Student Success Resources

Preparing to Learn

Liv Marken

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify actions you can take to prepare for learning.
  2. Recognize the basic ways that learning occurs.
  3. Take action to learn effectively when your learning preferences differ from your instructor’s teaching style.
Figure 1-5: To better focus, sit where you won’t be distracted. University of Saskatchewan – Students-Classroom-001. Source: Permission:  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Learning is a complex process, but it can simply boil down to how you read, listen, see, do and feel.  It also depends a lot on preparation. While reading this section, reflect on the areas that need work in your own learning process.


A student rolls out of bed a few minutes before class and dashes across campus and grabs the last seat just as the instructor begins; it takes him a few minutes to find the right notebook, and then he can’t find a pen. He’s thinking about how he should have set his alarm a little earlier so he’d have had time to grab a coffee. Finally he settles in and starts listening, but now he can’t figure out what the instructor is talking about. He starts jotting down phrases in his notes anyway, thinking he’ll figure it out later. His phone keeps buzzing with texts from friends.

The next day, he has a bit of time to look over his notes from the previous class and quickly glance back at passages he’d highlighted in the textbook reading. He has time to grab a coffee. He arrives at class a few minutes early, sits where he can hear well, and has his notebook open and pen out. He turns his phone off. While waiting for the instructor, he talks to another student about her ideas for next week’s assignment.  He asks her a couple of questions to fill in the gaps from yesterday’s lecture.

This same person will experience a significant difference in his understanding of the topic on the day he had time to prepare. Having a bad or “off” day will happen from time to time.  Your fellow students, professors, lab instructors, and others can help you if you are having a hard time, but if those off days start to become a pattern, your ability to learn will suffer, and you will wear out the good will of those around you.

Preparation to learn is the first step for learning. The same is true when you sit down to read your textbook, study for an exam, or work on an out-of-class project. You are putting yourself in the right mind-set to learn, and when you review yesterday’s notes to prepare for today’s class, you are also solidifying yesterday’s learning.


Most university classes involve both required and recommended readings. Some instructors discuss required reading content in lectures or class discussions, but if they don’t, you can’t assume you won’t be tested on that content.  Also, required readings inform or contextualize the lecture topic, making it richer and more interesting.

Recommended readings lists aren’t often explored by students, but your professor made the effort to include list them for a reason! Draw on the recommended readings to deepen your learning, become more interested in a topic, or to explore when researching a project or paper. Drawing on recommended readings is also a good way to set yourself apart in an essay or exam.

Always allow plenty of time for reading assignments; rushing makes it harder to understand what you are reading. You will find that you can read faster and better with practice, so if you are overwhelmed on day one, reflect on how much better you’ll read by the end of the term.

Do your reading at times of the day when you are most alert. Find a quiet, comfortable place conducive to reading, and while reading, maximize your learning through your personal learning preferences:

  • If you learn better by listening, for example, take advantage of any free text-to-voice software available on campus. Library or IT support staff could probably provide more information on this.
  • If you are more of a visual learner, use a visual approach in your class notes, creating mind maps, diagrams, tables, charts, or graphs.  Try to relate all of these visual images to the textbook’s content when you’re reading an assignment. In addition, pay special attention to illustrations and diagrams in the book, which will further help you understand the written ideas and information.
  • If you are more of an interpersonal learner, form a study group with other students and talk with others about the course readings. Take advantage of your instructors’ office hours so that you can enrich your understanding of readings.


University students are expected to listen to their instructors in class and remember and understand what is said. Usually, instructors won’t tell you to write specific things down, and so you will need to listen to other cues for what’s important or being emphasized (e.g., does the instructor speak enthusiastically, for a long time, about a particular subject? Does he or she mention that a topic is important?).  In discussion-heavy classes, your group dynamics and ability to work well together is often evaluated by the instructor, and so listening to team members and asking follow-up questions for clarification is important as well.  Here are a few listening tips:

  • Sit where you can best hear the instructor, away from other distractions.
  • Study with other students and listen to what they say about the course material. Hearing them talk from their class notes may be more helpful than reviewing your own written notes.
  • Record lectures and listen to them again later when reviewing material before a test.
  • When studying, read your notes aloud. Review previous tests by reading the questions aloud and speaking your answers. If a section in your textbook seems confusing, read it aloud.
  • Talk with your instructor if you feel you are not understanding course readings.
  • Use rhymes or acronyms to recall verbal information. To create an acronym, first write down the first letters of each term you need to memorize. Then rearrange the letters to create a word or words. You can find acronym generators online (just search for “acronym generator”) that can help you by offering options.
  • Explore supplemental learning aids, such as audio and video podcasts, Open Access resources, and free online university courses related on the course’s subject matter.


