Peering through the sea of heads

Since I have the pleasure of being short, in several large third-year classes, and possibly just unlucky, I often don’t have much of a view in classrooms. Staring at the back of someone’s head can be dull! And I’ve noticed lately that my learning experience has been suffering, especially since my classes are no longer in auditorium-style lecture halls, and now mostly in regular classrooms (without steeped seating).

Maybe in the future, we’ll have little computer screens on the back of every student’s head to display the professor’s PowerPoint notes for the person in the row behind, but until then, we’ll have to find other ways of getting the most out of class.

Many of my professors have remarked that the enrolment caps on classes have increased. One of my professors mentioned that usually the class size is 15. This year, its 55! Another one of my classes usually peaks at around 40 students (especially after 10 drop the class because of the incredibly scary 20-page research paper), but this year, it’s 88 students. Sometimes we “borrow” chairs from other classrooms to accommodate all the bums.

Even if you have wonderful professors (as I do), the classroom experience is crucial to your understanding of the material. I’ve been struggling to figure out a way to keep afloat in the sea of heads. If you’ve had similar classroom experiences, please do share your ideas, so we can help others improve their class time.

Meanwhile, here are some tips I’ve come up with to help you get the most out of class:

1. Get to class early

The first week of classes, I arrived five minutes before the hour (e.g., 4:55 for a 5:00 class), thus being 15 minutes early (since class starts 10 minutes after the hour). I was appalled to discover there were only six seats left. Because most upper-year students choose their courses — as opposed to taking mandatory  prerequisites — most plan to have a break in between classes, resulting in the majority being able to get to class early.

Now, I leave for my next class 30 minutes before the hour (4:30 for 5:00) so that by the time I arrive 10 or 15 minutes later, I can choose a seat anywhere I want.

2. Download lecture notes in advance (if they’re available!)

It seems like an obvious one, but you don’t realize how handy the notes are until you can’t see the screen. Downloading the lectures notes in advance and taking them to class gives you a chance to keep up with the professor, not only hearing but also seeing what she or he is saying (very helpful for visual learners!).

(And what do you do if your prof doesn’t use PowerPoint or offer notes in advance? Please share your tips!)

3. Record the lecture (but get permission first!)

I used to be firmly against recording lectures, because I thought it allowed students to be complacent and think “I don’t have to take notes; I can listen to the recording when I get home.” Third year has thoroughly changed my mind, however, because even if you type as fast as you can, you can’t take down everything the professor says, and you’ll beat yourself up when you’re looking at an assignment on a topic you know the prof talked about in class, but weren’t fast enough to catch.

Most professors don’t mind if you record their lectures (but you should check with them in advance). You can either bring a recorder to class, or use your computer.

4. Sit in a strategic spot

It’s simple, but people forget — sitting in the first row, not sitting behind someone tall, not sitting on the far sides of the classrooms where the viewing angle is very difficult… These are all keys to ensuring an accessible learning experience. Where you sit can also affect how well your recorder picks up the professor’s voice.

5. Share notes

If you find it difficult to pick up everything the professor is saying, consider trading notes with a friend every week: email each other your notes after class so that you stay up to date. More than likely, between the two of you, you’ll catch everything the professor says.

Working as a group — to share ideas, notes and discussion — allows you to act collaboratively to enhance your experience in the classroom. You’ll be combining the minds of many people for a more holistic view of the material.

These are just five simple tips. Feel free to share your experience of the classroom, and how you manage to stay afloat and see amid the sea of heads!

- Fariya