How to Ace University Lectures in 10 Simple Steps

Lectures are one of the most commonly used teaching methods within Higher Education as it allows tutors to give an overview of a topic to a class of 50–300 people (Cottrell, 2013). As a result of this, Hitchens & Lister (2009) suggest that university lectures are “the most frequently criticised” due to a variety of reasons spanning from lecturers setting an unsuitable pace or simply not elaborating the information provided in the presentation slides. However, the quote “you only get what you put in” rings true here as, according to Tulder (2007), a student will benefit more from lectures by adopting active listening and note-taking. Without doing so, concentration is restricted to 10–15 minutes as stated by Hitchens & Lister (2009) citing Biggs (1999). This blog post will serve as a guide on how to prepare for and make the most of the information provided in lectures.

Before Lectures

Step #1: Skim through the available materials.

This includes, but is not limited to, any handouts or lecture slides available as well as the relevant chapter of the textbook. By doing this, you will develop a basic knowledge of the topic and an outline of the upcoming lecture. It is important to note that you should skim the material rather than read as this could mean that the lecture becomes a “waste of time” (Tulder, 2007).

Step #2: Define the topic’s key terms.

In order to fully understand a topic, a student must recognise the meaning of its key terms. In addition to this, you’ll be awarded marks in essays and short-form examination questions for defining a key term — even at university. One method which could be used to learn a topic’s key terms is the use of flashcards or a spaced repetition software such as Anki. However, you should be aware that “making flashcards is not a substitute for traditional studying” (NihongoPeraPera, 2016). In other words, you should make sure that you understand the terms rather than just memorising their definitions.

Step #3: Familiarize yourself with assessment areas.

If your degree is similar to mine, you’ll have seminar work to complete for each module every single week without fail. Therefore, it is helpful to gain the upper-hand by skimming through the questions allocated to you before attending the relevant lecture. This allows you to make a mental note of what to pay particular attention to during the lecture. This method can also be adopted if you have an idea of what your assessments will be on.

During Lectures

Step #4: Sit at the front of the lecture hall.

A study carried out by Benedict & Hoag (2010) suggests that “individuals who prefer to sit near the front of the room have a higher probability of receiving As”. However, the same study states that “seating preferences may be indicative of individual attributes” which would support Roked & Aveyard (2007)’s findings that “they [students sitting at the back] are as likely as those at the front to achieve good grades”. Regardless of this, by sitting at the front of the lecture hall, you are less prone to distractions as there won't be a group of students in front of you goofing around. In addition to this, Tulder (2007) claims that you will allow the lecturer to “respond to your body language”. In other words, the lecturer can see that you are disinterested, perhaps by slouching, folding your arms or simply having a blank expression, and can adjust their delivery of the lecture accordingly.

Step #5: Put the phone away.

This point is pretty straightforward. Unless told to within a lecture, you should keep your phone out of reach and on silent or, better yet, on do not disturb mode. By doing this, you are limiting the number of distractions in the lecture and therefore saving yourself time as you won’t necessarily need to review the information in depth when studying in your own time.

Step #6: Highlight, annotate and make a note of any queries.

Before attending the lecture I would highly recommend printing out the available handouts or lecture slides as this will allow you to focus on what the lecturer is saying rather than scribbling down everything written on the screen. One of the methods that I have adopted is using colour-coded highlighters and annotations for everything. To give you an idea of this, here are the colours that I personally use: RED = Question. ORANGE = Example. GREEN = Definition. YELLOW = Key Point.

Step #7: Evaluate.

The one-minute paper is a classroom assessment technique which can be adopted by students to evaluate a lecture as suggested by Tulder (2007). It consists of three main sections: (1) What have you learned? (2) What questions remain? (3) What did you not understand?. This technique allows you to identify any problem areas immediately at the end of the lecture and, therefore, allows you to structure your revision. It also allows you to summarize what you have learned and any queries that still remain.

After Lectures

Step #8: Address any queries.

There are a number of ways in which you can address queries, such as: conducting further research, reading through the relevant section of the textbook in further depth or visiting tutors during office hours. However, note that is important for you to try to address the issue yourself before visiting tutors in order to avoid learned helplessness (which you can learn more about in Episode 99 of the College Info Geek podcast).

Step #9: Review and practice.

While there is no set interval for which you should review your notes, Pimsleur’s graduated-interval recall suggests to review after 1 day, then 5 days, then 25 days, and finally 4 months after the lecture (assuming you won't have over 2 years to learn the information). Whether you decide to simply review/rewrite your notes or complete practice questions is completely up to the subject which you are studying and your preferences. For example, a mathematics student is likely to benefit more from practicing the lessons taught rather than reading notes, whereas the opposite may be true for a law student. Again, depending on your individual preferences, you may benefit from making use of the Feynman technique (which will be covered in an upcoming post).

Step #10: Complete any allocated work.

After completing the previous steps, you should now be in a position where you can complete any seminar work or assignments due. If you find that this is not the case, then I would recommend repeating step #8 and step #9 until you are confident enough to do so.

References

Benedict, M. E., & Hoag, J. (2004). Seating location in large lectures: are seating preferences or location related to course performance?. The Journal of Economic Education, 35(3), 215–231.

Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Cottrell, S. (2013). The study skills handbook (4th ed.). Basingstoke, Hampshire; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hitchens, M., & Lister, R. (2009). A focus group study of student attitudes to lectures. Paper presented at the Eleventh Australasian Conference on Computing Education — Volume 95.

NihongoPeraPera. (2016). A Warning About Flashcard and Spaced Repetition Software. Retrieved from https://nihongoperapera.com/flashcards-insufficient.html.

Roked, F., & Aveyard, P. (2007). Is there a relationship between where students sit in lectures and their performance in examinations?: Letters to the editor. Medical Education, 41(12), 1234–1234. doi:10.1111/j.1365–2923.2007.02916.x

Tulder, R. V. (2007). Skill sheets: An integrated approach to research, study and management. Amsterdam: Pearson Education.

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