Did you miss the opportunity to make New Year’s resolutions? Well, it might be a good idea to make a New Semester’s Resolution instead. Here’s one I’m making:
The old chestnut about physics classes is that their goal is to transfer the notes from the professor’s notebook to the student’s notebooks without entering the brains of either. I think we all fall into this trap too easily – thinking that you can just get the notes down and understand it later, when it comes time to do the homework.
In some ways, the tactic of “write now, think later” is an essential survival skill, because it’s very hard to simultaneously write everything down, listen to the professor, and think critically about what it all means. In the competition between these three components, the writing is the one that usually wins out.
This strategy generally worked for me in my undergrad classes. Most of the time, I could at least write and listen, and even spend the downtime thinking about the material during class. But last semester started out differently, and I found myself blindly copying from the chalkboard a little too often. This inevitably led to late nights of using the textbook to try to decipher my notes, all while trying to solve my homework problems.
This got old, so I decided upon a new strategy, which I will embrace more fully this semester: One Class, One Question.
Pay close enough attention that you come up with at least one question to ask every lecture. This will prevent the problem of getting to the end of a lecture and realizing that, since you missed something in the early going, you have no clue what you’re doing. The natural tendency is to assume that you’ll figure it out as the lecture goes along, but since instituting this policy, I’ve found that I’m less likely to give in to this tendency. I’m already looking for a time to ask a question anyway, so why not clear up this point while I can?
I must also add that I don’t always come up with a question to ask, but keeping this goal in mind keeps me on my toes, so my attention doesn’t wane during class. I also find that sometimes the questions I come up with anticipate the next point that the professor makes. Not only does it give me confidence that I know what is going on, it also helps me make connections in the material, which makes it make more sense in general.
Now, it is important to recognize the distinction between different types of questions that you might come up with, and which should be asked in class, and which might best be saved for later. Of course, you must not hesitate to ask questions that are essential to your understanding, or to clarify something important. But perhaps you will also come up with something that really goes beyond the scope of what will be covered in class. These are best saved for office hours or for your own personal investigation after class. However, with that being said, you should always err on the side of asking more questions.