Archive for the ‘notetaking’ Category


You’re Paying for School, but Are You Paying Attention?

January 17, 2010

Genius is nothing but continued attention.
• Claude Adrien Helvetius

It is interesting how many people pay for experiences and then fail to pay attention to the very things they were willing to spend money for. I see small examples of this at the movie theatre when a person in front of me or next to me tries to hide texting or checking email or whatever under a coat—the glow shows and it’s obvious from the downturned gaze that whatever’s on the big screen matters less than what’s coming in on the small.

I’ve seen lots of inattentiveness in my years as a teacher. Since we’re headed into the third week of the quarter and there’s still time to assess your ability to pay attention in class before midterms, this seems like a good time for a gentle reminder. I recently gave my students the ethics quiz I referenced earlier in this blog (see “Tell the Truth Nowl Are You a Cheater?” from November 22, 2009). Only two out of almost fifty of us said that we’ve never worked on something else in class. I say “we” because I include myself in the group and I am guilty because, as I’ve already admitted, I write poetry when I ought to be concentrating on other things.

I hear something and it sends me off on a mind trip into things that are related, yet often irrelevant at the time. When this happens, it’s easy to miss the other stuff I should be getting. Crucial stuff, like an explanation of a difficult assignment, or insights into what will be on the midterm. I used to think that I had reliable antennae that would pick crucial words out of the air and alert me when I needed to pay attention. This strategy has proven to be exceedingly unreliable and I have sometimes found myself desperately whispering to my neighbor, trying to find out what was just said. Sadly, sometimes s/he wasn’t paying attention either, leading to embarrassment when I’ve had to ask for a repetition. You might think that this only happens to students, but it’s obvious in almost any meeting that some participants are not paying attention. At work, this can get you mandateered into undesirable duties.

How can you help yourself pay attention? How do you keep yourself from getting distracted? How do you stave off boredom? Many note-taking strategies are designed not just to capture crucial information but also to keep you focused on what’s happening in class. Taking notes helps. What’s the best way to take notes? I can’t tell you that. I take almost verbatim notes when I know I will be prone to distraction. I don’t recommend this for you unless you will find it helpful. Taking notes is a personal skill that requires a bit of experimentation to find what actually helps you capture and later utilize information.

Another is to put away the things you know will be distracting, those attractive nuisances that will seduce you and destroy your concentration. Unfortunately for me, this would mean putting away my brain and my pen, that’s why the verbatim note-taking helps me stay focused. Yet another is to track your distractions. Notice when you are not on track and get yourself back on. Perhaps there is a pattern to your inattention that you can discover and then deal with. Sadly this often happens when we don’t understand something. Instead of grappling with the uncertainty, it’s much easier to tune out the discussion. This might work at work, but it’s not an effective approach in a class where you will eventually have to demonstrate your understanding.

When you are in school, you are quite literally paying for it—with your time and with your money. It’s easy for me to tell you not to waste either, but more difficult for you to live within this reality. Still, as the relentless optimist I am, I hope you will: pay attention, take notes, concentrate, and get the most out of your classes.

What advice would you give to someone who’s having trouble paying attention in class?

You learn something every day if you pay attention.
• Ray LeBlond