Study Skills: Previewing for Lecture

An important study skill I have continuously tried to implement into my arsenal of tools is previewing material before lecture. The idea of being exposed to material more often would obviously make me better at retaining and understanding that information. I could use this benefit to be more engaged in lecture and ask more questions. In addition, the better understanding from lecture can save me time that I would have spent trying to understand the lecture during my lecture rewrites.

From Susan Ambrose’s How Learning Works 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, her principle “Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes…it influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge” (4) directly contributes to the idea of developing some prior knowledge to then efficiently expand upon.

So why have I consecutively failed to keep up with this habit of previewing lecture material. By the way, this blog post is just as much for me as it is for the next person. By identifying some of my pitfalls, hopefully, I can save you the trouble of making these same mistakes. I have narrowed down the issue to two different aspects of scheduling: setting time-based goals instead of completion-based goals and creating a habit through routine. Lastly, I did not have a method for how to preview material.

Pitfall #1: Completion-Based Goals (AKA Chasing Rainbows)

What do completion-based goals have anything to do with previewing lecture material? Time after time, I find myself in some variation of this scenario, I have multiple tasks to complete including: previewing for the next lecture, reviewing for the previous lecture, and some assignment related to previous lectures. My reaction every time has been to throw previewing out the window and dedicate my time to masterfully reviewing the previous lecture, and then spend whatever little time I have left over finishing an assignment. I find myself in this situation often, and thus abandoning lecture previews becomes a habit, even though I originally set forward to make previewing a habit of mine. This is the result of spending more time than anticipated on completing tasks, otherwise known as failing to follow through with completion-based goals.

Current Solution #1: Time-based Goals

Instead of completing each assignment one-by-one whether on schedule or not, I will begin to dedicate time to each assignment, regardless of my progress on it. For example, if I had six hours to dedicate to the three tasks, I could designate time to each task like two hours for review, three hours for homework, and one hour for preview. Not only would I get exposed to all three tasks, but I could also get a better understanding of the necessary time to complete each task later.

Pitfall #2: Lack of Routine, Lack of Habit

Just like rewriting my lecture notes, previewing my lecture notes is optional. Thus, I have more often relied on motivation instead of discipline to get me to routinely preview lecture material. However, rewriting lecture material is habit I routinely follow through with, unlike previewing lectures.

Current Solution #2: Habit through Routine

One thing that can help with that is setting aside a weekly routine where I preview material at the same time every day. I can get rid of the spontaneity of previewing by treating it as a physical class, where I must routinely be physically and mentally present. I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour the night before a lecture. I personally would avoid previewing right before lecture, as I can easily exhaust and overwhelm myself right before class. But do what you must do!

Pitfall #3: Aimlessly Previewing

If you’ve ever tried to read a page out of a math textbook, I think we can both agree it’s taken us multiple rereads just to get a bit of understanding from one paragraph, and sometimes even just a sentence. Yes, that can be very demoralizing, but that is why it is important to distinguish between reading a textbook and a novel. Do not expect to read the textbook like a novel!

Current Solution #3: Strategic Method for Previewing

When previewing material, it is important to keep in mind what you expect to get from that one to two hours spent. From skimming the lesson and paying attention to bold and highlighted texts as well as examples, we should hope to deduct the following:

  • What is the big picture of this lesson?
  • What are the main ideas/key words in this section?
  • What is being asked of in the questions?
  • What is being given in the questions?
  • How does this lesson relate to or expand upon previous lessons or previous courses?
  • What am I confused about?

Being able to relate the lesson your previewing to previous knowledge can make covering the content afterward much easier to digest. As a learner of the material, we have concept images of how everything relates to each other. Thinking about relationships and how new information fits into our concept images is shown to be effective as explained with “researchers have also found that if students are asked to generate relevant knowledge from previous courses or their own lives, it can help to facilitate their integration of new material” (Ambrose, 17). Therefore, when spending our time previewing information, we should emphasize the context of how this new information fits into the agenda of our curriculum if possible.

Lastly, it is important to identify what confuses us, so that we can get that addressed as soon as possible. Preparing questions will also ensure that we stay engaged in lecture as we will be listening for the solutions, and we could also ask the questions when relevant. We much rather find out what we do not know before the exam instead of on the exam. So, fail early, fail often, and fail forward my friends!


One thought on “Study Skills: Previewing for Lecture

  1. Nice work Steve.

    I like your use of red for highlighting pitfalls and green for highlighting possible strategies to address those issues.

    Your idea about setting aside ritual time the night before lecture to preview the material is super powerful. Doing so would mean you see the material the night before lecture, the day of lecture, and perhaps the days after lecture during lecture re-writes. That translates into a minimum of three working days focused on understanding lecture material.

    This checks off two major boxes on my list of favorite study skills:

    1. Distributed practice: the book titled “Make It Stick” is all about how to make learning “sticky” (stay in our brains for long term use). That books highlights some great practices based on research on psychology and cognitive science, just like we’re doing in TLC. One technique they speak about is the practice of spacing out your practice sessions over many days (distributing your work over many sessions). Research has shown that our brains create much stronger pathways when we study like this because we tend to forget details. When we forget and have to spend effort reminding ourselves, we strengthen our minds and thus deepen our long term encoding for the topic at hand.

    This also reminds me of the great discussion of how to build talent via the mylination of nerve cells in Daniel Colye’s The Talent Code. In that book, he highlights similar results that indicate that little bits of practice done daily over long periods of time are the source of talent and skill.

    Your idea about doin preview the night before leverages these techniques by spacing out your studying. My bet is that this will empower you to do much deeper learning.

    2. Slow learning is better learning: one of the aspects of most college classes that I detest is the speed at which material is delivered. I believe this results from a structural problem with the way our system organized resources.

    The reason I don’t like to impose an accelerated timeline on students is that I believe learning is best done slowly. Indeed, in Jo Boaler’s great book The Limitless Mind, she highlights research results that suggest that slow learning is far more effective and meaningful than fast learning. Specifically, she highlights a study that shows young students who spend 30 min solving one math problem and exploring multiple dimensions of the problem tend to build much richer understanding than students that try to solve 15 problems in 30 minutes via fast repetition.

    This follows suggestions in Daniel Colye’s Little Book of Talent where he suggests that a great technique to build talent is to slow the skill down while learning.

    Your habit is doing both these things. Beautiful! Absolutely beautiful. I hope to hear more as you implement and refine

    Liked by 2 people

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