Unlike lessons at school, a lecture can have up to a few hundred people in attendance. Lecture halls are typically full of tiered seating – a bit like going to the cinema – all facing a whiteboard or projector. The lecturer will stand at the front and deliver a presentation on a particular topic, while the students take notes on their laptops, in a notebook, or perhaps by recording the lecture on their phones to return to later. Most lectures last for approximately one hour. Depending on their style, or the topic, the lecturer may pose questions to the room or ask you to interact with the people either side of you. Remember that a lecture won’t tell you everything there is to know about the subject, since it is only meant as an introduction to the topic. Lecturers intend you to go away and research the topic in more depth before starting your projects or attending your workshops, labs and seminars.
Before your lecture you are usually given a brief overview on what it will be about. It’s a good idea to research the subject in advance so that you will be able to concentrate on what the lecturer is saying – otherwise you might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they are relaying to you. Sometimes you will be required to complete tasks or reading before attending the lecture. If you don’t complete that task then you’re likely to spend a lot of the lecture trying to catch up with or understand what the lecturer is talking about.
Think about and write down the questions you might want to ask in the lecture. If the lecturer covers your query that’s great, but if they don’t you can always ask them during or after the lecture at an appropriate time.
It’s up to you how you make your notes – if you make any at all – but whether it’s with a laptop or pen and paper, make sure you’re prepared. Bring plenty of paper and more than one pen, or a laptop with full charge. You’ll be sitting there for a while, so a bottle of water is also a good idea.
When you’ve got back-to-back lectures, you may be sitting on a wooden bench for most of the day, so don’t make yourself suffer any more than you have to. Instead, take a cushion with you to make yourself more comfortable while you learn. If you don’t want to lug a cumbersome cushion around with you on campus all day, buy an inflatable one that fits easily into your bag.
Discreet snacks are OK, but don’t become the phantom rustler who is always delving into some snack packaging just as the lecturer is making a fantastic point.
If you’re suffering with freshers’ flu, or just an old-fashioned cold, carry a pack of tissues in your bag. The only thing worse than sniffing your way through your Be respectful and listen, just as you would when anyone is speaking, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Lecturers welcome interaction and it helps to build a rapport with them if you express an interest in their subject. If you’d rather not disrupt the flow or put up your hand in front of everyone, go up to your lecturer at the end to chat about the things that interested or puzzled you. Most lecturers leave time for this, but, if that’s not possible, think about making an appointment to talk to them one-to-one.
Think about the method of learning that best suits you. The most common approach to absorbing information during lectures is to take notes. Some people find that the act of writing down information helps them to remember it. You don’t have to take notes, particularly if you find that it distracts you or stresses you out. Sometimes just listening lets you mull things over more clearly – although check that the notes are available on the university’s hub so you can revise them later. If you’re averse to using notes, but are worried about forgetting some details, perhaps download a recording app onto your phone so that you can make audio notes.
If you use a laptop in lectures, one of the positives is that you can search for anything related to the topic your lecturer is speaking about. Universities usually have fabulous connectivity (usually in the form of a leased line) which means you have everything quickly avaiable to you. One of the negatives is that the whole world is at your fingertips, including a lot of distracting websites. To make sure you stay focused on the lecture, you can download computer software to temporarily block the websites that send you into the depths of distraction. Most products do cost a small amount, but it’ll be well worth it when you pass with flying colours.
It is up to you how many, or how few, notes you decide to make, but you will come to realise what’s important and what can be left out. Don’t try to write every word because it will slow you down – and you’ll end up with a set of indecipherable notes as well as having missed parts of the lecture itself.
Jot down the key words and phrases, and any books or sources that you want to investigate further. Use headings, bullet points and abbreviations (see next page) as a good way to condense the most important material. Using a list, rather than a continuous block of words, will make it easier to find information quickly when you return to your notes later.
If your lecturer is waxing lyrical about their time spent researching in the rainforest, for example, you might be able to sit back and listen to the anecdote before noting down a short summary. On the other hand, if they are directly quoting a key thinker, try your best to write it verbatim; but be careful to use quotation marks and add the source so you don’t accidentally plagiarise.