What to do when you have a hard time listening to lectures: adapting as a visual learner

J- is taking Red Cross lifeguard lessons. She told us that she sometimes has a hard time understanding and remembering the concepts, so I shared a tip that worked for me and that might work for you.

Like J-, I’m a visual learner–perhaps way more than she is. I learn a lot from books and blogs, and I enjoy writing.

I’m not much of an audio learner. I used to fall asleep in classroom lectures. I get impatient when I listen to nonfiction audiobooks, podcasts, or webinars. I hardly even listen to music.

After struggling through some lecture-heavy university classes, I finally figured out how I could use my visual learning strengths to make up for my audio learning weaknesses. The trick is to read ahead whenever I can. Seeing the words gives me a visual “hook” to hang the ideas on when people talk about them. It gives me an outline that I can use to organize what I hear. If I read ahead, I understand what people say better, and it’s easier for me to stay engaged.

There are many situations where I can’t read ahead, such as meetings or presentations. In those situations, I keep my visual brain occupied by writing or drawing my notes. By turning important parts into words that I can see, I can remember things better. I can see the structure of a talk instead of trying to follow a linear narrative. Ideas don’t disappear into the foggy recesses of my brain.

Taking notes also has other benefits. Because I know I can share my notes afterwards, I pay more attention and look for more ideas that could be useful to other people. I’ve had lots of conversations because of my notes, and the conversations often lead to other discoveries.

As J- heads into high school, she’s going to need better learning strategies. W- and I are figuring out how we learned what we learned, and we hope to help her and other people learn things more effectively too. How do you use your learning strengths to deal with your learning weaknesses, and how do you build on those strengths for even more awesomeness?

  • I’m also a visual learner who’s never been able to do audio/lecture, and my strategy is similar – except instead of reading ahead, I read in parallel, going through the relevant book section(s) based on what the lecturer is talking about (I look up and pay attention to the conversation from time to time). If I can have my computer open and searching for alternative explanations, that’s often even better (though you have to be disciplined about not being distracted by other things!)

    I’ve found that this results in me being able to pull alternative insights/explanations/sources into the learning environment – because everyone else is listening to the lecturer, they all have the same things in their heads (and I can get it from them afterwards), but because I’m getting my data from other sources, I have “new stuff” – and that new information is a scarcer commodity and therefore easier to trade for the “normal” notes afterwards.

    This has some obvious disadvantages – for instance, getting called on can be a surprise, and I miss out on a lot of in-class discussion content. I also try to talk with my instructors at the start to let them know I use this sort of strategy and am not trying to be rude or anything. I suspect that being deaf gives me a good excuse, and that a hearing student might find it harder to make that argument, but it might be worth trying anyway.

  • I get that too! I like looking for more information, digging deeper than the cursory explanations in class. =)

    By the way, you rock.

  • James

    I third the multiple explanations idea. I’m a strongly visual learner, too. And a strongly contextual learner — I learn best when I “see” where something fits into the big picture. More logistically, seeing the same thing expressed slightly differently in a few places tricks some primitive part of my brain into thinking it must be very important, so I remember it.

    I can only speak for myself, but what I would tell my high-school self (which probably applies to a good many kids lacking discipline and follow-through at that age… I don’t know where J fits on that spectrum) would be:

    1. Start small, but implement some kind of iron-clad daily study system that includes an overview of to-dos to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. Small-but-consistent trumps going all-out for a days before fizzling out.

    2. Don’t repress. Engage with the material. Love it. Hate it. Value how you feel, even if it seems “wrong.” Ask yourself: What’s the most important thing I learned today? What did I feel was taught or expressed well? Poorly? It’s OK to hate material. Emotion makes it easier to remember it; apathy/disengagement is the enemy, and parroting stuff back w/o a true grasp is a close second.

    3. Get the overview/cover your bases first before digging into the weeds. Skim the whole book/chapter first, a la Sacha. I’m a slow reader, and would sometimes get stuck/distracted and run out of time… it would have usually been better to have skimmed and gotten a broad sense of the topic.

    4. Use momentum. I was terrible about this before. If you’re 75% of the way to understanding a topic when you leave the classroom, study up on the rest as soon as humanly possible. Waiting a few days or weeks adds hugely to your work and stress load, not to mention leaves you with a lesser degree of understanding (usually).

    5. Find someone who understands less than you do, and tutor him/her regularly. You’ll have another reason to learn the stuff, and to teach really is to learn twice.

  • James, thanks for sharing those tips! I’ll sneak them into our conversations with J-. =) I think everyone should adopt a student and pass things along. No guarantee they’d listen — did we when we were their age? — but who knows!