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Academic Skills

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Making the Most of Lectures


Students vary greatly in what they get out of lectures. Largely, it’s a question of ‘what you get out depends on what you put in’. The more actively you listen, the better. There are some practical techniques, such as preparing for the lecture ahead of time, taking notes and following up on your notes after the lecture which can help you to get much the most out of your lectures. But first it’s a good idea to consider why universities continue the tradition of giving lectures.

What's the point of lectures?

Lectures provide an opportunity to teach a large number of students at one time. However, different lecturers use lecture-time for different purposes. It is important for students to work out what their particular lecturer is expecting of them in lectures.

In traditional lectures, university teachers use the opportunity to communicate a body of knowledge to students, and to induct them into their area of study. In other words, they ‘talk at’ their students. In this case it is appropriate for students to try to absorb as much as possible by listening carefully and taking notes.

However, many lecturers now are trying to make lectures more interactive and may require their students to participate in learning tasks during the lecture. In this case, note-taking may not be so important, but active participation is essential.

Lectures can:

  • give you an insight into what your lecturer considers to be important in the subject
  • help you to identify and understand the key concepts of the subject
  • make you think about the subject in a new way
  • stimulate you to think critically about the topic.

Note well: Lectures do not teach you everything you need to know.

Lectures are only one avenue of learning: you will also learn through participating in tutorials (or lab sessions), through discussing the subject with your classmates (for example, in a study group), and above all through reading.

Can I skip lectures?

Skipping lectures is not a good idea because:

  • you miss out on an opportunity to look at the subject from another angle
  • you may miss crucial information (about the exam, for example!)
  • you will not know how the lecturer is expecting you to approach the subject.

If you have to miss a lecture, make sure that you find out what you missed. Ask your tutor or lecturer, or a reliable classmate. Make sure you get hold of any handouts or notes that the lecturer has provided, and if possible, listen to the lecture on tape. (Some lecturers tape their lectures and make the tapes available in the short loan section in the library. Alternatively you could ask a friend to record the lecture, as long as you have the lecturer’s permission.)

Should I prepare for a lecture?

YES! It is very helpful to do some reading before a lecture. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this—browsing through the relevant chapters may be sufficient. Some lecturers put their lecture notes on the Internet; if so, you should make sure you download them and read through them before the lecture.

Preliminary reading makes it easier to understand and learn from the lecture because:

  • you can become familiar with the key vocabulary (even if you don’t understand it very clearly)
  • it gets you thinking about the topic.

What should I do during the lecture?

Be an active listener!

Lectures are not a passive way of learning; don’t simply sit and wait for the ideas to permeate your skin.

Active listening entails:

  • thinking about the topic while you listen;
  • asking yourself questions;
  • relating the new ideas to things you already know about;
  • evaluating the content of the lecture (not the delivery!);
  • working out what you understand and what you don’t understand; and
  • concentrating.

It can be very difficult to maintain concentration in lectures. Your mind can work much faster than your lecturer can deliver words—so you need to occupy your spare mental capacity with active listening rather than letting your mind wander off. In fact, everybody’s mind wanders in lectures—but watch out for daydreaming and pull your mind back on track! Here are some tips to help you:

  • Focus on what is interesting and think positively (sending yourself messages like ‘This is boring’, or ‘Why didn’t I stay home and sleep in instead of coming to this lecture’ is absolutely counter-productive).
  • Taking notes can help you stay alert.
  • A strong coffee before the lecture and some chewing gum can help too.
  • Plenty of sleep and exercise will also make your mind more able to concentrate. It’s difficult for anyone to concentrate after a heavy Bar Night!

Note-taking in lectures

Should I listen or should I take notes in lectures?

Both! Note-taking is not essential, but it can be helpful. You can probably get the main points from textbooks, handouts or the lecturer’s notes on the Internet. But note-taking can be helpful because:

  • it helps you to remember the content of the lecture
  • it gives you a framework for your revision
  • it helps you to stay alert in the lecture.

But remember—the most important thing is active listening, not note-taking.

Listening and thinking are more important than taking notes. Moreover, taking notes can sometimes prevent you from catching what the lecturer is saying.

What should I do with lecture handouts?

The lecturer’s handouts are like gold. Keep them and make sure you re-read them after the lecture. File them safely with your other materials for that subject. If possible get copies beforehand, perhaps by downloading them from the Internet. It’s a good idea to take notes by annotating the handouts.

Should I copy the overheads?

This depends. Some overheads just repeat what the lecturer is saying. In this case you are better off listening and taking notes from what he or she says. Some overheads give important keywords or definitions—in this case they are worth copying down. Overheads that give outlines are just there as a guide for your listening—use these to help you know what to write down. You can often get copies of the overheads from the Internet, from the short term loan section of the Library, or from the lecturer after the lecture.

