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Introduction to university study: Lectures

"The knowledge that you gain from lectures supports the knowledge that you gain from reading, and conversely, the knowledge that you gain from reading makes lectures easier to understand.”

Jean Brick, Nick Wilson, Deanna Wong and Maria Herke, Academic Success

Attending lectures and making effective notes are key to your success at university. Missing the odd lecture is not going to mean failure but attending regularly will mean you can participate in tutorials, seminars or practicals more effectively - which can be hugely beneficial to your learning. Many academics also use the lecture as an opportunity to give hints and tips about upcoming assessments so you don't want to miss those!

The purpose of a lecture

The purpose of a lecture is not to give you all the information you need to pass your module. Lectures are starting points for your own independent reading which can help you develop as a learner and inform your thinking for future assessments. Lectures are used for a variety of reasons:

To give an overview of a subject, or to see the bigger picture. in which case you will need to use your reading to fill in the detail.

To cover an important detail, in which case you will need to use your reading to put it into context and get the bigger picture.

To cover a conceptual idea and give one or two examples of it in practice - you will need to use your reading to find more examples to ensure you have grasped the concept fully.

To show how theories or concepts can be applied to real life. In which case you should use your reading to find more examples or reflect on your own experiences to see how they can be applied.

Whatever the purpose, you will need to be able to listen actively and make effective notes - we have a Notetaking SkillsGuide to help you with this as well as information on Notetaking Software.

Getting the most from lectures

To really make the most of your lectures, there are things to think about before, during and after each one:

Before the lecture

Required reading

open book

Sometimes a lecturer will give you reading to undertake before a lecture - check Canvas and your Reading Lists to make sure you are not missing out on important groundwork.

Advance access to slides

Computer with PowerPoint slides

Most lecturers put their PowerPoint slides on Canvas before the lecture. It is worth looking through them beforehand to see how it fits in with the module as a whole. You can familiarise yourself with any specialist vocabulary - perhaps looking up some terms you are not sure about.

Slides printed out on paper

Some students like to print these as handouts to take into the lecture so that they can annotate them with their own notes. (See the Notetaking SkillsGuide.)

Forgive yourself for under-preparation

students sitting in lecture

There are many reasons why you may have not prepared, but even if you have not done the preparation, don't think that there is no point attending the lecture. This can become a slippery slope. If you decide not to attend you will miss out on both opportunities you had to learn rather than just one. Turning up is half the battle!

Check if technology can help

Laptop and iPadThere are many apps that can help with taking lecture notes - specific notetaking apps, audio recorders and mindmapping tools. Some of these need a little practice to get used to, so download in advance and have a play before you use them in earnest. Check out our Notetaking Software SkillsGuide for some ideas.

During the lecture


notebook and pen

Many students think that their only job in a lecture is to try to write down as much of the lecturer's words as possible. Effective notetaking is important but it is not the most important thing. Your main job is to listen and understand!

We have a Notetaking SkillsGuide which looks at notetaking techniques for your lectures and for your reading.

Asking questions

students asking questionsAt the end of most lectures (and often during) the lecturer will ask if anyone has a question or if further clarification is needed.

Please do not hesitate to use this opportunity to ask a question about anything you did not understand. This is a time when your lecturer is available and giving you their full attention. It is a cliché, but true, that the only dumb questions are the ones you didn't ask. You will be amazed how often there is a collective sigh of relief when someone asks the question that everyone was too afraid to ask!

Smiley faceYour lecturers are not scary and they are not judgemental, they are (usually) nice, friendly people! It is important that you develop a good relationship with them. Asking questions is a way to show you are genuinely interested in their subject and they will be happy to answer them.

If you are really too scared, make sure you at least ask other students or email the lecturer instead. If PASS is being used to support the module, make a note to ask about it at your next PASS session.

HandbookYou can also check your reading list or look in the library catalogue to see if there is a text book that may help with anything you are struggling to understand.

After the lecture

Reviewing notes

Eyes and notebookIf you want to significantly increase the amount of lecture content that you remember, it is essential that you review your notes in some way within 24-48 hours of the lecture.

Ways that you can review notes are:

  • Summarise the information (see the section on the Cornell method on our Notetaking SkillsGuide) into a single paragraph of text.
  • Create a 'best copy' of your notes, filling in any blanks and answering your own queries by referring to text books or web sources or going back over any audio recordings.
  • Creating mind-maps or concept-maps that show how the ideas relate to each other (some students find this is easier done after the lecture).

For the very best recall and understanding, you should revisit material about a week later too (immediately before the next lecture for instance). If you are lucky enough to have PASS in your department then make sure you attend your PASS session to deepen and cement your learning.

Seminars, tutorials, practicals and field work all give you opportunities to review the material too.

files and foldersFinally, do something with your notes. Don't just leave them in the notepad, lurking on your laptop or clogging up your device memory.

File paper notes into appropriate folders, make sure any notes you have made on your mobile devices or laptop are stored in well labelled electronic folders and send information from your devices to more permanent storage.

Don't just neglect the notes and only think to look back at them when you are panicking about your revision.

Panopto recordings

Most lectures are now recorded and made available via Panopto. This shows the on-screen presentation with an audio recording of the lecturer's voice. These recordings are available so that:

  • If you are ill or cannot attend a lecture, you can catch up with things you missed.Panopto logo
  • You can go over things again if you need them for assignments or during your revision time.
  • If you have a specific learning difference, you can watch the lecture again at your own pace.

These recordings are not substitutes for attending. There is no option for interaction and you will miss out on any activities that may be part of the lecturer's carefully designed sessions.

Printable guide

A single page printable guide with our top 6 tips for better lecture notes.

Click on the link above or the image to download the PDF.