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International students: Lectures

Starting at any university is a major step in life. Students who speak English as a second language and who are studying in a new country are taking an even bigger step. How do we choose our subjects? Can we go and talk with the lecturers? What about making friends? In this section, you will find handy tips and suggestions on overcoming the challenges that international students may face.

The content in this section has been taken from Study Skills for Speakers of English as a Second Language by Marilyn Lewis and Hayo Reinders.

Based on interviews with international students and their teachers, this book offers straightforward advice on academic topics such as language use, as well as social topics and the culture of British universities. It also contains a helpful mini-dictionary of university words, and so will be an ideal guide for any international student studying in an English-speaking university.

Listening to lectures

Because lectures call for such a different type of listening, students often encounter problems. Be ready for these and plan ways to beat them.

Understanding a "new" accent

One difficulty students have in listening to lectures is understanding a "new" accent. Maybe your high school English teacher talked with one kind of accent and now your lecturers use a different one. In English speaking universities the staff come from many different countries and from different parts of the same country. This means that even though they are all speaking English it may take a week or two to get used to their voices.


  1. Look at the lecture topic on the course outline. Do you understand the title?
  2. Find out the meaning of the topic before the lecture.
  3. Read the textbook chapter on the topic.
  4. Think about the questions you think the lecturer will be answering.

Understanding fast talkers

A second problem can be the speed of the lecturer's talking. Some students don't even know if what they are writing down is one word or two.

Handy tips

  1. Ask if you can record the lecture. Some lecturers allow recordings but others don't.
  2. Try to note key points like names, statistics and dates.
  3. Use a capital letter instead of writing the key word every time it is mentioned. For example if the lecture is about water pressure just write WP each time.
  4. Make up your own shorthand system for common words. Here are some that are commonly used. There are many more and we suggest reading more about taking notes so that you become efficient at it.

    & = and
    # = number
    A = B = A equals B
    A -> B = A leads to B
    @ = at
  5. Use plenty of space on the page as you take your notes. Make lists and sketches. You can add details later from your textbook.
  6. Write down what you think you hear. Then later try saying it aloud if it doesn't make sense. Perhaps "be low" is really "below" for example.

Understanding jokes

As you will know from your own language, jokes depend on knowing a lot of things that are not said as well as understanding the words that are said. They also depend on the speaker and the listeners finding the same things funny. What sounds funny in one place may sound stupid in another.


It is annoying to see other people laughing while you don't know why, but think of this. Some of the students who are laughing may not understand the joke either. People sometimes laugh along with the others just to look good. One day as you learn more about the country and its famous people, the names and events that everyone knows about and as your English improves, you will understand the jokes too. It just takes time.

Getting used to a different system

If you have changed countries to go to university then you are getting used to many new things: the food, the culture, and of course the language. You might think that in lectures things will feel the same, but that is not always the case. Listen to these students.

Our lecturers at home helped us to take notes. They used to write a list of points on the board. That way you knew which was point 1, point 2 and so on. Here they just keep going on and on so you don't know where the next point came.

We used to listen to our teachers without writing because they would hand out notes or say "That's all in Chapter 8.". Here, if you don't get it down you're lost.

Why don't they speak slowly? Our teachers used to dictate the notes.

The problem here is you can't expect the same thing from all the lecturers. They all have their own styles.

Handy tips

  1. Time is probably the best way to overcome the problem that everything about lectures seems difficult and strange.
  2. Talking with other people, including native speakers of English, will remind you that other people have similar problems.

Listening, looking and writing at the same time

Students say that writing and listening at the same time is a problem. “How can I write fast enough to take down all the important bits?”, they ask. Actually you need to be doing three things: listening, writing and looking because while lecturers are talking they may also be writing on the board, pointing to overhead transparencies or  showing slides. Maybe there are handouts as well. In that case listen to what the lecturer says about the handouts. Are they the same as the lecture or something extra?


Looking up from your note-taking from time to time is important as you will find clues from the way the lecturer moves around.

Finding links between the lecture and the textbook

If you are better at reading English than at listening to it, then you may notice that the words the lecturer says are sometimes different from the words in your textbook. The important words for the subject are the same, but not all the words that join the ideas. The same thing is likely to happen in your language. People write in a slightly different way from the way they speak.

Handy tips

  1. Read the textbook chapter before the lecture.
  2. If you can't do that, read it soon afterwards looking at your notes to see how they match.

