A feature of university learning is that many courses are delivered via a series of lectures and tutorials. To get the most out of this combination, you need to be an independent and active learner.
What are lectures?
Lectures are formal structured presentations given to large numbers of students. In a typical lecture, students listen and take notes while a lecturer speaks.
Lectures are usually held in large rooms (lecture theatres) and can last for one or two hours. Depending on the course, a lecturer may use slides or film, sound recordings or other media.
What is the purpose of lectures?
Lectures provide students with an overview of essential knowledge in a subject area and a starting point for further reading and research.
Can I ask questions in lectures?
It varies. Some lecturers prefer to speak without interruption, others like interaction and encourage questions. If you’re not sure what your lecturer prefers, save your questions for the end of the lecture.
If you ask a question during a lecture, make sure it is relevant to the topic. Don’t interrupt—raise your hand to catch the lecturer’s attention.
Is it important to attend lectures?
Absolutely. After the structured environment of high school, it can be tempting to skip lectures, especially when attendance isn’t recorded. But don’t get into this habit—lectures cover the key concepts and information that form the building blocks of your course.
- you will miss the all-important topic overview.
- you might miss crucial information (about assignments or course admin).
- exams are usually based on lecture material; miss too many and you’ll have a lot of extra work to do later.
If you have to miss a lecture, make sure you catch up—and do it soon so you don’t fall behind.
- Listen to lecture recordings online.
- Get copies of lecture slides or handouts.
- Ask another student what you missed. Ask for a copy of their notes.
Making lectures easier to follow
- Know what the lecture will be about. Check your course outline for weekly topics.
- Do any recommended pre-reading
- If lecture slides are available before class, download them. If you take notes by hand, print them out and annotate them.
- Review your notes from previous lectures. There may be links between topics.
- Set up notebooks/ documents for note taking. At the top of each page write the date, the week and lecture number, the title of the lecture and the course name. If you’re using a laptop, prepare a document template along the same lines.
Before the lecture
- Arrive early and find a seat before the lecture starts. Don’t be late - missing the introduction can make it hard to catch up.
- Arrive well equipped. Make sure that you have enough paper and functioning pens etc. or enough laptop battery power to enable you to take notes.
- Sit near the front, or where you can hear and see clearly. This helps you concentrate and avoid distractions.
- Turn the volume down on any devices you take into lectures. Put your phone away and ‘on silent’ before the lecture begins. You’ll focus more effectively and won’t distract everyone else.
During the lecture
Listen Actively and Think Critically
Analysing and questioning helps you focus and better assimilate information. Ask yourself:
- What aspects of the topic are discussed (or not discussed)?
- What are the main ideas and key points? How do they fit with what I already know?
- Where do they fit in to the course and the assignment questions?
- What questions do I have? What do I find difficult to understand?
What to listen for
- Listen carefully to introductory remarks. Lectures often begin with a useful overview of the key ideas or themes of a particular topic. This helps you grasp the ‘big picture’.
- Listen for verbal ‘signposts’ that indicate something important is about to be said. Lecturers often emphasise key information with phrases like: “There are four main aspects” or “To sum up”. They may slow down, change tone, or repeat an important point.
- Listen carefully to the final remarks. Most lectures conclude with a summary, a restatement of the main ideas and an indication of how the topic connects with upcoming material.
You find it difficult to maintaining concentration during lectures, you’re not alone. Everybody’s mind wanders at times, so you need to actively remind yourself to listen and focus:
- Think positively. Dwelling on how ‘boring’ the lecture is or thinking about what you could be doing instead won’t help your concentration or your morale. Try to stay in the moment and listen to what is being said.
- Eat something or have a coffee - hunger pangs and low blood sugar make it hard to concentrate.
- Get plenty of sleep and exercise.
- Resist the temptation to go online during the lecture. It’s far too distracting and a waste of time you’ll only have to make up later.
Take notes (even if lecture slides are available). Taking notes is not only a way to record information, it helps you listen, remember and stay focused. Good notes are also crucial for exam revision.
Don’t leave or start packing up before the lecture is finished. Not only is it distracting for others, you can miss important concluding remarks or the opportunity to ask questions.
What should useful lecture notes have?
- Key concepts, ideas and main points
- Important examples
- Definitions and new vocabulary
- Any references the lecturer provides
- Anything you don’t understand (difficult concepts or unfamiliar terms)
- Your thoughts, questions, and ideas
Should I focus on taking notes or listening to the lecture?
Some students take a lot of notes, others prefer to simply listen. It’s best to do both, but don’t focus on getting everything down to the extent that you miss what the lecturer is saying—remember that actively listening and thinking are what is important.
Should I make notes from lecture slides?
Lectures slides are usually an outline of the lecture content. They guide your listening and help you identify the key topics and concepts. But information on slides is usually very limited compared to what the lecturer says, so don’t confine your note taking to simply copying them—it’s more effective to listen to the lecture and take notes from that. Most lecturers make their slides available before class, so print them out and take additional notes when the lecturer adds information.
Tips for Note taking
- Be selective. Remember that you don’t have to transcribe the entire lecture. Listen for the overall argument and note the main points and key information.
- Make notes in your own words—it helps you to understand and better absorb what you hear.
- Structure your notes with headings, subheadings and numbered lists.
- Use phrases rather than complete sentences, and abbreviations or symbols.
- If you miss something, leave a space on the page and fill it in later.
- Leave space for your own notes and comments.
See The Learning Centre’s guide Note-taking skills
After the lecture
Following up after lectures is important - it’s the best way to retain information and end up with a set of notes that are useful for exam preparation. Try the following strategies sometime during the 24 hours following the lecture:
Whether it’s in a tutorial or in the coffee shop, talk to someone else about the lecture content.
Review your notes while the lecture is fresh in your mind. Reviewing helps you remember what was said, builds up your understanding, and helps identify gaps in your knowledge.
- Read through your notes. Make sure they are clear and legible.
- Fill in missing words or information and add anything extra that you may have thought of since the lecture.
- Clean them up - fix spelling mistakes, expand on abbreviations, tidy up handwriting (if necessary).
- Explain and clarify diagrams by writing a simple version of their meaning.
- Identify anything that needs further clarification.
Write a quick reflection to gather your thoughts. Use a separate notebook or follow on from your lecture notes. Ask yourself:
- What were the main arguments? How do they fit into the subject area? How do they relate to assignment questions?
- What examples were given? How do they help me make sense of the information?
- What questions do I still have? What do I find confusing or difficult? How can I move towards understanding?
Label and file your notes along with any lecture handouts.
Review all your notes regularly. Spending 15 minutes reading through notes once a week can help you retain what you have learned. Reviewing once a week will make your life much easier when the time comes for exam revision.