between someone merely sitting down writing and someone taking effective notes?
  3. The author provides 13 specific points with regards to good note-taking. Use those 13 points as a Self-Evaluation Scale for your own personal note-taking, charting areas you are strong in and those you need to put work on.
  4. This article provides you with five (5) "signals of importance." What are those signals and relate these to the lectures you have had up until now from either the author or Dr. Obinna in your PAS 100 class.
  5. Imagine that you were giving a lecture on note-taking at your former high school. Write a short essay of no more than 2-3 paragraphs that summarizes the important points you would want to make in the language you think would be most appropriate.

Key Words and Concepts

Define the following words and/or concepts, then use the term correctly in a complete sentence that uses a subject and a verb.

  1. inevitable
  2. systematic
  3. subordinate
  4. repetition
  5. tendency

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