So I’ve got the first week of grad classes under my belt. Not that I had expected a huge difference from undergrad, but the classes aren’t qualitatively different. Of course, there are significantly more students in my classes than at my small undergrad program where I had six people in my classes.
I’ve been struggling somewhat with the chronic problem of physics classes: Do you try to really understand what the professor is doing during the lecture, or do you try to copy down everything, hoping that you’ll understand it later?
Of course, in principle I should know, for example, where Lagrange’s equations come from and how to derive them, but I also know from experience that I probably won’t be required to reproduce this in homework or exams, but rather how to use them to solve problems. And when the professor is tossing around all kinds of cross products and indices, and arguing why this or that term equals zero, it’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees. I’d say that in many traditionally taught classes, it’s pretty much impossible to both understand what’s going on and to get everything in your notes. Most students tend to opt for the latter, hence the addage that “Lecture is the place where the class notes are transferred from the notebook of the professor to the notebook of the students without passing through the brains of either.”
In undergrad, there were a few classes where I was able to sit back at a higher level and really feel that I was understanding where everything was going, and not have to copy every equation into my notes. However, with this method, if you get a little lost at some point, you’re going to have a hard time catching yourself up later with no notes. In other classes, I’ve faithfully gotten everything down in my notebook, only to find that I never looked back at my class notes, depending on the book instead.
Another dilemma about lectures is that of asking questions. I’ve never been one to be too embarrassed to admit that I’m not following something — that is, if I’m following well enough to ask a semi-intelligent question. I’m also a little bit slow to realize that something isn’t quite sinking in. For this reason, the chronic question asker is somewhat a boon to me, since that person asks questions that I would probably have at some point farther down the line. On the other hand, even with a decent explanation from the professor, it’s pretty difficult to grasp complicated physics concepts in real time, especially one that gave you trouble from the outset.
Because of this, even though my beliefs about education tell me that it’s bad, I often find myself adopting a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” approach to lecture. I just go along with what the professor is saying, getting it all down in my notes (going back to the approaches I talked about above), and hoping it will all make sense at a later time. Of course, you run the risk of forever faking it and never making it, in which case you find out way too late that you should have asked more questions in the beginning. I had this happen to me (to a certain extent) in the first unit of undergrad E&M, and it made the rest of the course more of a challenge, although it was a great feeling when I finally got to the end of the course feeling that I truly understood the subject and acing the final.
A lot of people that I’ve talked to agree that you really learn the material of a class by doing the homework, which, to a certain extent, is what it’s for. However, homework, by its very nature, focuses more on exercises and applications of the concepts, not on the real, nitty-gritty foundational aspects of the subject. And as physics grad students, isn’t that what we’re really trying to learn, at least eventually? Good luck getting the nitty gritty from the textbook, which is usually even more impenetrable than the lecture.
We’ll see how this plays out in my classes. I’ve found my mechanics class to be a perpetual race to try to keep up with the equations on the board and try to at least catch the gist of what the professor is saying. If this trend keeps up, I may have to re-evaluate my note-taking technique for that class. Of course, once the homework and teaching and grading workload starts to catch up, I may have enough on my plate without worrying about whether I’m understanding the nitty-gritties, and this whole discussion may become academic, as they say.
I’m also curious to hear how you approach note-taking and asking questions in class. Leave any thoughts in the comments section.