The way content is taught at university is completely different to the way you were taught at school, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the step up from school to university is so steep.
Most courses teach the bulk of their content through lectures, where the flow of information is almost entirely unilateral (from the lecturer to you), and there are very few opportunities to ask for things to be repeated or clarified until the very end. It’s very easy to get lost if you zone out or don’t catch something. This blog post goes through what you can do to get the most out of your lectures.
- How to take notes
- Before the lecture
- During the lecture
- After the lecture
- Take-home messages
How to take notes
Switch to typing
At school, you may have been used to hand-writing all of your work during lessons. This is still possible at university but is a lot less common than typing.
Advantages of typing over hand-writing:
- Don’t have to struggle with illegible handwriting
- Gentler on the muscles of your hand
- Easier to edit and rearrange your notes
- Easier to insert screenshots
- You save on printing costs by working digitally
- Some lecturers do not release their slides until the start time of the lecture itself – you can download them digitally at short notice
Disadvantages of typing:
- Owning a digital device can be expensive
- More difficult to draw diagrams on a laptop than on paper
- Laptops can be heavy to carry around
- Some people struggle with headaches after too much screentime
- It can be difficult to wind down for bed if you use a digital device to study in the evenings
- Typing may decondition your dominant hand over time so you may need to train it to write quickly again before exam season starts (if you have hand-written exams)
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice and depends on your learning style as well as the style and content of your lectures. Try things out and see what works for you!
Annotation vs free text
There are two popular ways of taking notes during a lecture:
- Annotating slides or handouts distributed by the lecturer
- Making your own notes from scratch
Annotating pre-existing materials involves less concentration and preparation but may be harder to revise from later on. Making your own notes is more labour-intensive but allows you to structure the information in a way that makes sense to you and will therefore make a better revision resource. Figure out what works best for you, but don’t be afraid to switch tactics halfway through!
You can annotate pre-existing materials by:
- printing them out and writing on them,
- inserting text boxes, sticky notes, or comments on a PDF document, or
- typing in the “speaker’s notes” section on a PowerPoint presentation.
I usually try to use a different text colour to the document default to differentiate my annotations from the original text.
Everybody structures their own notes differently, but a big difference between university-level and school-level education is that structure and context matter a lot more at university – sometimes even more than details and facts. University is all about understanding – not just memorising. At Cambridge, for example, half of the marks available for an essay are for structure and half are for content. I recommend structuring your notes using a “zooming in” approach: start with the general concepts to form an overarching narrative and add the details in later. This will help you remember and apply facts in your exams, and will improve your essay-writing.
Before the lecture
The best thing you can do before a lecture is pre-read. I know. It sounds excessive because you probably won’t be used to pre-reading from school, but trust me: it really helps. Many lecturers, without meaning to, go too fast and/or pitch their teaching at learners who already have background knowledge. It can be really easy to lose track of a lecture if you come across something you’ve never seen before in the middle of it. If your lecturer releases a handout, notes, or presentation slides in advance of the lecture, make sure you at least read them once before you go to the lecture. The best time to do that is the night before because you want the information fresh in your mind, but you might not have time on the day of the lecture itself (especially if it’s a 9am!).
The main goal is to get a sense of the structure of the lecture so you can organise your thoughts and your notes in real time as the lecturer is talking. This can be surprisingly difficult to do without pre-reading, especially if the lecturer mentions information verbally that isn’t included in the presentation slides. It also helps you better extract the narrative the lecturer is trying to get across because you already know the start and end points of their explanations.
There are different ways to pre-read, depending on how much time you have and how complicated the lecture content is. For a rough guide, consider the following:
- 10-minute pre-reading: skim the pre-released content and make a mental note of the main ideas in order.
- 20-minute pre-reading: read through the pre-released content and type up a template to fill in during the lecture. This could include the main topics the lecture will cover as headings and optionally some sub-headings to help organise the information.
- 45-minute pre-reading: read through the pre-released content in detail and make notes that include all of the information provided. During the lecture, all you have to do is add in anything the lecturer says verbally.
Most of my pre-reading was of the 20-minute variety as it’s the most practical, though the 45-minute kind is the most helpful later on. See what works best for your learning style and time constraints.
Always try to get enough sleep during the working week, especially if you have 9am lectures. Nothing is worse than being the person who fell asleep in the middle of the lecture and snored or fell off their chair – or worse, got called out by the lecturer! Trust me, you will never live it down. Figure out how much sleep you need to feel refreshed and try your best to get it every night.