Figure 1-6: Instructors often use visual aids to help explain concepts and ideas. This helps students with visual learning styles. Image: University of Saskatchewan – Students-Classroom-063 Source: Permission: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some university courses include demonstrations and physical processes that can be observed. Some prefer to learn visually, but visual approaches can enrich anyone’s learning. Here are some tips for incorporating visual learning into your study plans:

  • Pay special attention in class to visual presentations, such as charts, diagrams, and images.
  • Take lecture notes using a visual approach. Do the same when taking notes on class readings. Use diagrams, different colors, lists, and sketches to help you remember.
  • Use video podcasts or other visual aids for reviewing lectures.
  • Pay special attention to your textbooks’ illustrations and diagrams.
  • If your instructor or textbook uses few visuals to help you understand and recall information and ideas, try to imagine how you would present this information visually to others if you were giving a class presentation.
  • Create an infographic for your own studying, using free online software (such as Piktochart or Venngage).


People who learn best by doing are often attracted to careers with a strong physical or hands-on component, which can vary from the arts to athletics to engineering. But these students may need to use other learning skills as well. Here are some tips to help maximize your learning related to doing:

  • Try to engage all of your senses when learning. Even when reading about something, try to imagine what it would feel like if you touched it, how it might smell, how you could physically manipulate it, and so forth. This seems silly, but it works to make it more memorable!
  • Think about how you yourself would teach the topic you are presently learning. What visuals could you make to demonstrate the idea or information? Imagine a class lecture as a train of boxcars and think about what things you would put in those cars to represent the lecture topics.
  • When it becomes difficult to concentrate when reading while sitting in a quiet place, get up and move around while studying; make gestures as you read aloud.
  • Use your hands to create a range of study aids rather than just taking notes: make charts, posters, flash cards, and so on.
  • When taking notes, sketch familiar shapes around words and phrases to help you remember them. Try to associate abstract ideas with concrete examples.
  • The act of writing—handwriting more than typing at a keyboard—may increase retention; write key things several times.
  • Study with other students who may learn better by reading or listening.


We sometimes assume that academia is purely objective and without feeling. Don’t neglect the emotional side of information and learn through personal connections. Too often we may feel that a university textbook or a class is dry or boring if it focuses on texts or data. Make your learning more meaningful and enrich your learning by focusing on what you feel about the information and ideas being learned. Here are some tips to help maximize your learning related to feeling:

  • Try to establish an emotional connection with the topic you are learning. In a history class, for example, imagine yourself as someone living in the period you are studying: what would you feel about the forces at work in your life? In a science class, think about what the implications of a particular scientific principle or discovery might mean for you as a person or how you yourself might have felt if you had been the scientist making that discovery. These exercises may feel like a waste of time, but they have an effect on your interest level and can lead you to some interesting lines of inquiry.
  • Talk with your instructor during office hours or after class. Express your enthusiasm and share your feelings about the subject. Even instructors who may seem “dry” in a lecture class often share their enthusiasm in conversation.
  • Do supplemental reading about the people involved in a subject you’re studying. For example, reading an online biographical sketch of a historical figure, scientist, or theorist may open your eyes to a side of the subject you hadn’t seen before and increase your learning. Again, it may feel like a waste of time…. but if supplemental, no-stakes reading stimulates your interest in the subject, the rest of learning is more likely to click into place!
  • Study with other students who may learn better by reading or listening. Talk with them in a personal way about what the material means to them. Try teaching them about the topic while explaining your feelings about it.

Your Style, Your Instructor’s Style

Many university classes tend to focus on lectures and readings. This isn’t ideal for those who favour interaction and experiential learning.

Instructors in large lecture classes, for example, generally emphasize listening carefully and reading well. You can always make up for what’s missing for you in the delivery. For example, if your instructor simply stands at a podium and lectures, you can provide your own visual stimulation by sketching concept maps in your notes or visualizing how the information being presented might look in a pie chart or graph.

As you move further into your university curriculum, you will likely have smaller classes with class discussions, demonstrations, group presentations, and other learning activities. Also, once you are in classes closely related to a career path that interests you, you will find your learning preferences more relevant to the kinds of material you will be learning.

If a genuine mismatch is occurring in your learning and the instructor’s teaching to the extent that you may not succeed in a course, talk to your instructor privately during office hours. You can explain how you best learn and ask for suggestions about other resources that may help you.

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Preparing to Learn Copyright © 2021 by Liv Marken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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