The ABC Study Guide, University education in plain English alphabetically indexed. Click here to go to the main index, or the ABC image for the cover


"It is nerve racking to be in a lecture when you feel you are the only person who is confused" (Student expressing a common feeling)

Lectures often are confusing. Treat this as a challenge. Hold on to what you do understand, and develop this. If you do not understand anything, why not talk to the lecturer? If you make notes (or are given notes), use them to go over issues and to research further. Discussing points from the lecture with other students will help to develop your own ideas.

Listening to lectures

It is more important to listen and try to understand a lecture than it is to take notes. Sometimes you may be better employed listening than writing.

Listening to a lecture should be an active process. You are not a tape turning on a recording machine, recording passively what the lecturer is saying. You are a student with your own research programme: your own list of questions that you are mentally asking the lecturer and your own ideas about what you want to get out of the lecture.

There are almost as many different lecturing styles as there are lecturers; and different lectures may have quite different purposes.

Learning to get something useful out of the most unpromising lecture is a basic study skill everyone should learn. Try to find out the advantages of different lecturers' styles by discussing lectures with other students. You may find that the lecture one person found boring and uninspired struck another as a very systematic survey of the field, or the lecture one person found rambling may have lit up the subject for another student.

Talking to lecturers

If lecturers want students to understand them, but students sit quietly and do not admit that they do not understand, there can be no improvement in lectures. Lecturers need active students. If you do not understand a point, it is quite possible others do not either. Please talk to lecturers about what you do not understand. Most will be grateful.

Talking about lectures

Is there anything in the lecture that you can discuss with other people. Dialogue will develop your ideas much more than just listening. You may have noticed how difficult it is to recall what a lecturer said, when you are asked. Talking (or writing) about the issues makes them part of your own thinking.

Lecture Notes

Taking notes in lectures is a complex skill. Someone listening to a lecture may be trying to do all these things at once:

Listen  Understand  Condense  Write  Remember

So you should not be cross with yourself if it takes time and practice to learn.

Suggestions for note-taking in lectures

Start on a new sheet of A4 paper and only write on one side to make
organising and editing your notes easier.

Identify the lecture. Write the course name, lecturer's name, date and subject of the lecture at the top of the page.

Do not try to write down everything

Think about how the purpose of the lecture affects your notes. If the lecture is supposed to illustrate material you already have in printed form you may not need notes.

Observe the structure of the lecture. Sometimes the lecturer displays a lecture outline on the overhead projector or just says its order. Sometimes you will have to recognise for yourself the pattern of the lecture.

Use structure clues to organise your notes. If the structure of the lecture is clear it is easy to make sequential notes with headings and subheadings and points listed under each.

When the structure is not explicit - draw lines. If the structure is unclear you can use lines to connect items. A word or phrase that you put down can have other items leading off it as if the first item was a spider in the middle of a web. (Hence spidergraph)

Use keywords. Listen for key words and phrases that you can use as headings. When you are consolidating your notes you can look them up in dictionaries and text books.

Concentrate on the substance. You can leave out examples and illustrations if you understand the substance.

Take down any references given (unless they are already included in a handout or course book).

If you use abbreviations: use a consistent system that you will be able to understand when you read your notes.

Keep your notes as legible, clean and tidy as you need them to be to be useable.


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Lecture Notes

Listening to lectures

Talking to lecturers

Organise notes

Use notes

Value notes