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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
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5 Ways to Actively Learn During Class

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Paying attention in class can be difficult for even the most avid learners. After all, when you think about it, you’re in school for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so it makes sense that your mind might wander from time to time.


This being said, maximizing the amount of time that you spend actively learning in class can increase what you get out of your classroom experience—and it can even help you be better prepared for college. From doodling to moving around to asking questions, there are multiple concrete steps that you can take to keep your mind from wandering. Keep reading for some tips to help you stay engaged and ready to learn during class.


Why does active learning matter?

Whereas in high school, most classes are small and you get one-on-one attention with your teacher, in college you might not end up with this luxury. You’ll probably take some large lecture classes, and with 250 students in one room, it can be easy to get lost in the jumble—in fact, some college students in large classes can go the whole semester without ever speaking to their professor.


In these scenarios, the way that you learn is entirely dependent upon you, and you might end up feeling even more tempted to not pay attention since some large lecture courses allow laptops, making it easy to stream Netflix instead of listening to the professor.


While it might be easy to drift off on your laptop during lecture, come midterms and final exams, you don’t want to end up drawing a blank and ultimately flunking the class. This is not to mention the fact that you’re learning valuable information. In high school and beyond, there is great value in learning how to become an active learner and get the very best experience out of all the time you’ve spent in the classroom—so here are some concrete steps that you can take.


1. Ask questions

In college, especially in very large lecture-based courses, you might not have the luxury of being able to ask questions whenever you’re unclear on the subject material. Luckily, in high school, you do—so ask away! Write down questions you think of when you’re doing the homework or as your teacher is talking. When, during the lesson, it becomes appropriate to ask questions, go for it. Asking questions in class is one of the best ways to stay engaged and get involved in a dialogue about the material as opposed to just passively absorbing information from time to time.


Before you raise your hand too high, though, be sure that your question pertains to what you’re learning about in class— after all, you don’t want to end up asking an off-topic question that distracts your teacher and demonstrates that you weren’t even listening to them in the first place. You should also be careful not to ask too many questions. There is certainly nothing wrong with having a lot of curiosity, but remember to be respectful of your teacher’s time and energy as well.


If you’re really having trouble finding the subject material engaging, make an appointment to see your teacher after class—find out what makes them passionate about this subject. Ask them why they started teaching or what their favorite part of the course is, and their excitement might end up lighting a flame in you as well.


2. Give yourself small mental breaks

As long as you are disciplined, there is nothing wrong with taking a few mental breaks during class. The average human adult attention span is about 20 minutes, but we can also choose to re-focus our attention on the same thing over and over again (this is how we’re able to watch long movies, participate in an extended conversation, or read books). In a classroom setting, you can use these mental breaks your advantage and try to use them to re-focus your attention on the same thing (in this case, on the class you’re in).


Try to aim for a break of 1 minute to 30 seconds every 20 minutes or so. Allow yourself to doodle, drift off, daydream about your crush asking you to prom—then get back to paying attention. Notice what intervals of time work best for you—can you stay focused for 30 minutes straight, or does your mind start to wander at 22 minutes? Is 30 seconds too short of a mental break to take? Maybe a 1 minute break is too much and it just enables your mind to wander for long periods of time. The constraints of attention will be different for each student, but by staying in tune with yourself you can better learn what you need in order to increase your learning in class.


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3. Get up and move briefly

If you feel your attention really starting to waver, putting yourself in motion might be a good idea. Take a bathroom break, take a light jog down the hallway, get the blood flowing back to your brain—just be sure you have your teacher’s permission to do so, and that you aren’t gone for too long! After all, you don’t want anyone thinking you climbed out the bathroom window or took a nap in one of the stalls.


Walking or jogging between classes might also be a good idea since exercising can help make you a more active learner. If you’re allowed to go outside between class periods, take a couple minutes to move around, do jumping jacks, or just get some fresh air.


4. Move at your desk

Sometimes, moving your body a little bit can help you keep your mind on track. If it helps you to move a little at your desk (without being disruptive), do so! Try lightly tapping your foot, tapping a pencil against your notebook, or even using a fidget spinner under your desk. Whatever you end up doing, just make sure you aren’t upsetting or distracting your fellow classmates, or your teacher—after all, we all know how irritating it can be when the person in the desk next to us is practically causing an earthquake just by shaking their leg.


5. Try doodling!

It might sound nuts, especially since doodling is so often associated with behaviors that distract students during class. On the contrary, doodling has actually been discovered to be good for your brain.  This is especially true if you end up making doodles or visuals that can accompany your notes. While you’re listening and taking notes in class, draw whatever it is your teacher is describing. It will keep you focused and it can actually even help you retain more information afterwards.


For more information on paying attention and getting the most out of your classroom experience, be sure to check out these blog posts:


What If I Just Can’t Bring Up My Grade in That One Challenging Class?

Will Failing a Class Impact My Application?

What’s the Pressure Going To Be Like? A Guide to Understanding the Stresses of College

Learning Disability? There Are Lots of Resources for You to Succeed in High School


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Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.


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Devin Barricklow
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).