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Learning from lectures

Home > Study skills > Learning strategies > Learning from lectures

The purpose of lectures

Lectures are an opportunity to find out how one lecturer makes sense of the wealth of information and research that has been undertaken on a topic. A good lecturer will use the lecture to give you an overview of the main themes, develop your understanding of the issues, guide you on how to find out more about the subject and the reading you need to undertake. You may also gain details of relevant current issues, explanations of complex material or questions to answer that develop your own thinking and research. The aim is not usually to give you a definitive and comprehensive set of 'facts' on the subject. You are expected to supplement the lecture with reading and interpretations of your own.

Lectures that develop understanding

The finer details of the subject should be available in lecture hand-outs, web-pages or in the recommended reading. This should mean that you do not have to spend the time in the lecture making detailed notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:

  • focus on listening to the lecture
  • note how the different themes or issues interconnect, so you gain a good overall grasp of the subject
  • make a brief note of key themes
  • note any additional references
  • read about the subject of the lecture before and after in order to pick up details

Information-rich lectures

Some lecturers will use the lecture to bombard you with information and expect you to take this in at speed. If so, most people will find it difficult to listen and take detailed notes, and it is unlikely that anybody will have a complete set of lecture notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:

1. Browse through relevant text books before the lecture. This will give you an idea of what information is in the books - and which you may not need to note in the lecture. You can come back to this after the lecture.

2. It is hard to make sense of lectures where information content is high. Reading something about the subject in advance will help to make more sense of what is said.

3. Listen carefully for topic headings and references so that you can chase missing information after the lecture.

4. Resist the temptation to write everything down if you can avoid this. It is very hard to catch a complete set of lecture notes.

5. Form a group and go through the lecture notes so you can fill in gaps. Between you, you will have most of the information you need and discussing the notes will help you to understand the subject.

Top tips for learning from lectures

Before the lecture

  • prepare for lectures - find out what is in the books on the subject so that you are aware of what you do not need to note in the lecture
  • form an opinion about the subject of the lecture
  • set yourself questions and leave spaces to have these answered during the lecture

During the lecture

  • listen to 'make sense' rather than to make notes
  • listen for 'signposts' about what is coming next or for summaries of key points
  • listen for answers to questions you set in advance
    write yourself questions so you can trace answers and information after the lecture
  • make brief notes of essential points

After the lecture

  • read your notes and fill in any gaps
  • discuss the lecture with other people
  • consider how the lecture changed or developed your opinions of the subject
  • label and file your notes


The Study Skills Handbook For more advice, see attending lectures and seminars and for further information please see Chapter 6 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.