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Note taking in lectures

Listening and note taking in lectures

What is the purpose of lectures?

At university, lectures are one of the main methods of teaching. Think about some of the lectures you have attended. You will probably find that lecturers aim to achieve different outcomes, but these generally include one or more of the following:

  • to provide a summary of essential knowledge in a subject area
  • to guide your reading and research
  • to demonstrate how to do something, e.g. solve a problem
  • to present a point of view or different points of view
  • to challenge your thinking by presenting an area of controversy
  • to stimulate your interest.

Listening in lectures

Because lectures are such an important method of teaching at university, you need to know what to do to get the most out of the lectures you attend. Some lectures will be more interesting than others and the forms of lectures will vary, but one of your aims should be to identify how lecturers approach their subject.

When a sociologist speaks about sociology or a psychologist discusses theories, what do they emphasise? What specialist language is used? You need to learn how to think and speak using the language of the subject; being present for lectures, and taking notes, is one way of helping you achieve this.

Listening in lectures is often made more difficult by the length of time you need to maintain silent concentration, and the lack of interaction between you and the lecturer. However, you need to see your role as active rather than passive. You may need to work harder at listening, understanding, identifying main points and taking notes than the lecturer does in delivering the lecture!

Tips for effective listening

  • Prepare for the lecture

Prepare yourself for what is going to be discussed by making sure that you at least know the topic of the lecture. Listen carefully during the first five minutes, because most lecturers will outline the purpose of the lecture, and give you an idea of what they hope you might gain.

  • Improve your concentration

Be aware that your thoughts may start wandering 20-25 minutes into the lecture. One way of maintaining focus is to think about what the speaker may say next or the general point they may be making. You could also think about what has already been covered, and try to sum up the content in a few brief phrases. Ask yourself: ‘What have I learnt so far?’

  • Ask questions and analyse the message

Consider what else you would like to know about the information being presented, and put these questions to the lecturer, if appropriate. If there is no opportunity for questions, write out your queries for your own research, or for discussion with the lecturer at the end of the lecture.

Think about the evidence for or against what is being said and consider how this fits in with your own reading and your experience.

  • Maintain motivation

You cannot always rely on the lecturer to provide motivation, so you may need to actively seek out some area of interest. Ask yourself: ‘What is being said here that is useful to me?’

  • Stay alert physically

While you need to be seated comfortably in the lecture theatre, you should adopt a position that will help you to concentrate. Sit upright, respond appropriately to the speaker, and be prepared to take notes. Sitting near the front of the lecture theatre will help you feel more involved and ensure that you can see and hear, as well as avoid possible distractions.

The purpose of lecture notes

After the lecture, even if you have been an active listener, you may very quickly forget much of what has been said. Therefore, lecture notes are very important. The notes you take during a lecture should provide you with a summary of relevant and important points on the topic being presented.

If you develop effective note-taking skills your notes can also serve a whole range of other purposes. Generally, by attempting to think about the main points to include in your notes you are analysing the topic and producing an outline for your revision.

Your lecture notes can also highlight significant references to follow up on, and be a forum for your own thoughts and comments.

How to take notes

It is impossible to take down every word and detail that is presented in the lecture, and if you attempt to do this you will be unable to listen actively. If you have done some pre-reading to prepare for the lecture and listen carefully to the lecturer’s introduction, you will be more likely to identify the key ideas being presented.

Think about the type of lecture you are attending, as this should also influence the way you take notes. For example, if much of the material is available in your textbook, your notes should include minimal detail. However, if the information is not available in other forms you will need to take full notes.

Note taking becomes easier as you become more familiar with the style of individual lecturers.

Example of lecture notes

Structure and delivery of the lecture

The structure of the lecture and the delivery should influence the way you take notes. Most lecturers will provide some level of support for note taking, through outlines on overhead transparencies or slide presentations.

Some lecturers distribute handouts that give a summary of the main concepts. This means that you can add points to elaborate or record examples, so that you then have a detailed set of notes.

If you download lecture notes with several slides to a page you may need to enlarge each slide so that you have space to write your own notes as well. Alternatively, you can use your own paper for your notes. Number each slide on the downloaded copy and indicate the relevant slide number for the notes you take on your own paper.

Try to listen for verbal cues the lecturer uses to indicate the level of importance of the points being made. These could include repeating key concepts and slowing down or adopting a different tone to indicate the difference between main points and illustrative examples.

Other pointers will be key phrases or words, which give you an idea about the significance of what is being presented and how it relates to the overall topic. For example, phrases such as ‘the next important point is’, ‘on the other hand’ and ‘one example of this’ are important signals.

After the lecture

Re-reading your notes, preferably on the day of the lecture, will increase the likelihood of you remembering the key concepts. By re-visiting your notes, you can also expand where necessary, tie points together and/or consult references mentioned to develop points or further clarify certain concepts. By grouping your notes together and organising them in folders you will be building up your own set of revision notes, and compiling a valuable reference for the future.

Source: Deakin Univeristy. Study Skills: Listening and note taking in lectures. http://www.deakin.edu.au/current-students/study-support/study-skills/handouts/notetaking.php

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