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How to get the most out of university lectures

Students in a lecture theatre

Lectures are designed to be useful starting points for research, giving a general overview of the subject, its main ideas and theories, and evidence from recent research. Together, these will guide your own reading and reflection.

Before the lecture

  • Get a feel for the subject. Read (or just flick through) a book on the subject of the lecture. Look for themes, issues, topics and headings. Look up any technical words you don’t understand.
  • Write down questions you want answered. Leave space to write the answers under each  question either during or after the lecture.
  • Jot down your own opinion. Notice if it changes during the lecture.
  • Glance through your notes for the previous lecture, and look for links with the next lecture.
  • Arrive early and with all the stationery and equipment you need.

During the lecture

Lecturers vary about whether they prefer questions during or after the lecture. They usually go quite quickly, and expect you to jot down main themes and references.

  • To focus attention, listen for clues as to where the lecture is going. For example: ‘There are three distinct processes involved in …’, ‘Now, I want to examine …’ or ‘Why did this happen?’
  • Good lecturers tell you at the beginning which main topics will be covered and in which order, or write up headings.
  • Take notes of headings, questions, sub-points, and references.
  • Avoid writing details you can easily get later from a textbook. Keep your attention for your listening. If you are not clear where information comes from, ask.
  • In your head, challenge what the lecturer says: this will help to focus your attention. ‘Is this always the case?’, ‘How representative is this?’, ‘Why is this?’, ‘What evidence is their?’, ‘Do I agree?’
  • Indicate new questions raised by the lecture in a different colour.

After the lecture

  • Label and file your lecture notes and any handouts.
  • Read through your notes. Fill in details from your reading or research.
  • Link new information to what you already know.
  • Discuss the lecture with others. Compare your notes and fill in any gaps.
  • Whilst the content of the lecture is still fresh in your mind do some background reading to consolidate what you have learnt.

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