Sleep also has the added benefit of helping you concentrate so you can soak up as much information as possible during the lecture, which means you won’t have to revise so hard later on. You’ll be more likely to catch details the lecturer mentions, some of which might make the difference of a grade in the exam, and you’ll have the presence of mind to structure your notes better, making them easier to revise from. You’ll also remember your pre-reading better if you’ve slept in between.
During the lecture
Sit near the front
The keenest students tend to sit near the front of the lecture theatre, some of them even in the front row! You don’t have to sit there if you don’t want to (and should probably not go all the way down to the front if you arrive late) but I recommend trying to sit in the front half of the lecture theatre rather than the back half. You’ll be able to hear the lecturer and see the slides better from there, and have fewer distractions.
You should prioritise writing down anything the lecturer says verbally but hasn’t included in the slides/ handout; you might never get the chance to hear it again (unless your lectures are recorded). Outside of that, write down whatever helps you to understand the topic better; it’s all about helping your future self. Make note also of any useful resources your lecturer or friends mention – these could be textbooks, websites, or journal articles.
If you didn’t catch something the lecturer said, don’t be afraid to ask the person next to you if they caught it. Similarly, if there’s something you’re confused about or something you want to know more about, make a note of the question and don’t be afraid to ask the lecturer about it at the end of the lecture. If you don’t get the chance to ask them on the day or you’re afraid to ask in front of other people, make a note of the lecturer’s email address and drop them a line. Most lecturers are very happy to answer students’ questions, especially if it’s a matter of interest. Asking questions like this is also an excellent way to form working relationships with leading academics and can open up lots of opportunities, including research projects, publishing opportunities, and even PhD offers!
After the lecture
Post-reading is one of the best ways to improve your learning in the long term and deepen your subject interest and knowledge. It also helps you keep your learning on track to avoid falling behind. It’s surprising how many people never look at their lecture notes again afterwards because the notes are too disorganised to be worth using or include comments that barely make sense a week later – and then have to go back and process the lecture handout from scratch. I, too, am guilty of this!
The main aims of post-reading are to:
- address any points of confusion while the topic is still fresh in your mind,
- make your notes suitable for use as revision resources later on, and
- identify points of interest or questions to talk about in your essays or small-group teaching (supervisions/ tutorials).
You should aim to review your lecture notes within a week of writing them because that’s when you’ll remember the most. If you annotated pre-existing materials, now is the time to convert them to notes or refine them for future revision purposes. If you made your own notes from scratch, read through them and make sure the structure and content is written in a way that makes sense to you. If your lectures are recorded, use this as an opportunity to rewatch parts you didn’t catch the first time.
If you’re confused about anything, now is the time to email your lecturer/ supervisor/ tutor for clarification. Similarly, if you think of an interesting question or new idea, now is a good time to read around it using textbooks, journal articles, and the internet, and write it down to mention in your essays/ supervisions/ tutorials! This is something that will really help you stand out to your teachers/ mentors.
After any supervisions/ tutorials, add what you learnt to your notes so that all of your knowledge on that topic is in one place. This will help you remember important facts and make links between topics for better essay-writing!
Back up your notes
Make sure your notes are saved somewhere other than your device. Your university may give you access to cloud storage or a drive where you can save your work, or you can use free options such as Google Drive. This has the added benefit of making your notes accessible from any internet-connected device so you can add to them or revise anywhere and share them more easily.
Talk to your peers
Depending on the culture of your university/ college, your peers may or may not be willing to talk about course content or essays. It can be daunting to express confusion in front of new friends or classmates, and some people are hesitant to share new ideas with peers they think of as competitors. I do think, though, that talking about the content with your peers – whether it’s to address confusion or to share interesting ideas – is one of the most enriching things you can do while at university. Everyone benefits from the chance to teach or to learn, and it helps foster a safe and inclusive environment and support network within your peer group. You don’t have to share everything if you aren’t comfortable to do so, but don’t be afraid to start discussions or ask questions. People are often more receptive to it than you might think!
Hopefully, this post gave you some ideas about things you can do to get the most out of your university lectures. The main things I would say to remember are:
- Always try to pre-read, even if it’s just a 10-minute skim of the lecture handout
- Post-reading is the best way to keep your learning on-track and improve your essays
- Don’t be afraid to make yourself a nuisance to your lecturers/ supervisors/ tutors – they’re there to help you!