Asking questions in lectures

When can I ask a question?

The usual time to ask questions is when the lecturer asks for them. That may be at the beginning, during, or towards the end of the class. In large lectures not many students interrupt with a question while the lecturer is talking. Listen for the lecturer to invite questions in words as shown in the table below.

The lecturer says...

Last week we discussed…Does anyone have any questions about that… ?


This question comes at the start of the lecture. If you have read your lecture notes and still don't understand them, now is the time to ask.

Is everything clear so far?

This question comes during the lecture. You can ask about something the lecturer has just said.

Would anyone like me to go over that once more?

Here the lecturer has explained something difficult. If you didn't understand, now is the time to ask.

Does that help?

This question follows the lecturer's answer to a question. Students usually say "Yes thanks" but if they haven't understood this is the time to ask.

Sometimes you are not sure whether or not to ask a question. Maybe the lecturer says:

Now if that’s clear we’ll move on to the next topic…

without stopping talking long enough for anyone to put up their hand. Then look at the 'body language'. If lecturers put down their notes and look round the class that probably means they really do want questions.

Some students always wait until the class is finished to ask their questions. You often see a little crowd at the front waiting to ask questions that the lecturer was ready to answer earlier. If there is time for questions in class, then that's the best time to ask because everybody can hear the answers and because there is very little time at the end of class. If the room is needed for the next class your questions have to be answered quickly or in the corridor. Also the lecturer may have to go to teach somewhere else. If you still have an unanswered question then you are better to contact the lecturer at another time.

Let's say that the lecturer has invited questions and you have something to ask. What happens next? How do you know if it's your turn to ask a question? Just watch for the first couple of weeks and you'll soon see what everyone else is doing. In small classes the student might look at the lecturer and then the lecturer names that person, but in bigger classes the most common way of getting a turn is:

  1. Put up your hand.
  2. Wait for the lecturer to point to you.
  3. Call out your question clearly when your turn comes.

Usually lecturers answer the question immediately. Occasionally, though, they might say something like this, "Good question. We're coming to that in a few minutes". Perhaps the lecturer will check first how many people want an explanation by asking "How many of you would like me to explain that?". If nobody else puts up a hand, the lecturer might ask the questioner to stay for a moment at the end.

What sort of questions do students ask during lectures?

Questions about details

If you don't understand a word or phrase that is repeated during the lecture and seems to be important, then you can ask:

What does … mean ?

Do you mean by X… ?

Other questions remind the lecturer that something has not been quite clear. Notice the word 'please' in the second sentence below, which is often used in English to show politeness. Students who don't have a word like this in their own language think that English speakers overuse it, but it's a quick way of making yourself sound polite and friendly.

Would you mind explaining the point about…?

Could you say that last bit again please?

Questions about the textbook

Lecturers like questions that show students have been thinking and reading between classes. Here are some examples:

On page…of the course book it says… How is that related to today's lecture?

Could you explain the point about… in our book?

What sort of questions is it better not to ask?

Some students ask a question that has just been answered. This can happen if you have been waiting for some time to ask your question and have forgotten to listen to what the lecturer is saying while you wait for your turn. Students also ask questions which have been answered in other ways, such as asking "When is the next assignment due?" when the date is written on the board. Some questions are better asked in tutorials such as asking about the lecturer's feelings or personal opinions:

How do you feel about…?

What do you think about…?

What if my English is weak?

Some students who speak English as a second language worry that nobody will understand their questions. Here are three ideas for asking clear questions.

Speak loudly

In a large lecture room you need to speak up. When people feel shy about their English they sometimes whisper their questions and the lecturer has to ask them to repeat what they have said. If you want to be heard the first time round, speak loudly.

Make the question short and simple

Clear questions are usually short. Plenty of native speakers of English ask questions that are unclear because they are too complicated. Look at the difference between these two questions:

I was wondering about what you just said and I was thinking that maybe that's why…. but on the other hand maybe it's not.

Is that why………?

In the first example the student is really thinking aloud rather than asking a question. This kind of thinking is helpful in a tutorial where there is time for people to think and to hear one another's views.

Keep to the topic

Try to make your question on today's topic rather than one that will be covered in one of the next lectures. Again, tutorials are the place for asking more general questions.

Don't worry about your English

When you ask a question, the lecturer is interested in what you are saying rather than how you are saying it.


