Being smart about lectures

I won’t pretend that university is anything other than hard work. I have heard it likened to a gym membership where paying your monthly fee will not of itself get you fit. You have to put the work in to see the benefit. And if you don’t, it won’t help at all! Your lecturers will provide you with materials and (hopefully) insightful, fascinating lectures. You have to do the rest. And I have found that many students struggle to work what “doing the rest” actually means – and I was one of them! So I have a mission to help students understand what they need to do in order to get the most out of university. So, never mind whether your university has told you to do this sort of thing or not, you definitely do need to know it!


It might seem a little odd to devote effort to writing about lectures. Surely all you need to do is turn up, have something to write on and stay awake? This certainly seems to be the attitude amongst many students. Maybe they just haven’t been told what they should be doing. One thing is for sure; if you take that attitude you are going to really struggle to do well at university. So this blog will debunk some misunderstandings and show you the important things you need to be doing.

But first, most students have been taught through the medium of Lessons before they come to university. These are interactive sessions driven by the teacher. Students are directed through the material and they may be very interactive. The lecture is somewhat different. Traditionally – and still this tends to be true – it is where someone stands at the front of a group of students and communicates ideas to them by talking and showing words and pictures on a screen. There may be questions and discussions, but you will find that especially in the first year, the numbers are so large this interactivity is quite limited. You may have seminars or tutorials which are perhaps more like a lesson (more about these in a different blog) but the lecture can appear to be rather passive. The lecturer talks. The student listens (or not!)

1410365782504_wps_2_deutschland_students_in_lThe lecture for some reason is actually a very good way of getting ideas across. So, for the moment at least, it is still the staple of the university course in almost all subjects. It sounds like quite a passive experience from the perspective of the student. But actually there is quite a lot going on if the student is going to get maximum benefit from the time spent in lectures. So this blog is about the essential things you need to do as a student in order to get the best out of lectures and therefore to gain the most out of your degree. These are the elements I advise:

  • Attendance
  • Preparation
  • Reading



My first point is rather specific and might not be one students – perhaps in the midst of an exciting freshers week – want to hear. Go to the lectures. All of them. Without exception. Even when you have a cold or a hangover. Or a broken leg. Or don’t feel like it. Or don’t really like the lecturer. Or think the module isn’t interesting. Or… well I think I’ve made my point. You go to them. And you arrive on time. And you stay to the end.
You might expect me to point out that you are paying a lot of money to go to university and this is where you gain a vast amount of the value. And this is true. But it is even more important than this. It is the chance you have to listen to people who are (in the main) massively enthusiastic about their subject and incredibly well informed about it. If you are lucky, your lecturer will be also be a well-known researcher who is contributing to the literature that they are teaching. They may be a little disorganised at times or perhaps not all of them are funny, entertaining speakers; but the university experience is about your exposure to ideas and the lecture is mostly where you get this.

is0266n3bBut it’s not just a matter of dragging yourself into the room. You need to be “present”. This means you are ready, alert, prepared. My next points cover these areas





Usually the slides for the session are available to download or print off beforehand. This is a great change from when I was at university when you had to try to write down everything you saw on the screen from the overhead projector. The great thing about the print out is that you don’t have to write as you are listening. Psychologists have known for a long time that it is almost impossible to pay attention to listening AND writing at the same time. So with your printouts in front of you, all you need to do is add the occasional note. But in the main, if you make sure you have the printouts with you, lecture time can be spent listening. And note that I am talking about paper. I am a gadget fanatic but I really strongly recommend that you print out the notes rather than have them on a laptop or tablet. It is so much easier and quicker to jot a note on paper than try to type it. Also, having a tablet contains al the dangers of distraction from Facebook, Twitter etc etc. You need to focus so take a printout. The only exception is if there is some specific reason why you should have your material on a computer and I do know students who have specific learning needs who need a laptop or tablet. And that is of course fine. But focus on the work not the play!



Most lecturers set out the reading you need to do for each week. Hopefully this is in batches of sensible amounts that can be done comfortably in an hour or two. And you need to understand right from the start of the first term in your first year that this is not optional. Yes, nobody checks up on whether you have done it or not. And yes your fellow students may say that they don’t do it, but beware. You really do need to do it. The set reading is most likely the minimum level of work you will need to put in before a lecture. My advice is to ALWAYS do the reading. Even if you have to read it quickly or if you don’t really understand all of it. Make at least one attempt at reading the materials set. So when the lecturer talks about ideas covered in the reading, you have at least tried to understand it. With any luck, after the lecturer has covered it you will have more of a clue what it was about.

And now here is an important trick missed by many. As soon as possible after the lecture, you should read it again. The result is that you have had three attempts at understanding and you should find that most of the time the topic starts to make sense. This makes revision later in the module into an activity of reminding rather than starting from scratch. And this will make a significantly positive impact on your final grade whilst saving you a great deal of stress. You might be tempted to leave it for a few weeks. But don’t. Keep up with it and you will find it is so much easier – and leaves you more time for other things!


My motivation for writing this blog is that I want students to realise that the lecture is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning. All the reading of materials before and after the lecture and then as you move on to revision and coursework are where the actual learning happens. You really cannot expect to just turn up to lectures unprepared, leave the reading until the end of term and expect to do well.

Finally, just to point out that this sort of advice is given in greater detail with check lists and more examples in the book I wrote on this subject. I too struggled to find out what I was supposed to do at university and only really stumbled across the way of succeeding just before my finals. My co-author was one of my students and he graduated with a good first. We both want to help students get the best out of university. And not only from their studies. Click the image to see it on Amazon.






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