What should I include in my notes?

That’s up to you—but do not try to write down the whole lecture!

  • Make sure that you know what the lecturer is trying to achieve (look at the title in the subject guide, and be there at the start of the lecture.)
  • Listen for the main points of the argument (if there is an outline, this will help). Usually the lecturer will slow down and emphasise a main point, and perhaps put up a new overhead.
  • Write down what you think are the important words and phrases. (Don’t worry about the spelling—you can sort that out later).
  • Don’t write full sentences; use abbreviations wherever possible.
  • Experiment with concept maps and diagrams. Visual cues can be very helpful as a memory aid.

What should I do after the lecture?

Following up after your lecture is crucial. You will soon forget what the lecture was about if you don’t:

  • Talk to someone else about the content of lecture soon afterwards (eg in the coffee shop after the lecture, or over dinner with your family or friends).
  • Revisit your notes and/or handouts within 24 hours. You should make a regular time to do this; some people rewrite or reorganise their notes.
  • Make a note of things you didn’t understand and would like to ask about in the tutorial.

It’s also an excellent idea to compare your notes with another student, or even better to form a study group to discuss the course content.

Some students like to tape-record lectures. You need a good quality recorder to do do this, and you should ask permission from the lecturer (not all lecturers are happy for you to record their lectures). Some lectures are recorded and the tapes are held in the Short Loan section of the Library.

Listening to the tapes is not a good substitute for going to the lecture, though in some cases you may be forced to do so. However, listening to the lecture for a second time may help you to understand in more detail, especially if English is not your first language.

Transcribing the tapes word by word is generally a waste of time—it keeps you busy, but does not necessarily engage your mind in thinking and learning.

Advice for students from non-English speaking backgrounds

If English is not your first language, lectures can be very difficult to understand. You will probably never understand fully. Don’t worry too much about this, because native speakers experience many of the same difficulties! And thousands of non-native speakers manage to cope with study in Australia despite their problems with listening.

  • Practice listening. If you want to work at improving your listening skills, it is a good idea to listen to as much English as possible. Listening to the same text several times (eg a recording of today’s news, a recording of your lecture, some materials borrowed from the Academic Skills Centre) is particularly helpful.
  • Recording lectures can be useful, but first ask the lecturer for permission. You will probably find as the semester goes on that you do not have enough time to spend listening and re-listening to the lectures, but at the beginning of semester it can be very helpful.
  • Work at improving your pronunciation. Listening and speaking are closely connected—if you improve your pronunciation, it will help you improve your listening, and vice versa.

Here are some of the problems which international and NESB students often meet with:

"The lecturer speaks too fast."

When you are unfamiliar with a language, it always sounds too fast when it is spoken, because all the words run into each other. Once you are used to hearing English spoken, you will gain more familiarity with the language and this will be less of a problem, in most cases.

However, some lecturers do speak too fast (this is a problem for all students, not just non-English speaking ones). So ...:

  • You could ask the lecturer to talk a little more slowly (this sometimes works!).
  • Do not try to write notes on the whole lecture, just try to get the main points.
  • Do some reading in advance to get familiar with the new vocabulary.
  • Share notes with other students—they might have noted things that you have missed.
  • See if there is a recording of the lecture in the library, or a transcript on the lecturer's Internet page or WebCT.

"I don't know enough vocabulary."

Again, this is a matter of familiarity with the language.

  • Read as much as you can.
  • Always have a dictionary with you (but don't consult it during a  lecture).
  • Keep a notebook of new terms.

"Different lecturers have different pronunciation."

Yes, they do. Once you have decided that it is the lecturer's pronunciation, and not your lack of knowledge, that is creating a difficulty, you might be able to discover where he or she comes from and find out the characteristics of speech from that part of the world. (Ask The Academic Skills team.) You won't be able to change the way the lecturer speaks, but you might get to understand him or her better.

"Some lecturers use strange idioms."

Yes, this can make it very difficult for non-native speakers to understand. You can widen your knowledge of idiomatic English by chatting with Australians as often as possible and by watching Australian TV programs. Soap operas can be useful for language learning!

"I don’t have enough cultural background knowledge about Australia."

It is often difficult for lecturers to remember that students who have not been in Australia for long have a pool of general knowledge very different from Australian students. The difference between the Commonwealth and the Federal government for example, can be very confusing (actually they mean the same!). If you do not understand or you feel confused, keep asking questions! Remember that The Academic Skills team provide friendly and helpful advise.

In conclusion, don’t be too anxious about your listening. Your listening will improve with exposure to the language especially if you:

  • read widely (especially in preparation for lectures),
  • learn as much vocabulary as possible,
  • expose yourself to idiomatic English, and
  • work on your own pronunciation.