Speaking in tutorials

Many students sit in a tutorial week after week without saying anything. Why is that? Maybe they do not know the purpose of a tutorial. They think it is like a small lecture where the tutor gives them information. Even if students do know what a tutorial is for, there can be other reasons why they keep quiet.

Language worries

People who speak English as a second language often think other people won't understand them. They say:

My English isn't very good. When I speak it's hard for people to follow. It's better if I keep quiet.

It's easy to think that nobody understands you. However, if you stop speaking then you will never improve. It's better to have someone say "I beg your pardon." so that you can try again than to keep quiet for ever. Everyone has times when people don't understand them. It's a part of communication. Just try saying the same thing in a slightly different way.

A common reason for not speaking is shyness. You probably think that all the students who speak English as their first language feel confident all the time but they don't. They can also worry about shyness. If everybody thought about problems of understanding and shyness in tutorials there would be no interesting talk and less understanding of the whole topic.

When you speak, people are interested in what you say more than how you say it. Speak clearly and say something short the first time if you want to build up your confidence.

The tutor doesn't include everyone

Unfortunately some tutors do not make it easy for everyone to join in. Sometimes they are so pleased to have anyone speaking that they forget to include all students. As a member of the group you can do something about this. Don't wait to be asked; just speak. Remember that tutors who are actually senior students themselves may feel just as nervous as the students, especially at the start of the academic year.

Inter-cultural communication

Another reason why some students say very little in tutorials relates to different ‘rules’ for talking in different cultures. As two students said:

I don't know when it's my turn to speak.

Every time I leave a space before speaking, someone else comes in and fills that space.

It's not always clear who is supposed to be speaking and how to get a turn. Here are the three most common ways people get a turn:

  • Look at the tutor so he or she knows you are ready to speak.
  • Start speaking as soon as the last person stops speaking.
  • Say "Can I say something?".

Feeling stupid

Many students new to university think:

I've got nothing important to say. If I try to speak people will laugh at my ideas.

Everyone here is smarter than me. What if I say something stupid or wrong?

In every group there are students who think like this. The advice of a student who used to feel stupid but now take their turns at speaking is this:

At first I started speaking really quietly and just said a few words. Then I found out that I wasn't any more stupid than everyone else. I wasn't cleverer either. Just somewhere in the middle.

Ways of joining in tutorials

Now you have identified why some people stay quiet in tutorials, perhaps try exploring the following ways to join in:

Agree with the last speaker

The most common (and the easiest) way of keeping the talk going is to agree with what someone else is saying. Say something like That’s right, Yes, Okay or even Uhuh. Even if you do not feel ready to speak up yourself you can agree by saying something like this:

I was thinking that myself.

Yes, I know what you mean.

Add information

Of course if everyone simply said "That’s right" the tutorial would soon stop. You can add to the last speaker's remark to keep the topic going. Try saying one of these:

Yes, that reminds me…

I have another example of that …

There's something about that in Chapter …

Ask for more information

If you are interested in what another student has just said, ask for more information:

Do you have any other examples of that point?

What do you mean by…?

Are you saying that…?

What does that mean exactly?

Sorry, I don't quite get your meaning.

Give opinions

What do you think about the topic being discussed? Putting your opinions into words is another way of keeping a discussion going. Opinions are usually introduced with phrases like these:

I think…

It seems to me…

In my opinion…

Your opinions don't have to be permanent; in fact many people use language that shows they are not absolutely sure:

I was wondering if…

Do you think that perhaps…

Just supposing that…

It could be that…

Maybe it’s …

Disagree with something

Part of tutorial discussions is disagreeing with a point someone has just made. This is not quarrelling, as some students think. As we saw in the examples about giving opinions, the person disagreeing may not even be sure that he or she does disagree. Putting doubts into words is one way of finding out what you think yourself and thinking of new ideas as a group. For example, you can say:

That doesn't seem right to me.

Maybe…but I think it’s more likely that…

Sorry. I don't agree. I think…

Show interest in what the last person has said

Even if you have nothing new to say yourself, you can keep the conversation going by showing interest like this:


Is that true?

Learn from others

When you are at a tutorial, start listening to the ways students join in. Here are some points to watch for.

  • How do people get a turn to talk?
  • How do they show that they are listening to one another?
  • How long does each person usually speak for?
  • What words do they use to question other people’s ideas?
  • What words show they are not sure if their own ideas are right?