Classroom Skills

Paying Attention

It's the easiest thing in the world, to let your attention slip in class.

Suddenly you realize you haven't heard a word in 15 minutes and everyone's waiting for you to answer a question you haven't heard. Maybe you get all the way through your class and then panic because you've got a test next week and you don't have any notes to study from.

Now you're wondering how on earth you managed to concentrate in high school.

We've put together some suggestions to help you, as well as some DON'Ts, to steer you in the right direction.

Before class starts

  • Prepare for class.
    Do the assigned reading, or familiarize yourself with the topic of the lecture. Review your notes from the last lecture. It's easier to pay attention when you have a rough idea of what's going on.
  • Arrive on time.
    It's hard to concentrate if you've missed the beginning (ever come in halfway through a movie?), and it's disrupting to other students if you arrive late.
  • Sit in the front row. (If you can't make yourself sit that close, sit near the front.)
    You are less likely to be distracted by other students and more able to focus on the professor.
  • Make yourself comfortable, but don't slouch with your feet up on a chair.
  • Turn your cellphone or pager off.
    If you're on call for work, or may have an emergency, use the silent mode.
  • Look attentive.
    This may sound obvious, but by looking attentive you are less likely to be distracted.

During class

  • Look at the person who's teaching, the blackboard or your notes as you write. Try not to let your eyes wander around the room to other people, the door, the clock...
  • Ask intelligent questions, either during the appropriate time in class or after class, but make sure you don't ask anything that was already answered in class!
  • If you're having problems following or understanding the topic, ask the professor either in person or by email. He or she will be happy to help you.
  • Participate in class discussions. People who don't actively participate are seen as either not paying attention or not having done the homework.
  • Listen when the professor is talking, and take notes. Don't assume that you can get copies from someone else or that this section won't be on the exam anyway.
  • If you must eat or drink during class, do so quietly and wait to clear up till the end of class.

Some DON'Ts

  • Don't sit at the back or immediately by an aisle unless it is necessary for you to leave early. It looks like you have plans to space out, or skip out.
  • Don't talk to your classmates, except when you're discussing a set topic.
  • Don't sleep in class. Unless there are 200 other people there, the professor will notice. Be respectful enough to sleep at home.
  • Don't bring hot food to class.
  • Don't walk around during class. If you need to excuse yourself, do so quietly and without disrupting the class.
  • Don't listen to music in class. If you're listening to music, you're not listening to the person who's teaching.
  • Don't use your laptop, phone or PDA to play games, IM, email or web-browse. The occasional web search to find an answer to a relevant question or to check a detail before asking a question is the only appropriate use of the internet during class.


The Importance of Attending Class

"Eighty percent of success is showing up." —Woody Allen

You probably don't want to hear this, but your class attendance is vital for both you and your classmates. Most professors want to hear your opinions, and actively encourage class discussion—discussion that is hampered when people don't show up.

We all know people who never attended class once and yet still got an A. These people are a rare example of self-motivated learners who spend time studying on their own. It is not recommended that you follow this example, and studies have shown that there is a distinct correlation between higher grades and higher class attendance.

You should also be aware that some professors here at UAB will include attendance and class participation in your final grade. Lack of either will leave you with a lower grade, even if you turned in every piece of homework and every test.

Reasons Given for Not Attending Class

These are some of the most frequent reasons used for missing class.

I overslept Unless you're talking about only one missed class, this is not a good reason.
  • Use 2 alarms if you're a heavy sleeper, or enlist a friend's help to make sure you're up in time.
I was sick Okay, this is fair. The other students—and the professor—will appreciate your not spreading germs if you're contagious, but it doesn't apply if you just sneezed once yesterday.
  • If you have to miss class because you're sick, contact the professor as soon as possible to explain and ask if you can get a copy of anything you missed.
I didn't do the homework This is possibly the worst reason to avoid class.
  • If you didn't understand the homework, don't despair, but remember that missing class will leave you further behind. Most professors will be happy to go over a tricky point again, or can point you towards a study group or a tutor who can help you.
  • If you just didn't get round to doing it, go to class anyway.
It's boring Not everything in life can be exciting, or even interesting.
There are things we all have to do, whether or not we like them (cleaning the bathroom) or whether they seem relevant (required courses).
  • We can't promise you'll love the teaching style of every professor, or that you'll find every course fascinating, but don't miss classes and ruin your GPA just because a class didn't seem good to you.
The class isn't challenging Some classes do repeat information you've learned or used in other classes, or will cover something you already know.
Many of the Social Sciences, for instance, contain a lot of overlap.
  • Use these classes to explore links between disciplines, or to look for subtleties and variations.
  • If the homework is too easy, ask if there's some extra credit work, or do some extra reading in a related topic which interests you.
Don't lie back and take it easy - you could be missing something!
I got called in to work/had an emergency Another fair reason, as long as it's the exception rather than the rule. It's hard to keep multiple schedules running, and there will be times when something unexpected happens which interferes with other plans.
  • Contact the professor as soon as possible to explain, ask what you missed and make sure you can get a copy of the notes from either the professor or another student.
I'm just repeating it for a better grade—I already got my notes the first time around Even the same professor will not teach a class exactly the same way every time.
  • If you didn't get a good grade the first time, chances are you didn't quite understand something or missed something before.
  • Attending class the second time round may seem like a waste of time, but it's necessary to make sure you really understand the topic and will pass this time.
I had a a party to go to Sorry, doesn't count.
Unless it's something major, like your parents' wedding anniversary or your best friend's engagement party, a party is not a good excuse for missing class.
  • If something like this does come up, tell the professor immediately that you won't be able to attend class on X date because...
I had some other homework to finish Thinking logically here, missing one class to complete work for another really doesn't help. It's like using your Visa card to pay off your American Express bill: you're still behind, but you've just switched your priorities around.
  • If you're having trouble keeping up, speak to the professor. Explain that you're doing your best, and but that you're having problems completing some assignments on time. Ask if you can get an extension on the deadline, or if you can turn in a draft on time and then the completed assignment a couple of days later. See if the professor has any suggestions. They are human, and they understand that unexpected difficulties may arise, and will do their best to help you if you're honest with them.
My friend records it for me Unless you are visually-impaired, or learn primarily in an auditory fashion, this will not help you.
  • A recording will only cover class discussion and the lecture—it will not include any visual cues such as diagrams, charts, pictures or clarifications written on the board. Recordings have their place, and are useful for reminding you of details covered in class, but should not be used as a substitute for class attendance.

One of the most important things to remember is this: If you're having a problem, talk to someone!

We don't mean complain to your friends, but speak to the professor, the student assistant, a tutor, your advisor... someone who can help you.

If you're having problems coping with the work, your day job just changed all your hours, your beloved pet died, your car just broke down and you can't get to class, or you don't understand anything, don't just stop going. Explain the problem, and they will do their best to help you.

Classroom vs. Studying or WebCT

Why Should I Go To Class When I Can Study At Home?

Class is not simply a matter of turning up and everyone reading the relevant chapter in the textbook. Each lecture offers various ways for people to learn, whatever your learning style.

Your professor may use any one, or all, of the following:

  • Multimedia class presentations (Powerpoint)
  • Class discussions
  • Demonstrations
  • Graphs, charts or pictures
  • Updated statistics or articles
  • Short videos
  • Question-and-answer sessions
  • Essay guidelines
  • Test preparation

Each of these will help you to learn in a different way.

For example, class discussion will help enhance your thinking and debate skills, while clarifying any points that may have been confusing to others. Your input could help another student understand a difficult section, or maybe another student will ask something which also helps you.

Graphs and charts will teach you how to analyze data and pictures, and create a more correct interpretation.

Question-and-answer sessions mean you can immediately ask about something which you don't understand.

Your notes will help you remember what was discussed, points that were made, any criticisms or proponents of each argument, and make sure you fully understand the topic.

Remember that anything covered in class might be on the final exam, and being physically present will let you pick up on the cues (e.g. pointing, writing something on the board, or verbally emphasizing a point) which tell you something is important. Be sure to highlight these in your notes.

I'll just download the notes/lecture from WebCT

It's not the same as attending. Even if you combined a recording of the lecture with a good set of notes from someone else, you will have to work twice as hard to understand the material because it's not being explained to you.

If you have ever had a professor who puts up notes before a class, you will realize that the apparently incidental explanations as you go through the notes are the very things which solidify random facts into a comprehensive explanation.

Even if all the notes are available in Powerpoint form, they will not include diagrams drawn on the board, questions from the class, or spontaneous explanations.

Don't Believe Us?

UAB's Early Alert system is designed as a way to alert students of potentially failing behavior.

  • In Fall 2008, 325 students received warning that their lack of attendance was affecting their grade.
  • A further 566 had both attendance and performance problems.

Mississippi State University surveyed 1,000 students each year for eight years. From this study:

  • The No. 1 predictor of academic success for freshmen continues to be regular class attendance
  • there is, in general, a full grade-point difference between those who go to class and those who have attendance problems

Michigan State University presented a study concluding that the more that students come to class, the better their performance.

The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University also have studies associating class attendance with course performance.

The Journal of Economic perspectives published an article in 1993 showing a positive correlation between poor attendance and poor performance.

It seems fairly clear. If you miss class, you're creating more work for yourself in having to learn all the work each time, and you're more likely to receive a lower grade. Why not make it easy on yourself, and just go?